Paula, Jann and I walked in Chapel Wood, near Braunton: an area of ancient woodland densely covering a steep rounded hill. You reach it by crossing a field a little way off the A361. I was glad of the opportunity to explore the area, as I had missed a recent Essential Nature art walk.
It was cold, dull and rainy as I drove to meet the others – but once inside the woods, I felt sheltered, peaceful, calm. It was muddy, slippery and wet underfoot, and thick with fallen leaves. Everywhere the sound of fast-running water… pouring over stones, rushing through the masses of gold and copper leaves, carving the ground into a network of narrow streams.
Up above, the remnants of the leafy canopy: the intense green of beech intermingling with darker oak and pine, and the deep copper and gold of leaves ready and waiting to drop at the next puff of wind. Through the canopy, silhouetted against the grey sky, an intricate, infinitely complex tracery of twigs and branches was beginning to reveal itself.
For a few minutes we spoke of the folly of our political leaders: from misguided plans for alternative energy installations to the terrible ash tree disease that has now reached our shores and could have been avoided. I am mildly embarrassed to say it was probably me, who initiated this talk…, but it was good to let off steam, and I soon realised I did not want to continue broadcasting this negativity, and to do so was to completely overlook the beauty and peace all around us. I breathed in and immersed myself within the shady trees and the delicate scents of wet foliage.
For most of the rest of the time we did not talk much, each dropping into our own reverie, occasionally exchanging quiet communication. It was steep climbing up to the top of the hill – I knew I had become physically unfit, but not quite this much! As we walked, the woods had an air of stillness and silence, somehow intensified by the incessant sounds of rushing water. Not many birds could be heard, though we did see a large colony (colony?) of ducks flying across our line of sight, and a couple of times we heard the raucous call of pheasants.
We lingered at the top of the hill, looking down through the trees at the speeding river below – listening and enjoying its vibrant sounds, and gazing out across the fields beyond. Close-up we admired the variety of leaf and bark, the lichen and moss growing on trunks – and we talked of trees we had known and other creatures of the wild places. I felt a growing sense of ancient time and human habitation, and realised we were probably at the site of an Iron Age hillfort.
We made our way downwards from here, through the dark trees, through mud, thick layers of fallen leaves and fast-moving streams of water – arriving at the ruined stone ‘chapel’ that gives Chapel Wood its name. Old thick stone walls just a few feet high, their flat tops now covered with gleaming beech leaves.
Within its walls was a small stone memorial stone, covering the ashes of Lady Arthur Cecil and her husband, who had owned this area of land. I believe Lady Arthur was responsible for excavating the building, many years ago, and I thought this was a good place to have one’s ashes buried.
I vaguely remembered briefly visiting this chapel (but not the woods) once before, on a sunny summer day – and I seemed to remember it had originally been inhabited by a solitary priest. My earlier visit had been beautiful, though quite different… not nearly so atmospheric as today. On that occasion I had spent most of the time trying to imagine what it must have been like for the priest to have lived in that dwelling. But I did not have much real sense of the presence of the past that pervaded my experience today.
Now I am left with memories of water, coppery leaves on stone, and dense layers of leaves on muddy ground covering dense layers of history.
I made a point of not looking up any info about Chapel Wood until I had returned home and written this, as I wanted to convey my authentic experience – not so much factual knowledge. But if you are interested in learning further details about this fascinating RSPB reserve, you can find them on the RSPB site here.
Plus, we are putting more photos of this walk on our Essential Nature Facebook page.