Country diary: into the woods and out of the ordinary

John Gilbey
·2 min read

The three families of swallows that nested in the abandoned stone shed on the edge of the farm have long since departed, leaving the lane quiet and poorer. Thick skeins of bramble stem, with mature growth the colour of dried blood, have wound through the hedgerow between the very last of the sloes – now looking polished and iridescent.

Skirting the top fringe of the wood, stunted by its exposure to the harsh weather from the south-west, I picked my way through the dense holly understorey. From the deep shade, a wren loudly objected to my intrusion before whirring away through the colour-edged foliage. Patches of light, filtered between the higher branches, highlighting the layer of moss that smoothed the rough bark of the trunks.

The pandemic lockdown prevented my usual spring visit to the wood, one timed to enjoy the flowers and rich scent of the wild garlic. Where the path crosses the steep, stone-banked track that bisects the wood, the broad patch of ground – which in May would have been a shin-high raft of thick fragrant leaves – now felt derelict and was rank with sour, matted growth.

Deeper into the wood, a hollow in the hillside like a small cove has given enough protection for the beech trees to reach their full height. Despite the apparent lack of wind the tips of the smaller branches moved insistently, their leaves generating a swirling warm sibilance punctuated by the occasional sharp creak from the larger boughs. The deep leaf litter beneath my feet soaked up other sounds, creating an acoustic like that of a softly furnished library.

I followed the main track westward across the hillside towards the sea until my route was blocked by the back wall of the old quarry, then cut back towards the crest of the hill. This seldom used path meanders through a carpet of ivy, the flowers still pale and immature. At the sharp, upper break of slope, a wooden stile led me from the trees into an open pasture tightly cropped by sheep. To the north, the chain of familiar hills along the Llŷn Peninsula – capped with white, buoyant afternoon clouds – rose into view as I walked up the field towards home.