Ian Hill is a writer, bookbinder, printmaker and lover of wild places. He lives in Cumbria, with a view of the hills. His blog is The Printed Land.
I am knee-deep in heather, struggling to find the measure of the sloping hillside beneath my feet. As I wade through the thick tufts of brittle growth, crisped dry from days without rain, I drive up a smell of summer meadows and haymaking; the smell of dust and straw I remember from playing amongst haybales in my childhood. The heather holds the dried flowers from last autumn’s flowering; they crackle and scatter under my heavy, incompetent feet.
I am climbing this hillside, across runnels of angular scree which chinks and shifts under my feet, in search of oak trees. The valley path, now fifty or so feet below me, is almost lost behind the thick growth of heather. On these slopes, beneath the spires of shattered crags which descend from the ridge above me, are patches of remnant oak woodland. The wood has a shape, as though it is a single organism inhabiting the slopes of the fell; the crown of each tree is pruned by the wind to fit neatly against the curve of its neighbour. They lie, napped to every curve and contour of the hillside, like a downy drift of feathers amongst the dark purple-brown of the heather.
As I approach the base of the wood, the heather thins, replaced by a soft underlayer of mosses, speckled in places by the grey-green twists of the lichen known as reindeer moss, which favours these less-grazed hillsides. The trees are smaller than they seem from below: ten feet tall at most, thinning to spindly individuals no more than three or four feet tall at the top of the wood. Up here, tucked beneath the crags of the higher mountain, are oaks which exist at the very limit of their altitude range; this is the level at which, five hundred years ago or more, one would have emerged from the thick valley woodlands onto open fellside. As I stand at the upper limit of the wood, looking between the smallest of the trees and across the thickening wood below me, I understand that this is a vision of how the Cumbrian fells would have looked before the large-scale clearance and coppicing of the woodlands for pasture and fuel, before the expansionism of the monasteries and the earliest of the agrarian industries. This woodland would have thickened down-valley, where the oaks would be mixed with alder and willow, perhaps beeches too, and from which the higher mountains emerged like isolated peaks: stranded islands of heather above the soft wave of the woodland.
Although the trees are not tall, they have a substantial girth: thick, knotted trunks which hint at an indeterminable age. But the age of the individual trees is not important here; what matters is the lineage of ancient woodland, the presence of trees just like these, growing on this hillside, and on others around Cumbria, since the post-glacial flowering of Britain. Here is a touchstone of antiquity, a reminder of how the land might have looked before we intervened in our heavy-handed way, a relic of the sheltered woodland which would have provided our home, our fuel, our food. A place in which nothing happens, slowly.