Saturday, 21 January 2012

The Fathomless Forest

It has seemed at times that I have come to the bottom of my responses to the Forest and its seasons and moods. Surely there can be no new emotions to have? Artistic responses and I never rule them out, but emotions - and maybe even varieties of that feeling which nature can inspire which I both hesitate to call, yet certainly nothing else fits and so - the 'spiritual'.
How wrong that was! Around the trail yesterday morning and it seemed to me that I had been mistaken to suspect that that depth had been fathomed. Could ever be fathomed. I knew that I gave my heart to this hill and this forest some time ago, and am continually dazzled by the shows it puts on, the artworks and the special effects and generally just everything that's here that a mixture of light, sun, moon, weather, season, vegetation change, moss, fungi can effect...and how they interact with the manmade artificial landscape/previous planting schemes of the Forestry Commission. I knew that it frequently had the same effect on me that people often attribute to some Class A drugs. But I thought perhaps I might have reached the point when the emotions it evoked would be familiar to me.
But this time I realized that it was all deeper and broader than even I had imagined - how to explain? - That there were veins of intensity running underneath previous responses that I was only beginning to suspect or comprehend. Like finding an underground river - of emotions and responses - to the Forest. The light that was the silvery morning light filtered though the bare but thickly woven branches to scatter the path with rays like sudden coins. And the ridge showed a view spilling away to meet clouds on the opposite hills, and a landscape mysteriously still green and red because there has been so little real cold to turn it dun and sere. The purple under the trees and bushes a warm claret burgundy, and then coming out of the wood to a gentle boudoir light, when you slump back in the chaise longue of the mind.(Well it seemed to make sense at that point.) I was tired for some reason, and trying to keep awake, but the dream-like nature of the paths aided me, as I went forward, saying to myself - awake or asleep, just keep going - and so at last came to the end of the dream and returned to the city. The city, where always outside I am looking at any available skyline to catch a sight of the Hill and the Tower. The Tower that ensures I can view the Hill and the Forest as no other than a 'dream made flesh'.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Here Again at Last...

Spring was busy and I hardly got to the hills, not least as two other members of the arts Collective I belong to were staying with me for three months! Then a lot of the summer, more of it even than last year, was spent away at the festivals, performing in new shows and putting up marquees, and seeing other parts of the country like Hay-on-Wye, Glastonbury, Cornwall, Eastnor Castle Deer Park and suchlike.
But at long last, three weeks ago now, (but there was lots of admin to catch up on, and worse, coming back to somewhere with slugs in the bathroom, pictures hanging from the walls, dust and cobwebs, and all those things that happen when you only return for a couple of days between events, to chuck one lot of stuff on the floor, and grab a load of different stuff!) but at long last, I got back to the Haldons.
I knew it was a hostage to fortune starting a blog called 'A Year in the Haldon Hills', but it was on the heels of a years where pretty much every Sunday except over the three months of the summer when even so, I managed to get there once during most fortnights, that I thought - all those skies, all those trees, seasons, changes to the paths and sculptures...they all ought to be put down somewhere, captured in some way however imperfectly...

Anyway, it's a September entry now and in October at that, but here it is. Had the cunning idea (without a day free) of getting up earlier and getting to the Forest well before 9am. It was so warm! For September (as it has been since for October) and the heat of the day had not yet begun. It was still warm enough to go dressed lightly, without sleeves, but there was mist in the valley and view from the ridge. A beautiful soft golden light fell shafting through the still livid green trees as we walked the trail. Almost no one there, we saw deer close to the path, bolt as we approached. At points, the light in many rays dazzling out from behind certain pines was simply breath-taking. 'This is what I came to see!' And of course the light was in a different direction at that time of day, and so all was new again. A couple of hours later, the heat had begun, and I was as always amazed and grateful for the coolness of the shadow and deep shade of the Forest at many parts. And left enchanted with the laser lights of the faerie discotheque, the rolling dried ice of the fog, and running deer party-goers.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Hill to Tor - Coming into the View

Yesterday was a day to collect wood, and the forest was misty with a dusting of snow, but none on the paths. The Belvedere looked much bigger, magnified by the mist, and the woods below were just lacy smudges, lines against the sky and the hill. The Challenge trail was dark and dripping, and at the top the tors of Dartmoor were barely visible.

Today however, I was at those tors, and the walk to Haytor Rock parallel to the road (from the Widecombe to Bovey Tracey direction) was brooding with snow on one side, and thick mist shifting and changing the landscape extraordinarily from each level and bend in the road. The way up one tor had it all - ice, snow, mud, sleet and fog! Although not too much of any of them, but the fog turned me back as it seemed pointless to trudge through the sludge for no view. Turning instead toward Hay Tor, where the panoramas opened up and closed in with amazing frequency and sudden splendour or menace.
One vista was darkness and snowy slopes reaching up to where fog obscured the top (from where we'd just come). Below us the land fell away toward a sea of mist that gave way to farther views where the sunlight had been on the way to Widecombe, but was no longer. Then up ahead, dark greys alternating with luminous white or strange ragged lights at the base of the sky. The sleet turned to rain and then eased, the wind was at our backs and the mists were all the product of the swiftly melting snows and ice.
As we walked, the landscape dripping and running with thaw water, the afternoon darkened - was it getting late already, being January? No, it was the mist and the fog, black clouds above. Hound Tor was visible, sudden views of the vale, then closing in and covered soon after. When we got to the bottom of Hay Tor, the cloud base was like a great shadow which seemed to be eating up the world. Ahead, the rocks of the Tor itself loomed like intense black gates, forbidding and of incredible sharpness against all the greys and mists and gloom. Walking up the Tor, tiny pieces of ice were scattered about like confetti made of crystals, and at the top, the silhouette of my fellow walker was unreal in its dramatic effect standing black against the darkness with the black rocks to the right. As I gained the flat summit, to my amazement, everything changed, as the vale below on the other side, previously unseen, all came into view with spectacular transformation - the sun must have been shining far to the left on the snaking road which glittered like a silver thread, and ahead in the vale there was colour in the landscape, all greens and blues instead of the white and black through which we'd walked, and the sky above that particular vale was brightness and white, with hints of blue, it was like a vignette of Heaven, with just to the right, the darkness so intense and so set off by the rocks as a frame, that it undoubtedly looked like Hell. John Martin's paintings were the only metaphor I could use to describe the mind-blowing contrasts of the panorama all around - 'The Great Day of His Wrath' on one side or 'Judgement Day' on the other? It took one's breath away, and I was truly grateful to have caught such special effects of weather and Moor, on a day when one might have thought that with all the fog and mist, that one would hardly see much at all. As I turned back (having run out of time), the afternoon thinking of turning into evening, the way looking back toward Exeter and the Sea, was storm-black, punctuated by lights that only acted to accentuate the theatre of sheer menace that such a light and such a cloudscape spoke of. In a sinister failing light against that terrifying backdrop, I made my way back to the van lost in wonder. Every special effect we have is drawn from an idea first given in nature, and every horror film, every black and white photograph, every dried ice scene, every supernatural theatre production, perhaps Tolkien's Mordor all owed their origins ultimately to days such as this.
It was beyond description or compare, and I am well aware that to make the attempt is to fall short and indeed to run out of words to paint the picture. But in homage to it, I had to try. What a way to start the New Year, marvelling at the marvellous, half out of one's senses and lost in the theatre effects of the world-stage. All hail to Dartmoor.
Forgive the purple prose, I have just received a copy of Ann Radcliffe's 'Mysteries of Udolpho' for Christmas, and the novel is more poetry than prose. I had read it before, but she was a writer who helped to define the Romantic movement in terms of uniting and codifying the picturesque by writing novels as travel writing combined with classic paintings imagery in the very late 1700's. Suffice to say, it was then, a completely Radcliffian afternoon.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Aspects of the Sunset

On Sunday the sun did its trick again. The paths and the forest were overcast by a gunmetal sky, tinted with the marbling one gets in December, of blues and greys. Then by the forest path that twists around the pines with the little lean to in the middle of all that vivid verdant moss, (the perfect setting for one of our stories), the battleship sky gave way to a thin strip of gold. It had happened before more than once. All the time, whenever on higher ground, the strip of light visible, now to the right, then to the left as the path turned. Sometimes out of sight behind a rise or trees, and then appearing again, steady. It deepened by the time we reached the challenge trail, or rather the Witches' Forest, all plunging stream bed down below into pitch blackness, followed by the Fairy Wood with its delicious pale greens (even now), and then the strip had gone pink, then copper, as we came to the Enchanted Forest, all mystery and splendour, all the way down to Tree Henge, the massive blasted monolith of a tree with its great arms reaching out to encompass, and huge fallen trees and moss covered logs, all dark and livid. The sky turned dazzling gold, as the sun finally lowered into the strip not covered by cloud. And I knew that I was too early - that the soul-uplifting incredulous shafts of copper that would light up the Forest giving to it the reason to call it truly Enchanted, was yet to come. That I would be gone by the time the dream-light came to that place.

And so it was - out of time, when the Sun came out of the cloud fully, I was at the Hawk Observatory. And here was a different view of the sunset altogether! From the intimacy of being inside a favourite painting, the privilege of being at the perfect moment inside one's favourite film, instead all around me were shades of pink and gold, and the copper light lit up the circle that forms the Observatory prominence - our shadows long in the heavenly dark orange light, and in the vales below - one on side where the sun had already set, a hundred shades of pale lilacs, blues, greens, fading into coming mist, and where the sun still lingered, the levels of the hills and the contours of the vales were all rose and peach and damask...the whole place, like the sunset in the Forest below was beyond description or compare.

Today, walking home, far beneath and miles away from the Haldons, but with them and even the Belvedere visible in the distance from some places and parks, there was the same strip of winter sunset - the same overcast sky with its tones of blue or pink just beginning, and the strip of yellow turning to gold. when the sun appeared, I could see that the sun would set on me long before it set on the Belvedere, and I watched that sunset as if in a film - here was the thin light over the city, cut away to the light in the sacred Forest, cut away to the full panorama at the Hawk viewpoint...three views of the same event, and I knew that it would soon be dyeing the Tower pink, and lighting up the dark interior of the wooded path...

Meanwhile it turned many grades of coral and cerise over the church tower and beyond the trees stark as ironwork...

Sunday, 14 November 2010

The Magic Paths

It was a dark day to begin with, and on the ridge there was a range of weather to be seen - in the centre of the panorama, between two hills, it looked as though volcano smoke was merging the land with the sky - somewhere far off, the rain was torrenting down...then the estuary was beaten silver, and the hills, woods and fields were deliciously clear towards the Sea...elsewhere the reds were starting to fade from the earth, the soil looking paler, and greenery was mixing with greys and purples of the trees who had lost their leaves.

Once the hills were part of the Haldon Estate - the Belvedere a focal point, the old pictures show it not surrounded by trees...was it a folly landscape? It was certainly partially constructed with artifice. And at some stage the Forestry Commission took over. In the nineteen eighties what came to be known as 'The Magic Path' sculpture trail was made and was wildly popular, and then fell into ruin and then legend. The hills were regulated with lines of Forestry Commission pines, yet wild all the same because the trackless woods and the stony roads, the mudbath 'paths' were only used by a few...And now building on the sculpture trail of the rebranded 'Forest Park' for leisure and tourism, are more and more trails. Some paths or parts of the original sculpture trail have been closed for some time, but recently, new paths have been opening all over the place. My initial thought (like many, being suspicious of change in a much loved landscape) was that there would be no woods left, if paths kept being made, especially ones parallel to one another! where one can see and hear anyone on the other path where they run alongside...But that was before I had ventured along them. Technically these new paths are cyclist's paths, but it's hard (having used the Forest when most of the time key parts of the track were ankle deep in mud, and there were only a few horse riders, green wellied folks training their gun dogs and the occasional dog walker) to feel that anywhere is off limits. I always get off the trail and keep an ear out for cyclists using these new 'adventure' trails, plunging into the mud or hanging onto a tree, to let them pass.
And some of those new paths! are not to be missed for worlds. Into a witchy wood of hanging darkness, thick black netted trees latticed together to make a thousand shadows as the land steeps away to the left. To the right, twisted trees and spectacular stumps of trees, and roots and a couple of weeks back, the fly agarics. After a dark walk where the clouds blocked out brightness and the damp woods dripped, and the brightness came from the flaming larch needles that carpeted parts of the floor...along the quieter path, the sun suddenly came out - exquisite golds shafted between the thick black branch-veils, lighting up a tree hung with hundreds of rain drops. Far below, electric green was visible - a long strip of moss was illuminated below by a shaft of light, framed perfectly by the tangles of black undergrowth and trees. Then there was light on the tops of trees that came into view, greens, remains of fiery golds...and at the juncture we crossed, to the newer part of the path that winds farther away, down from the Hawk Observatory on the hill above. And there the deep shadowed woods were alive with copper light, as ray after ray of late sun lit up the darkness like spotlights in a some dream of a sunlit sunset forest...some picture book fantasy of fairytale loveliness and nightmare intensity - a never-to-be-forgotten light that holiday brochures promise us, but really are simply a stunning moment captured by a good photographer with an expensive camera... The kind of scene you promise yourself will be yours one day when you have realised your dreams, and achieved what you set out to do...the light that seems like some symbol of beauty, success, romance, everything the heart desires...the dream light of nature in a state of perfection that could never improved upon, admired enough, nor wondered at too long or too often.
What, I wondered through the lush summer and the leafy part of Autumn, could be the use of winter? The early sunset in unearthly black forest answered me. Could any time but November have yielded quite such a surreal experience?

Later, at the Hawk viewpoint, the golden blaze of sun opened out against the gathering darkening grey, the view all glinting emeralds and blue slate, and to the right, misting blurring everything, the clarity and low sun about to be eclipsed - it was going to pour down! Down the Forest Lover's path, back to the Belvedere, and out into the last moments of rose gold and pink, before the rain came down. The Hills they did it again...perhaps these new paths are also 'magic'?

Friday, 22 October 2010

Cobwebs and Toadstools

Despite having been so hot and dry over the summer there are mushrooms in the Forest, and having seen a variety of fungi this last couple of weeks, at last, on the new bike trail (far too good to only be for cyclists!) running parallel to the main trail past the 'Fibonacci Spiral') there at last was a fly agaric, the size of a sideplate. It was upturned, like a blown out umbrella, a pale red with white dots around the edges. A treat, though nothing could ever compare with the most spectacular fly agarics of the Haldons (or anywhere that I've seen, although that same season boasted some amazing one at Virginia Water in Surrey too) just off the road that runs along the main ridge. They were the size of dinner plates, big, perfectly toadstool shaped mushrooms with large clear white dots on deep even red - the sort you'd see in a fantasy film or on a pantomime stage set or in plaster as a shop window display. Truly spectacular and unforgettable...But back to the current season. Just beyond the toadstool was the kind of reason for which the path was made. A huge black cavernous thing looking like a cross between a huge boulder and a small cave - all covered in moss and thick cobwebs - it was only on getting closer and the other side of it, that I saw what it was - a tree root system of a large uprooted tree which had fallen some time ago. It had created a small natural cave of dripping twisted tendrils and matted overgrowth in dark greens. In one way it was very grotesque, but in the old sense of the word - grotto-esque. Startling, sinister, spooky, especially in the swirling mist that made a sudden and sutumnal change from the bright blue and gold.
I was impressed when I thought of the rangers of whoever designed the trails, with their knowledge of the hidden paths more like animal tracks through the forest, and all the places between the paths, and then the idea that they could bear to share some of their secrets and build a new public trail beside some of their choicest architectural treasures. I can only thank them for such public spirited generosity! I sometimes venture off into the woods of course - but there is a lot of forest up there, and I'm often pushed for time, and have to get round a circuit in two hours and so, so hadn't done more than peer down toward that particular slope thinking 'at some point, I must...' Also, of course the old path before any of the sculpture trails was practically impassable in places when it had rained at all, so the memory of that also often keeps me to the made paths.
This new path however is truly a sensation!

(This blog post written was written nearer the 20th of Sept, but only posted in Oct.)

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Last Days of Summer

What a beautiful Summer it's been! And many visits to the Forest have been paid, but no blog entries as the Summer has simply been so busy. Each walk in the Haldons stolen and then on returning, it was time to pack to go off somewhere else, or catch up on neglected e-mails and admin.
Many times were spent rehearsing for shows, discussing plans, and therefore not completely giving oneself to the Forest. But today (though there are two more things that needed thinking about this week), I cleared my mind, and went around the paths often in silence, drinking in the greenery - slightly untidy for the first time since May! with the first fallen leaves, and the scents - still aromatic and smelling still of summer, but with a slight dampness telling of coming Autumn.
The Summer was intense and glorious, and many gigs meant going to allsorts of other places, but while there was no time to pay tribute in blog posts, I can testify that the Haldons kept their place and held up high when set against the staggering beauty of Shotover Hill above Oxford on the loveliest rose gold summer evening and twilight, Port Meadow with the sun setting on Oxford canal, the Thames at Laleham, ridiculously picturesque despite being so near the built up sprawl of London, all its houses and barges elegant and not ruining the views; and more appropriately, every hill with woods and a fine view encountered over the summer.
The previous time, just two days before, was the low golden light of a summer evening or an early Autumn late afternoon, a coppery light making the greens mellow and antique, rich and glinting like old wine in an old classic glass. The view from the ridge exact as a panoramic painting by Uccello. This time a cold night had edged the deep green with tiny rims of tawny - just some, but enough to scatter the paths.
That meditative quality returned, at last and it was so good to be a part of its great quiet.