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'?
Exeter Respect Festival
4 years ago