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Thursday, 22 July 2010

Writer's journey through a lost landscape

A map of seventeenth century England.
If you click on it, it will open in a bigger window.
Note the little hunting horns dotted all over the map, these are forests. Notice how few roads there are and that none of these are straight lines, but seem to enclose the forests between their net.

If you were to ask the average English person for the names of a forest or two, he might come up with Sherwood Forest (legendary home of Robin Hood), or the New Forest (home to herds of wild ponies) or if pushed maybe the Forest of Dean or Epping Forest. But beyond that, it is hard to bring a single name to mind. Of course we have woods - but these are not the dense tracts of trees I mean.

For our forests have gone, and with them the truly wild places, and with them perhaps, the dark places of our imagination.
In 1658 the Royal Forest of Needwood in Staffordshire was 92,000 acres and contained 50,000 trees, not counting holly and underwood. Of this forest few trees remain, but this area would have been dwarfed by the forest of Hatfield Chase in West Yorkshire which was 180,000 acres. A chase was, as the name suggests, a place for hunting deer. In the seventeenth century England was essentially all forest.

In the book I am working on my 17th century characters make long journeys and it would be easy to forget that travelling would take them through acres and acres of dark woodland, within which lurked the wild beasts hunted by generations of kings and princes ; the classic five beasts of hart, hind, hare, boar and wolf.

Although records show wolves were extinct in England by the 15th century, they still roamed in Scottish forests until the 18th century, and by all accounts the fear of them in England lasted much longer than that. In Derbyshire there is a legend of a creature that is reported to resemble a normal wolf, but which moves at fantastic speeds and covers great distances in a single bound. It is unclear whether the wolf is a physical entity, but the nearby village of Wormhill (amongst many others) claims to be the location where the last wolf in England was killed in the sixteenth century. Even today Dendrophobia is a very common phobia surrounding the fear of trees or the forest.

The fear of getting lost was a major concern. My characters might have to pay a scout to show them the way, ride for miles on horseback seeing only the upright trunks of oak and ash, birch and willow. They would be canopied by a dense sky of moving leaves in the summer, rattling twigs in the winter. Each journey meant moving far away from human habitation into the land of the hunter and the hunted.

At night the dark would be complete.

For my travellers every journey would be fraught with uncertainty, a feeling of venturing into a silent wilderness. It is hard to imagine a world so afforested  "that a man could scarcely goe alone in the beaten paths," where outlaws may appear at every turn, and where it was not even safe to tread for fear of adders, the sudden savagery of nature made manifest.

Recently I heard an interview on Radio 4 by somebody investigating how some downtown areas of Chicago have been abandoned, and are now being reclaimed by nature into something like the wild forests of yesteryear. Inhabited by packs of feral dogs, these are the nearest a city dweller will get to a natural, rather than a man-made wildness on their doorstep.
But for a writer, the forest is still there, buried in the imagination, in folk tales such as Little Red Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty, and in the work of other writers who have used its beauty, mystery and wildness to say something about the forest within.


  1. We've still got quite a lot of wilderness over here. And a few wolves, as well, though I've never seen one.

    An odd feature of southern California is that you can start in downtown LA, and, traffic willing, be in a wilderness area in an hour--where you can hike for days at a time without meeting another soul.

    I've seen plenty of bears. The odd mountain lion. Many coyotes. But, alas, so far no wolves; they all live farther north.

  2. Hi David,nice to hear from you. you've whetted my appetite for a visit. I think losing our wilderness is a psychological as well as a physical loss.

  3. If you really want to see wilderness, I'd suggest a trip to Southern Alaska. You can pull the car over and start walking, and within a few hundred yards you are a thousand years in the past.

    A little scary, in fact, when you're by yourself...