Winchmore Hill : Memories of a Lost Village
by Henrietta Cresswell
Chapter VI: THE WOOD
That forbidden pleasures are the sweetest in universally acknowledged. No doubt that was the reason that the private parts of Winchmore Hill Wood were the most attractive places in the world.
In the old days the public footpath was rough and sparsely gravelled, fenced only on the side which adjoined the keeper’s cottage.
The other side was open, and wild unspoilt woodland stretched away to the Hoppers Road meadows and Southgate Lane. It was a primeval forest of oak and beech, birch and holly; the undergrowth was in many places dense as a jungle, and in high summer the foot tracks were almost hidden in luxuriant bracken. There was a dark plantation of spruce and larch, a veritable fir forest planted long ago, and the children explored every corner of it and knew its highways and byeways as the city dweller knows his streets. It was a happy hunting ground in more senses that one, for they were often the hunted ones, and the Demon who guarded the Enchanted Forest was the hunter. He was an alarming and remorseless Ogre, clothed in velveteens, tall and gaunt, and forbidding, with piercing black eyes and a nose like an eagle’s beak. He was believed to be armed with all the powers of the law, almost to the point of inflicting capital punishment. He carried a long gun, and had he chosen to shoot them no one would greatly have blamed him!
They ran before him like hares, they lay hidden in deep ditches, or fern-brakes, till he had passed by, scarcely daring to breathe. They practised the art of walking over dead twigs noiselessly, and when safely out of his dominions they bragged of courage and daring, to which nobody gave credence.
It was an Enchanted Forest indeed, millions of miles from London, or even from the pond on the green; wild and remote and mysterious, bounded only by dinner time, tea time, or the short winter twilight.
The fir forest with its carpet of brown needles, and the red trunks and dark green boughs of the spruces, the light green larches with their pink blossoms and ragged brown cones; Rabbit-hole Ditch with its mossy banks, where a few primroses could be found when the larches were in bloom. What a wonderland they all were! The crab-apple tree at the further end of the ditch made a bower of pink and white blossom, against a background of the young growth of the birches and hornbeams. There were gardens of blue dog-violets, and wood anemones by the thousand.
There is a perfect beauty about the dim recesses of an old wood, that gives a feeling of solemn awe, near akin to that which pervades an ancient abbey.
In one place was an enormous oak with a tall straight trunk, a huge column, branchless for an unusual height from the ground. The spread of its boughs made a verdant roof, and only here and there was a fragment of blue sky visible. The great tree made a circular hall floored with velvet moss, all walled round with close growing brushwood. It would have been hard to find this natural ballroom if the dry bed of the water-course had not passed beside it. In another part of the wood was a giant beech, whose trunk, even in this hidden land, was carved with many a name or initial. The exposed roots made delightful seats and the ground lay bare and brown, scattered with last year’s leaves. The beech stood alone among the firs of the plantation, whose columned aisles led away in deep shadows around.
Those who have heard the voices of the woods, and loved their whisperings in childhood, will hear them calling for ever in the after years, calling them to wild places, to country sights and sounds, to the unspoilt corners of the land, where they can forget that crowds, and cities, and struggling suburbs, even exist. The Spirit of the Woods and the Spirit of the Hills know their own, and when they call, their own must go forth and do them homage. Some of the weirdest places in the wood were the pits of white sand half-full of water, inky black by contrast, and overhung by bracken dazzlingly green in the sunlight, massed round the trunks of dark holly bushes, a few of the fronds reaching an extraordinary height among the shining prickled leaves. In leafy June the woodbine wreathed the holmtrees with long streamers of creamy white flowers. The wild guelder rose grew in the more open spaces with snowy cymes of blossom in early summer, and coral red berries in the autumn, not so orange scarlet as those of the mountain ash. These both loved the fringe of the wood at the side of Southgate Lane, raising their gaudy heads above a thicket of luscious dewberries and blackberries. In August and September there were wild stretches of heather every shade of mauve and grey and purplish pink, and the pale blossoms of the little yellow cow-wheat—which some botanists tell us, marks the land as the forest primeval—were scattered everywhere.
At the edge of the firwood were pre-historic ant hills, three feet high, and covering many square yards of ground; the rush-grown cart road and every path near them were peopled with the black and red citizens in myriads.
The stumps of the oaks from the last year’s felling made their summer shoots with enormous leaves, and the earlier growth was crowded with green and brown oak galls. The children laid them in saucers of water with rusty nails, in a vain endeavour to make ink. In summer and autumn the wood was gay with lichens and fungi of every sort and kind; each fallen log bore shelves of turkey tails with surfaces of grey velvet and the jagged tops of the stumps bristled with white and black stagshorns. The golden peziza lay like the yolk of an egg among the dead leaves, and the scarlet amonita flamed the edge of the fir forest. The Doctor once brought home some large puff-balls that had burst and shed their spores; he arranged them on the top of the wall that divided his garden from the next, and greatly provoked the wrath of his neighbour, who mistook them for a row of grinning skulls! These large puff balls can be fried in slices like suet pudding, but they are not common. The small white earth- balls were very plentiful in the wood, looking like eggs upon the ground, but when exploded their contents resemble those of a sweep’s soot-bag. At the edge of the wood on the field side, where there was warmth from the southern sun, lay a narrow path, where numbers of great boletus grew, looking like unwholesome sponges, and in some places were crowds of tan coloured lactarius, that appeared to be made of saddle leather and when broken exuded milk. There were gay patches of rosy russulas and sulphur yellow agaricus. Toadstools everywhere, purple, black, grey, or olive green. One variety was lovely to look upon, but no one who had once smelt its odour, would ever wish to meet with it again. It was phallus impudicus, the stinkhorn. It had a cone-shaped cap, beautiful as carved ivory, a thick white stem rising from a hemisphere of olive green jelly, and when in perfection was surmounted by a greenish black fools-cap set jauntily on one side. The smell was a combination of a gas escape and neglected drains. It grew usually under the holly trees, though it may be found far from them.
When in the heart of the wood it was easy to realise that at one time there had been continuous forest land, covering the greater part of Middlesex; and to feel that, perhaps, for a thousand years this corner of England had remained unaltered.
There were rabbits, weasels, and stoats, and one or two pole-cats had been shot sufficiently recently for them to be seen stuffed and set up in glass cases, in cottages. Vipers were rare, grass snakes abounded, especially near water, and once or twice a blind worm or slow-worm was found. It looked as if it were made of pinkish terra-cotta, glittering with a glaze brighter than that of the finest porcelain. There was an uncanny pleasure in taking home the harmless reptile twisted as an armlet or as a living necklace. They will remain in rigid stiffness wherever they are placed and have no evil smell. The wood abounded with hedgehogs; in the twilight their soft grunting might be heard in the pauses of the nightingale’s song. It was delightful to see an old mother hedgehog taking her two babies out slugging and worming in the grass rides. The youngsters’ prickles are quite soft and weak; when disturbed they will take refuge in flight, while their mother rolls herself into a spiney ball that defies marauders. The speed at which these little beasts can travel is marvellous. When first you watch one of them it remains like a huge sea-egg betraying life only by a gentle breathing; slowly it uncurls, the pointed snout and beady eyes appear, then the uncanny black hands and feet are unpacked, and with a wriggle the beastie turns over, and cautiously lengthens itself out. At first it seems hardly to move at all, but in a few moments it waxes bolder, and slowly hurries to the roadside. You see it enter the grass, and by the time you have taken two strides to the spot, it has vanished as completely as if it had sunk into the ground. The Doctor’s terrier was clever at finding hedgehogs, and when he sniffed at the ball of mystery and pricked his nose the particular tone in which he gave tongue was unmistakeable. Some dogs open them with their feet and kill them, but very few will do it, and it is a good thing, as the small animal does much good and little harm. Tramps and gypsies eat them, but they are safe from most of the dangers that menace their unprotected neighbours. In Summer the wood was alive with birds and beasts: you heard the soft coo of the pigeon or the harsh scream of the jay. There were songsters in great numbers and of many varieties, both native and migrant. But it was lovely in autumn when the beech leaves turned from green to golden yellow and then to copper and the bracken became fiery red and deep orange, and after that, when the fern had withered and shrivelled, and the frost had painted the brambles purple and gamboge and vermillion, and the hollies were loaded with scarlet berries; then a great stillness settled on the woodland, the chill winds whispered of the glories of the past summer and rustled the hope that again there should be mouse-ear time for the birches, and tasselled catkins for the hazels, but for the moment all was dead and quiet and still.
Then on some January night a moaning would wail through the red trunks of the spruces, the moonlight which gleamed white on the lichened oak boughs, veiled itself in clouds, and the darkness of death closed round the Wood World. There was a sound that was almost inaudible, a hissing of snow feathers in the air, and when the morning broke, and the skies cleared, and a blood red sun rose over the Essex hills, Lo! the wood had become fairyland! Every bramble was a wreath of ice flowers and each bush and tree glittered in a wedding garment. Who that had once seen it could ever forget it?
People in Chapter VI
The Winchmore Hill Wood Ogre - Henrietta's imaginary creature that lived in Winchmore Hill Wood
Wildlife in Chapter VI
Rabbits, weasels, stoats, pole-cats
The Doctors Terrier
Places in Chapter VI
Winchmore Hill Wood
The Keepers Cottage
The Enormous Oak
The Giant Beech with name carvings
Pits of white sand half full of water
Prehistoric ant hills on the edge of the wood
Pond on the Green
Events in Chapter VI
Henrietta describes the many faces of Winchmore Hill Wood (which ran from Winchmore Hill Green, between Broadwalk and Hoppers Road, to the Bourne as they are today), including the animals and birds that inhabited it and the glorious way the woods changed with the seasons.
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