At night Beech Wood is alive with the calls of tawny owls, like woodwind players rehearsing their flutter-tonguing technique for Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Sporadically, throughout the day, a great spotted woodpecker hammers away with the determination of a labourer wielding a pneumatic drill. Meanwhile, the boisterous young rooks gargle in their nests, giving the impression of a dormitory full of schoolboys suffering from tonsillitis.
Fifty years ago it’s where I used to come to collect conkers. In those days there was a children’s home nearby. Or, as I might have called it back then, with a sense of dread, a ‘naughty boys’ school’. The sort of place my dad would invoke if I didn’t stick in at my lessons. As it turned out, I did end up there after all, because eighteen years ago the disused children’s centre was demolished and twenty houses were built on the site. I bought one of those houses.
Beech Wood is fortunately still standing, and it’s where I go for my regular constitutional during lockdown. Near the entrance there’s a brass plaque at ground level to a Mr Neville Hare. An appropriate surname in the circumstances. Although I’ve never encountered a hare in here, there are definitely urban foxes in this location.
Trees have always fascinated me. As an eight-year-old in 1966 I collected the free picture cards which came inside packets of Brooke Bond tea, and I glued them into a sixpenny album called Trees in Britain. Moreover, for someone who is half German, it’s difficult not to possess a deep sense of Waldeinsamkeit – forest solitude. Perhaps I’m tapping into something even more atavistic, a folk memory, stretching all the way back to the battle of the Teutoberg Forest, that crushing victory spearheaded by Arminius against the Roman legions. But I digress from the matter in hand.
The first thing to impress itself upon me in this dappled tree-tunnel is the unmistakable odour of Nature herself. Her cloying fecundity, that reek of burgeoning and dying vegetation, is omnipresent. For life and death cohabit here, a union of opposites that is perhaps best exemplified by the sulphur tuft, thriving on the surface of a rotten trunk.
Above all, this is a zone of frenetic productivity on an industrial scale, where millions of deciduous leaves – predominantly beech, lime, sycamore and horse chestnut – become arrays of individual chlorophyll batteries, busily harvesting the plentiful supplies of sunlight. This wood is therefore an unremitting chemical factory, where carbon atoms are separated from oxygen, in order that the trees might utilise the carbon to fabricate even loftier structures. Nothing goes to waste, for the oxygen, which is released as a by-product, is what we breathe in every day of our lives.
Here there are masses of cow parsley, goosegrass, beds of nettles, sporadic daffodils, buttercups and bluebells. In the midst of all this greenery, dandelions blaze like miniature suns, their corollas standing out in sharp relief. When I reach down and pluck one of them the milky sap bubbles from the scape. The pappus is a moon of feathered seeds, all set for future windborne dispersal.
Given my heritage, I appreciate the fact that the German for dandelion is Löwenzahn, lion’s tooth, for this mirrors the English word, which is simply a mangled version of the French phrase dent-du-lion. In German there’s yet another word – Pusteblume – once the weed has acquired its downy clock. There’s more, of course. In French the dandelion is called le pissenlit, which at one time was rendered in English as pissabed. Trust the French to retain the vulgar version. Language, you see, is my métier. It’s the medium through which I move, as a bird flies through the air.
Where there are trees and vegetation, an abundance of insect life is to be expected. So it is here. A blue damselfly helicopters expertly from leaf to leaf. Further on, a common brown zigzags in flight across the path like a drunkard.
Up in the tree canopy, I hear what sounds like a pair of hands clapping, followed by the unmistakable cooing of a collared dove: a reiterated amphibrach. Locating the nest is a simple affair; it’s a flimsy structure of spindly twigs in the branches of a sycamore.
There is, it goes without saying, an abundance of birdsong in this neck of the woods. Apart from the ubiquitous blackbirds, jackdaws and chattering magpies, I hear the monotonous chirr of a greenfinch, competing with the more melodic song of a whitethroat.
On my way out, I pass the bin for dog shit, which is no longer emptied by the council because of the virus. Alerted by my approach, a scampering grey squirrel effortlessly claws its way up the trunk of a horse chestnut tree, keeping a watchful eye on my progress. Meanwhile, a thrush extrudes a dollop of oily excrement as it grasps the top of a fence with flesh-coloured legs, and I notice its olive-brown plumage and mottled breast, with those characteristic arrow-headed markings.
Returning home, I mull over the proposed 4,500 housing development off Barmpton Lane, which is currently at planning stage. It’s near the river Skerne, at a place I know well called Skerningham. Another, much larger, wooded area will be endangered if it goes ahead.
For the time being at least, Beech Wood is in safe hands.