Country diary: thrutching and skeltering through a wild wood

Paul Evans
·2 min read
<span>Photograph: Alan McCarthy/PA</span>
Photograph: Alan McCarthy/PA

A song rang out over Gallows Tree Leasowe – tze-u tatau tatau tatau ta-zhe. The short notes had a whistle and the longer notes squeaked. It was a variation of the great tit recitation that sounded like rusty wheelbarrows. This bird was a powerful orator and the gift (or challenge) that pulsed from his chest travelled far across the old hanging field.

A mist clung to Edge Wood; there was nothing to be seen through the trees. Anything green was still coming to from being frost-stunned, and there was a path turning into the wood, offering refuge from greasy slicks of well-trodden ways. But it lied. The path became steeper, slippier and impossible to stay upright on. It meant a scramble into the wood that ran along the scarp slope where the only tracks were made by traversing deer, weaving through trees up and down between contours.

Inside the wood, the promise of refuge became a trial of endurance. Almost vertical, tacking up and down the slope, clinging to branches, thrutching over fallen trees, footholds unstable on clay, the ways were punishing. The walking body was not so aware of itself until it entered the body of the wood. Then each tread on an emerging wild garlic leaf was contested, each breath left the feeling of breathless decay, each sight of the startlingly vivid moss on the fallen boughs unmapped the senses.

Wooden movement through the wood found aches in the body like folded notes shoved into a wall. But there were pauses in the skeltering, at the circular terraces that appeared in the scarp. These used to be coke hearths: platforms made by charcoal burners, who tended their bonfires day and night to make the charcoal used in the nearby kilns to make lime from the stone. The collapse of the charcoal industry a hundred years ago released the trees to reclaim these places of ritual fire on the unworkable slopes of Wenlock Edge. And now they offered respite on the incline.

The coke hearths, like stumps of long-dead elms and the ghosts of those hanged on the gallows tree above, were hidden in the body of the wood. As light faded, jackdaws called time to leave. It felt wise to join them.

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