I first visited Grovely Woods in late November 2021, as the last of autumn was just about clinging on, but really fell under its spell over a series of visits in December and January, savouring the sinister bleakness of deep winter woodland. Mid to late winter is a personally very difficult time for me; appreciating that bleakness can also be beautiful, even worth welcoming, has always sustained me.
I visited Grovely again in February, in the aftermath of three major storms, and found it full of the carcasses of trees, some extremely large, some snapped off halfway up their trunks as if decapitated by something unspeakably huge. The scene helped me associate the woods with the sinister and the violence often submerged beneath bleakness. More than that, it connected me to my childhood woodland, Tunbridge Wells Common, which was devastated by the Great Storm of 1987 in my early teens. It also emphasised how land changes in cycles greater than that of the seasons, that it is unreliable, impermanent, cannot be taken for granted or transformed through nostalgia into a kind of timeless still point in which to seek refuge from modern life. Those winds, after all, blow here too.
During one of the late winter visits, I came across an impressive blanket of snowdrops in the old garden of the ruined cottages. (No picture, alas.) Yet while their proximity to the ruin’s implied ghosts and corruption didn’t exactly break my sinister reveries, those thousands upon thousands of heads of purest white, nodding around in the breeze, were incredibly, almost frustratingly pretty. The word snowdrop itself is like something from childhood, as if the name of a brand of seasonal sweet associated through adverts and posters with mythical snowbound Christmases.
I visited Grovely again yesterday, after a gap of six weeks. In the interim, spring has sprung, the daffodils have largely come and gone, the trees started coming into leaf, even some of the fallen ones, and the bluebells and wood anemones have arrived in full force. From searching online, I already knew that Grovely is a good place for bluebells, but I have to say I was apprehensive. Orchids are the only other flower which can make me stop in wonder and even out in the car, a glimpse of deep blue haze draped across a woodland floor can make me want to point like an excitable child. Like snow, a carpet of bluebells places a special charm on a landscape, even an otherwise quite unremarkable one. It is about as far from sinister and bleak as I can imagine.
Grovely wasn’t all bluebells, but several of the many patches were extensive, leading off between and beyond the trees. Even stretches of Grims Ditch, which had been full of dead leaves during my last visit and more than living up to its name, was now some late Victorian illustrator’s idea of a fairy landscape. I sat and had my lunch alongside one of the old military tracks and was surrounded by the stuff, watching bumble bees pay their visits, butterflies overhead. It was all very pretty.
I want to make my film about Grovely during the winter months for a variety of reasons. First, it makes sense to complete filming during one season, rather than jumping around. Second, it makes sense to make that season winter, as the convoy of caravans, motorhomes and surfers heading for Devon and Cornwall make the A303 particularly unreliable between April and September. Third, it makes sense to make that season winter as the short days mean I can get there for the morning and late afternoon light without having to leave home painfully early and still be back in time to do dinner for everyone. Last, there are the personal reasons connecting Grovely to my childhood and to the role of woodland in my wellbeing, and this too is connected with winter.
So why did I even come to see the bluebells (and why will I be returning to see the lime-green glory of the early beech canopy)? Partly because I don’t want to develop a fixed, winter-based idea of what Grovely is ‘about’ and being able to see winter as a point on a cycle is crucial. If winter is a sense of loss yet also of what is to come, if I am to develop an affective relationship strong enough to guide my stylistic filmmaking choices then I need to have seen the wood’s other faces.
I also visited because a bluebell wood is a social event, and the social aspect of common land is a major feature of my research. In my experience, people talk a lot about bluebells and share recommendations about where to see them – and when, they’re in season. Having access to a local bluebell wood is a social asset, a cause for local pride, and something which connects you to your area. A bluebell wood needn’t be common land or even Access Land as a carpet of bluebells is best viewed from its edge; your do the majority of roaming with your eyes. And so, while the bluebells have little to do with Grovely’s status as common land, it will be an important part of what people value about it, and I want to be able to share in that enthusiasm. I want to talk about Grovely as a fellow ‘fan’.
A further difference was it being my first solo visit since going there with others: with my friend and fellow walker Claire, and with Harry, a second-year photography undergraduate interested in my practice who helped me with some sound recording. This means I can now walk around and remember snippets of conversations we had at particular spots, and Claire and Harry’s reactions to the things they saw. It also means that while I’m walking, I’m not quite so alone. Claire was especially taken with the beech avenue and I was able to message her a photo of it with the early beech leaves while I was there – and continue a bit of a chat as I walked along. In turn, Grovely is becoming embedded ever so slightly in the social fabric of my life. It’s no longer just about me. I might at first have enjoyed a slight sense of exclusivity from acting the part of emissary from a distant land, but it was a little lonely.
And that, in turn, might have reflected my winter turn of mind.