Through the Woods

One of my favourite books, that I find myself returning to from time to time, is H. E. Bates’s Through the Woods. Years ago, I used to spend a lot of time with my great friends Jane & Johnny Holland at the house they had in North Wales. In those days we were rather eccentric. Our idea of a good time aged 24 was to get pretty drunk then lie on the sofa in that wonderful house (without electricity, central heating, or running water) and read extracts from Through the Woods, sometimes for hours, by flickering candlelight.

Reflecting on this weekend, when Bridie came to stay in Dorset, I was reminded of those days. There have been a few coincidences today. “What do you want to do, Bride?” I said, collecting Bridie from the station yesterday, running a bit late. “What I REALLY want to do is visit a bluebell wood. I’ve never been”.

So, this morning, we called for coffee with my friends Gracie and Adrian, who run the fantastic Little Toller Books, which I’ve written about before – we sell some of their books in the shop, including the brilliant new re-issue of Barbara Jones’s The Unsophisticated Arts, which is by my bedside table at the moment.  Gracie gave us a tour of beautiful, remote, lost Toller Fratrum, the tiny hidden hamlet where they run Little Toller Books. If you visit, be sure to make your way past the decaying Manor to the tiny chapel, with its extraordinary carved font (memorably photographed by John Piper)…

So, it just so happens that on the Little Toller list is a fine reissue of  the H. E. Bates; I’m not sure we have it in the shop yet, but you can buy a copy here, direct from them. And I note that the cover is a drawing by Nicholas Hely Hutchinson of a transcendent bluebell wood.

Well, we said goodbye and drove back to the Bride Valley – stopping briefly in nearby Wynford Eagle, where you find this remarkable view down to the Manor Farm. Dreamy West Dorset:

And after lunch, we decided to head back to London via Cranborne Chase, where I’d heard of the beautiful bluebell woods at Garston. But nothing quite prepared us for what we found.

The smell of wild garlic was tangible; the colour of the bluebells and their scent remarkable. I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen anything like it.  As we headed east, through to Bowerchalk, we drove through the extraordinary Beech avenue which opened this blog. There is nothing, nothing, like the saturated green of beech leaves that have just broken in May. Our eyes, which have got used to months of the heavy placid greens of late summer and the browns and yellows of autumn and then damp wintry greys are  literally startled, jolted, by the acid shock of this colour.  This combination of May Beech woods on gently folding chalk hills is one that sends a shiver down my spine.  Travelling today through the woods of Dorset and Wiltshire has been about as close to an idea of heaven as I’ve known for a while.

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