If you have a day to spare at the tail end of autumn, and the weather is all damp and misty, what better to do than go for a walk in the woods? In this case, a Forestry England wood just outside Failand, Ashton Hill Plantation. At its centre is a stand of sequoias, looking suitably mysterious in the mist. For a moment you can start to imagine you’re in some sort of supernatural horror-mystery filmed in Washington State.
However, brief glimpses of the rolling landscape outside the woods, showing off the traditional English fear of outsiders, soon remind you where you are.
Near the edge of the wood is a fairy tree, naturally beloved by The Child Who Likes Fairies, decorated with several tiny doors and various garlands and trimmings round its base. Further up, I noticed at adult head height, something that seemed much deeper, speaking directly to the fairies themselves, not there to entertain children.
A corn dolly pinned to the tree with a baby’s teething toy. Some sort of offering; some sort of old ritual; maybe some sort of prayer.
Today: we went to wander around Leigh Woods, just outside Bristol on the far bank of the Avon Gorge. It’s not an ancient woodland: it is a mixture of landscapes occupied and used for various purposes for the past few thousand years. A hillfort, quarries, formal parkland, all today merged and swallowed up by woodland of various forms and patterns, although you can see its history if you look closely. I love walking around damp, wet countryside in autumn; although today was dry, everything had a good soaking yesterday and earlier in the week. The dampness brings out such rich colours in photos, even though I didn’t have anything better than the camera on my phone with me.
Part of the woods, “Paradise Bottom”, belonged to the Leigh Court estate and was laid out by Humphry Repton, the garden and landscape designer who should not be confused with Boulder Dash. It includes a chain of ponds which are now very much overgrown, their water brown and their bottoms thick with silt; and some of the first giant redwood trees planted in Britain, around 160 years ago now.
The ponds drain into a sluggish, silty stream which trickles through the woods down into the Avon, the final salt-tinged part of the stream running under a handsome three-arched viaduct built by the Bristol & Portishead Railway, back when when the redwoods were newly-planted.
If you’ve heard of the Bristol & Portishead, it may be because of the ongoing saga of when (if ever) it will reopen to passengers again. It closed to passenger traffic back in the 1960s, freight in the early 1980s, but unusually was mothballed rather than pulled up and scrapped. At the start of the 21st century it was refurbished and reopened for freight trains, but not to full passenger standards. Although there have been plans on the table for ten or fifteen years now to reopen it to passenger traffic, years have passed, the leaves in the wood have fallen and grown again, and nothing keeps on resolutely happening. The main issues are the signalling along the line (token worked, I understand, with traincrew-operated instruments) and its single track, which limits maximum capacity to one train each way per hour at the very most. Aside from putting in a station or two, these are the main factors which at present prevent it from being reopened to passengers.
When I moved to Bristol, over ten years ago now, the Bristol & Portishead line was busy every day with imported coal traffic. Now that that is fading away, the line itself is much quieter, and indeed can go for days at a time with no trains at all. Its railheads are dull, not shiny, as it curves through the lush green woodland. I walked up to the top of one of its tunnel mouths, and looked down upon it silently.