So what of Grovely Wood, that extraordinary finding, so rich in mood, myth and history, which was to be the centrepiece of my PhD? In July, just as temperatures were starting to hot up to the terrifying heights of the 19th, I went on a visit with Adrian Stewart, Grovely’s ranger. And, sorry, but no pictures in this post, though scroll down to the bottom if you want to cut the foreplay and go straight to the visuals.
Adrian knows Grovely and its history inside and out, is a master story-teller with a wicked wit, and was very generous with his time. Beyond the pick-up provided by Wilton House Estates for him to get around the wood’s two thousand acres, his post is voluntary and he’s only recently taken it on, following the death of its previous holder. Adrian lives in Great Wishford and plays a central role in the annual Oak Apple Day, including being responsible for hoisting the most impressive oak bough collected that morning to the top of the village church tower to confer fertility on those getting married there. Alas, he told me, Oak Apple Day attendance has been badly hit by two years of covid lockdowns and the 2022 date coming so close to Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee; worse, the growing number of second homes and holiday lets in Great Wishford means less people get involved anyway. And the village pub, The Royal Oak (what else?), once the centre of the day’s festivities, shut permanently during the third lockdown, its pub sign blown over by Storm Eunice and gradually being reclaimed by foliage.
During our time together, Adrian drove me to Grovely Castle, an iron age hill fort just beyond the wood’s edge. It’s a stunning spot, full of wildflowers when we visited, and bordered by a dewpond which still functions in wetter times. He told me of Grovely’s current problems with illegal mountain bike trails, the breaking of fences erected to protect the public from forestry work, and lone naked walkers. He told me of the village which was once in the heart of the woods until the well was poisoned by a diesel spill in the early c.20th – the old church bell is still rung to wake Great Wishford at dawn on Oak Apple Day, though the church is long since gone. He told me of the Belgian bankers who used to come to shoot deer before covid, and how the deer population is becoming a problem as they haven’t returned. He told me of the villagers who used to use hazel to make something or other used in rail tracks, and the chestnut wood harvested to create moorings along the Avon around Bristol, and how the old forester is now getting too old to look after his idiosyncratic public picnic area, Ava Rest. He told me of how some of the older villagers, himself included, forage mushrooms. All these activities, vestiges of woodland commoning, were shot through with decline, predating covid but certainly hastened by it.
But there was another form of decline, one not untypical of present-day non-urban areas. I first picked it up coming across the remnants of Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s work to make the Little Langford Down SSSI publicly accessible, and the lack of information as to why they no longer manage it. I picked it up when I first contacted Wilton House Estates, who while keen to put me in touch with Adrian, and happy for me to film at Grovely, for which I’m very grateful, were less keen in talking further. I picked it up when I found out there are no community groups involved with Grovely, and none of the Facebook pages of those who care about a place – even the local, volunteer-run pheasant shoot has now gone. I picked it up when Adrian talked about the nameless, faceless contractors who carry out the forestry work, looking perplexedly at a densely-planted patch of young oaks. And I picked it up on this visit and subsequent ones when it turned out that few know Grovely Wood to be common land. And so, while reminders of Grovely’s common land status shape the way the wood is experienced – its high number of ancient trees, its archaeological remains, the myths attached to it – these are relics, and not living activities, ideas or attachments. A part of my early ideas for a Grovely film was to interview people from Great Wishford and from another village which does not have rights of common to see how they experienced the place differently. There seems little point in trying for this now.
I suppose I was naive not to have expected this. After all, it was the sense of decay, ruin and neglect that made Grovely interesting and affectively appealing to me in the first place. It felt like a forgotten place, and I was interested in uncovering its story. And there is a story worth telling here – an excavation of the hidden and imperilled relics of commoning. It’s just not a story I feel like telling. It’s a bit too sad.
I suffer badly from social isolation for a number of reasons, not least a pretty dire employment history and years and years characterised by long periods of depression. Because of this, the social contact available at common land, and through making films with groups and individuals connected with it, is a main driver for this project. My PhD’s central research question, slowly coming to focus, is a wish to understand what commons mean to people and it became clear after meeting Adrian that Grovely wasn’t going to offer the means to do this, or at least mpt without far more extensive research than I have the time and resources for. Tomorrow, I’m heading up to Great Torrington’s town common, similar in many ways to Tunbridge Wells’. I’ve visited a couple of times really like the place, and will be meeting up with people at the weekly car boot, so here’s hoping.
But I couldn’t leave Grovely without making a film there, especially as I was due to present on it at a conference in early September. I mulled over a straightforward voiceover, essay-film style, pondering its idiosyncrasies, its meanings and its appeal to me along with the many juicy facts connected with it. This felt too dry, and didn’t communicate the feeling I get when there. And so, on a whim, I plunged into fiction, drawing on two of Grovely’s most interesting stories – the haunted beeches said to be planted on the graves of the four Handsel sisters, murdered in the c.18th, and the imprisonment of Grace Reed and her three friends for trespassing in the c.19th (they’d actually simply been gathering nuts). There was a nice symmetry between the two groups of four young women, victims of male violence and yet ultimately triumphant, and whose memory into the present is completely tied up with the woods. By framing the film as a dream of the present, I was able to film the woods as they are now, and even able to imply the climate crisis.
I’m very happy with the film, even if it is a little rough – but then so is most of my work. It’s also gone down well with people, my supervisors included (for whom it came completely out of the blue) and at the conference. I’ve managed to shoehorn in some of the things I find most interesting about Grovely almost in passing, plus the radical politics, protest and history of common land – especially the often-overlooked role of women in this – and I’m interested in how common land haunts the present through its (often misrepresented) promise of collectivity and connection to at least less-invasive forms of capitalism, and so taking a hauntological turn in my filmmaking felt right. But best of all, through both the story and through the footage over the course of a few hours, I feel I’ve managed to communicate something of what Grovely Wood feels like, at least to me its eerie atmosphere, even – perhaps especially – on a bright, warm summer’s day.
This doesn’t feel like a completed project, which I assumed it would be – a rounding off of several months of research and engagement with a place I’ve come to love (though I’ll still go back to photograph Grovely’s avenue once the beeches turn their autumnal colours). I somehow feel there’s more work to be done here – either remaking it in the dead of winter, with a steadier hand on the camera and maybe a storytelling friend taking over the voiceover duties, or developing it further in some way. Who knows. Anyway, for now, here’s Clouties: