I’d not been to the eastern end of Grovely Wood since my very first visit, back in November; I’d barely explored it when I did. On the map, as the wood falls steeply away southward from the Roman road to the Nadder valley, it appears as blocks of plantation, so I wasn’t expecting much. But I found plenty.
Since my visit to Great Ridge Wood, Grovely’s sister, I’ve found out that the Norman hunting forest of Grovely doesn’t extend along the ridge to Great Ridge. In fact, it doesn’t even cover the whole of Grovely. Rather, the forest is the western end, sharing its border with the parish boundary which runs through the long-disappeared and myth-laden Powten Stone. This is fascinating in itself, as the western end has a very different feel, richer in ancient trees and older tracks and less plantation-heavy.
This matter of boundaries and borders permeates every encounter with Grovely, and I’m curious as to how Grovely hunting forest and the rest of the woodland – which has had the same owner at least since the c.14th– became one common. Certainly, the whole wood was used by different villages for coppicing, as the names indicate.
This woodland track, from yesterday’s walk, is marked on the OS map as Baverstock (a nearby village) Long Coppice.
But the woodland often exceeds the common land. Its north-eastern boundary is the Bronze age Grim’s Ditch earthwork, and yet the public right of way runs through where the woodland extends beyond that. Likewise, I found the common land boundary in the south-east at an old gate, marked also by the transition from newish deciduous woodland to, on the common, plantation. Which is actually contrary to what I’d have expected, the association being common land being more ‘natural’ and ‘ancient’.
In fact, one of Grovely’s SSSIs is a juniper grove which extends along a ridge, and isn’t part of the common land. Or even, frustratingly, accessible – though I may at some point end up fighting my way through a trackless stretch of birch, beech and holly at some point to see it. I like this sense of a woodland breathing in and out across borders over time, and in fact Oliver Rackham once used Grovely to illustrate exactly this point.
Rights of way can be equally ephemeral. Both Great Ridge and Grovely have stretches of the Roman road which are marked on the OS map as Public Bridleways and yet there is trace of neither road nor bridleway; rather, one progresses on the metalled track which more or less follows it. This elusiveness got me slightly lost during my first visit.
This stubborn refusal of tracks to go where they’re supposed to seems to be nothing new. I came across a c.18th milestone hidden in the woods, about fifty yards from the well-trodden track, which indignantly declared itself to be IX miles from Sarum. The OS map supports its claim: the Public Byway indeed does pass right by it. It’s just that people don’t like following rules and maps are rule-enforcers par excellence.
I’m very interested in how people personalise common land – and I’d like to find out whether this is due to any mis/understanding that this IS common land. In this remote corner, I found plenty of evidence. Aside from the ubiquitous, makeshift lean-to dens, I found one with rather more longevity. I also found evidence of mountain bikers, some of their berms already being reclaimed by the common, becoming part of its built past, rather like the WWII bunkers which line the eastern end of the Roman road.
One of the great surprises was the extent of pheasant hunting in this corner. I came across several pheasant pens – one of sufficient longevity to be marked on the map – fenced, combination-padlocked, with CCTV and fake owls. I came across game feeders and a tarpaulin covering beneath which was a circular table about the right size and height for resting pints of beer. This was a much less slick operation than the pizza oven shed with parking spaces operation I’d found at Great Ridge. Nevertheless, I made my assumptions as to what kind of people must be involved (posh Norman descendants no doubt) and found myself bristling with indignation about the despoilation of the natural world, attacks on the right to roam etc. etc.
It was just as well I crossed paths – literally – with one of the Grovely West Shooting and Conservation Group. Yes, conservation. I’d seen the chap in the white four by four out on the Roman road and we’d waved and smiled, and when we came across one another again, he stopped to talk. After exchanging exclamations about the glories of the day’s sunshine, and I’d explained why I was there, he told me a little about how his group tend the pens and the feeders, how they arrange a shoot and eat all the birds that get shot (hopefully not all in one go). He went on to tell a story about getting stuck in his car because a woodcock had fallen asleep on the road in front of him, how he’d got within feet of a pair of tawney owls, and commented on local endeavours to provide habitat conducive to butterfly reproduction.
It was great to finally fall into conversation with someone at Grovely. It’s important at this stage that I establish my own relationship with it, my own take on it. But once I’ve done that, I want to layer in what it means to those intimately connected to it. It’d be great to go out on a shoot with these guys, just as I’d love to chat with those who hang ribbons on the Handsel Sisters’ trees, the Oak Apple Day devotees, the mountain bikers, horse riders, dog walkers, the postie who delivers to the cluster of houses in the middle of the wood, and of course the people who live there. Today was a good start.