Friday, June 14, 2013

Devon's Magical Places: Dispatches from the Road

Making your way along the narrow path that twists through the rugged moor, you'd never expect to find a hidden oasis of lush green oaks: perhaps that's what makes Wistman's Wood so special, the fact that these ancient twisted trees have threaded themselves into the valley crag at all, withstanding long months of whipping wind and lashing weather. Or perhaps what makes Wistman's Wood feel so special, is the fact that it has been a special place for thousands of years.

While the majority of moss-covered oaks you'll see today seem to be only 400 - 500 years old (still nothing to sneeze at), legend has it that Wistman's Wood was an ancient sacred grove of the Druids, who would have been pushed into Wales and Cornwall in the 6th and 7th centuries by the encroaching Angles and Saxons in this area of Dartmoor. So if folk memory dictates that it did belong to the Druids, (or simply, the people living here who would have practiced the old ways of the Celtic religion) the trees we see now would be descendants of the original grove that existed then.  
Embarking on our journey

Wistman's Wood

We know visitors to the wood in the 1620's found it looking much as it does today - a stunted grove of mainly oak trees, but including rowan, holly, and willow trees as well, covered in a thick green carpet of moss. And it is still just as magical. I traveled there with my beautiful friend Sarah Class, a talented composer, her most recent project being the complete musical score for BBC's "Africa" documentary narrated by Sir David Attenborough. She's also a singer-wongwriter who writes lovely music about nature and love and worldly things, and I think, if all is right with the world, we ought to be hearing her on the radio soon, because she deserves it. The walk to the wood takes you through the moors, this time of year bursting with yellow sprays of prickly gorse, and up over a hill until you start to stumble over ancient hut circles. These date from the neolithic, so that's pre- 2500 BC, and there are over 100 of them surrounding the wood. If you visit, I would highly recommend spending some time in one of the old stone foundations. The atmosphere is kind and incredibly peaceful, and perhaps you'll even encounter a voice from the past who will guide you through the wood. 
A carved neolithic stone now lies recumbent near a hut circle by Wistman's Wood
If you're lucky, they might even lead you to the Druid Stone, one of the only remaining standing stones on the eastern side of the wood, which when I found it was sheltering a mama and baby sheep. There are no paths through the wood, and some websites warned that the woods are home to dozens of Adders, poisonous black snakes that in late spring and summer will be sunning themselves on the rocks - but  I didn't see anything and never felt a moment of danger. I did pick my steps carefully, and in any case, you want to avoid trodding on the moss and destroying the look of the boulders that are littered throughout the woods. Sarah and I quickly separated to explore each on our own and time slipped away. Before I knew it, I had been quietly sitting on a rock for nearly two hours, though it felt like only one long moment. The quiet of the wood, punctuated only by the occasional footsteps of another explorer or trilling of bird song, lulls you into such a deep and meditative state. I imagine the atmosphere could feel quite wild at nighttime, though I must say, I didn't have the urge to find out. I was stirred from my quiet space by an eerie feeling after a long while, which made me uncomfortable enough that I stood and made my way to find my long lost Sarah toward the river that runs at the foot of the sloping hill. 

There's likely a reason the wood may derive its name from "wisht" meaning spirit, or "Haunted Wood." 
Thanks for the recommendation to visit, which came from several readers. I had a wonderful experience there and thought of you all. 
Finding feathers

The name "Wisman's" may also derive from "Waele"-man's Wood, which is what the Anglo-saxons called it. "Waele" means foreigners, their names (ironically) for the Celts whose home in Britain they were invading. (Don't quote me on the spelling, I read it in an old but reliable book on Dartmoor while I was there, and I'm no Anglo-saxon language aficionado!) The root name is where the country of "Wales" gets its name. Land of the Foreigners. According to the Angles, because that's where they pushed them to. 

Witman's Wood, an oasis of green on the thirsty, windswept moor.