Wytham Woods – pronounced “white-am” – lie at the northwestern edge of Port Meadow, on a hill which lies vigilant beyond the endless field.
The hand-drawn map supplied to passholders in itself fuels the natural imagination: Rough Common, Healing’s Copse, The Singing Way, My Lady’s Seat, Five Sisters, and Marley Wood are all pencilled in among the criss-crossing lines denoting woods, paths and fields.
These names all suggest familiarity and association; they hold in their very names decades of human exploration and attachment.
Wytham Woods, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, are used by the University for biological research, and are meant to be one of the most studied areas of woodland in the world.
It’s my birthday. We walk up to Wytham on a muted March evening, which wind and grey clouds threaten to damped. We pass Godstow Nunnery and make the slow climb to the wooden gates leading officially into the woods.
It’s unusual being in a wood which is also a scientific laboratory. The area covered by the protected forest is only a few square miles – enough for a refreshing stroll but not quite sufficient to challenge muscles or breath.
All around, birdhuts, used to monitor the great tit population, hang from old oaks, whilst in the open fields, nets are drawn over small patches of grass to measure their growth. Metal scaffolding stands skeleton-like among the upper branches of old trees.
There’s something comforting about being surrounded by trees. The perspective of looking through rows and rows of vertical boughs, sometimes, in the distance, matching up in a straight line, or otherwise opening up, allowing the eye to reach further, is cleansing.
In such a forest there is of course much more than visual pleasure; there’s the sound of wind bending and creaking age-old timber, or the whiff of damp leaves, the smell of air, damp, imbued with life.
The forest, as we walk along the Singing Way to the Great Wood, is quiet. All around us there is flourishing life, and yet a form of life which exists on a completely different timescale to the one we know. No wonder that forests have served as a source of contemplation and inspiration for so many centuries.
As we enter the Great Wood, the large trunks of oak and ash make way for younger sprouts of hazel. The path winds down into a small valley and a light rattling sound fills our ears. The sound rises and falls like an eerie natural composition. At first wonderfully inexplicable, we soon discover that the sound comes from thousands of small metal circles nailed on to individual trees to keep track of their growth and position. A deer crosses the increasingly winding path, takes a brief, striking look back, before springing away.
It’s getting dark now, and wearied limbs are calling for a much-needed rest. Soon boots hit tarmac again, and eventually we’re crossing Port Meadow’s deep mud, just as the rain, previously threatening and now lashing, drenches us to the bone.