Wildlife & Nature


A short walk last Sunday morning led us to an old site that we’ve been wondering about for a long time, and it has a deliciously intriguing story behind it. I’m looking forward to sharing it with you. But the walk there is worthy of a post in itself, because it was a morning of stillness, sunshine and unexpected frost; after a week of gales I felt as if I could take a deep breath and start looking for the first stirrings of spring.

Sometimes spring can be felt even in the decay of winter – there’s something about the light. Dead fronds of bracken glowed like embers, and on the dark birch twigs candyfloss clusters of lichen held sparkling jewels at their heart. This sheltered little place is a haven for robins, and it seemed as if there was one in every tree, joyfully spilling out his song.

Along the roadside hazel catkins were just emerging, little lambs’ tails trembling. I love them – so delicate, and yet so brave! Behind a tumbling moss-covered wall I crept into a grove of hazels, their pale slender trunks rising up into a shimmering spider’s web of branches that defied the senses and made me look for things unseen.

No footfall would be heard here: a deep mossy carpet has grown over every boulder and fallen branch, masking hollows and sharp edges, inviting the unwary trespasser to blunder at their peril. My steps fell awkwardly and I stopped. Unwelcome? No, but still not of this world. I often wonder about hazels: their shape and scale are more fitted to the faerie realm, their presence indefinable, impenetrable. Humans might dance around sturdy oak and sycamore, but who dances beneath this gleaming forest of wands?

Photos copyright © Jo Woolf

If you’d like to know more about hazels, you might enjoy this post on The Hazel Tree.


    • Jo Woolf

      The mosses and lichens are so lush and abundant! Although it’s been a slightly colder winter on average (so they say) for this part, which gets the benefit of the Gulf Stream. A sprinkling of snow again this morning!

  • Jennifer

    So lovely, the writing & photos both. I’ve had a similar sense coming upon a grove of old gnarled trees that seemed to contain its own world.

    • Jo Woolf

      Thank you, Jennifer! Yes, I know what you mean – it feels as if you’ve just missed something that’s not there. Trees have their own energy and I do think we respond to that.

  • clivebennett796

    Hi Jo, I love your writing. The Hazel is one of my favourite trees too. We have a self seeded one just outside our old front door which I have to coppice every few years as it blocks our access. I can’t bring myself to grub it out. Your latest piece prompted me to read your posts on trees again – so I had a pleasant few moments of indulgence …. And then I found your post on dowsing. Which reminded me of my own experience …… Dowsing runs in my family with both my parents being able to dowse – my maternal grandmother was the local ‘healer’ in our small Wiltshire village and made various healing creams, drinks, love potions and so on; she read the tea leaves too. She had a great love of Nature and was out in all weathers garnering fruits and flowers from the hedgerows (my Mum took her interest further and became a pharmacist!). But it was her hands that could work magic. However back to dowsing. A forked Hazel twig is my favourite, although Willow comes a close second; and Rowan, but just about anything will do, including bent metal coat hangers. I haven’t much use for it nowadays – but it’s still a great party trick and quite an ice breaker at summer barbecues as all the guests can have a go. The last time I put it to good use would have been during the drought of ‘76 when we had a very long dry summer – if I remember correctly with hosepipe bans all over the country. Everywhere was parched and Mums ducks and chickens were feeling the heat, literally. We set about to dig a well. But where to dig – aha – we carefully selected a couple of forked Hazel wands from the hedge and methodically paced the garden looking for water. My Sister and I both got a strong reaction with the Hazel rod almost jumping out of our hands at the same spot in the garden. So we dug ourselves a well … but that’s a story on its own ….

    • Jo Woolf

      Thank you very much, Clive! So, a natural dowser? I think we must all have the ability, but have just forgotten it. That’s brilliant that you found water when it was needed. I’m not convinced that I could do the same. I think I was doubting my own instincts and probably trying too hard, while practising on the course. I did enjoy it, though! I’d like to try it again. Plenty of hazels for rods here as well! I would love to hear what happened after you dug the well. Don’t grub up your doorstep hazel! 😀

      • clivebennett796

        I agree Jo – we may all have the ability but not always the knowhow; I do believe there is a life force within us, and in the natural world, and feel that our happiest moments are when they are in harmony.
        A much quoted passage from the Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies sums it up for me:
        “I was utterly alone with the sun and the earth. Lying down on the grass, I spoke in my soul to the earth, the sun, the air, and the distant sea far beyond sight. I thought of the earth’s firmness—I felt it bear me up; through the grassy couch there came an influence as if I could feel the great earth speaking to me. I thought of the wandering air—its pureness, which is its beauty; the air touched me and gave me something of itself. By all these I prayed; I felt an emotion of the soul beyond all definition”.
        Se we dug a well ….
        The house and garden lay in a wide clay valley in west wilts off the western edge of Salisbury Plain, fed by the chalk stream of the River Biss and its tributaries- Biss Brook only being 3 fields or so away.
        The whole area is steeped in history and tradition – evidence of Roman occupation; a ruined house once second only to Longleat in size, moated farms, mills and manor houses. The fields next to the brook were traditionally managed as bedrock water meadows probably upto the early 1900s. The biggest mushrooms you ever saw used to grow here – the size of dinner plates – we called them Horse Mushrooms. And just a couple of fields away, a once in a lifetime experience: a field covered in mushrooms – a mushroom whiteout – I think it’s called. A 25 acre field absolutely covered in them. Wow.
        Edward Thomas must have almost walked/cycled past our back door on his journey from London to Somerset in 1913 which he later wrote about in his book In ‘Pursuit of Spring’.
        …. At first we were digging through rock hard clay after about a foot of topsoil. A Lesser Whitethroat scolded us from the hedge – with the promise of Sloe and Wild Plum and BlackBerry to come; and Tree Sparrow chattering from the old Willow beneath which we dug. And dig we did -3‘, 6’ – 9’ and still digging – we reinforced the sides with sawn off old 50 gallon oil drums as we went. But then water, just a trickle, if that, seeping in from one side – keep going we thought, and another couple of feet or so saw us break into a gravel bed (an aquifer) and the hole was rapidly filling with water – yippee …..
        It took the rest of the afternoon and evening to fill but by the following morning sediment was beginning to settle out and a week later were able to get clear water in buckets. Over the next few years the well proved a reliable source of water for the garden and animals. We installed a pump to make watering the garden easier and Dad could happily grow his veg again and Mum look after her chickens and ducks. Later in the Autumn we used the clay – puddling it as a liner for a duckpond.

      • Jo Woolf

        How fantastic! What a lovely story, and well done to you for having the persistence to keep going! I love the quote by Richard Jefferies – I can empathise with that. A state of mind, sometimes fleeting, often in response to the beauty of nature. Thank you, Clive!

    • Jo Woolf

      Thank you very much, Lorna! It was such a sparkling, beautiful morning! Nice to get out and do some relaxing photography. We have had none of that calm weather since – back to gales and rain. At least the days are lengthening!

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