Wild woods are not everyone's favourite places. Perhaps we turn against the scenes of childhood adventures - and early amorous ones: or we are townies and never get over an atavistic fear of uncontrolled nature. Neglected woods can be impenetrable - and that sometimes quite near towns and roads. Recently a complete skeleton, wearing a suit, was found a few hundred yards from a suburb in the south of England. Bits of wooded country everywhere retain more than a hint of the secretive, threatening quality that everyone who, as a child, read of the Wild Wood in The Wind in the Willows, recognises at once.Samuel Bamford, the weaver Radical of Middleton, writing in the early 1840's, describes an old wood in Lancashire - the scene of some innocent black magic organised by his friend Plant, herbalist and amateur magician The wood was in a clough (a rough valley). 'About halfway up this kloof... a group of fine oaks appears on a slight eminence, a little to the left. This part of the grove, was, at the time we are concerned with, much more crowded with underwood than at present. The bushes were then close and strong; fine sprouts of 'yerth groon' hazel and ash, were common as nuts; whilst a thick brush of bramble, wild rose, and holly, gave the spot the appearance of a place inclosed and set apart for mysterious concealment. Intermingled with these almost impervious barriers, were tufts of tall green fern...' It was the seeds of afern which were sought for a spell to be cast at midnight, to help the bashful Bangle win his bride.
Edna O'Brien describes in A Pagan Place a dark wood on the way to school: 'The ground inside was shifty, a swamp where lilies bloomed. They were called bog-lilies. The donkey went in there to die and no wonder because the shelter was ample. No one would go in to bury it. It decomposed.
In modern Britain and Ireland the most natural-looking edges of woods are likely to have things dumped in them, not just by passing townies but by farm workers who leave fertilizer bags and tractor oil cans. Nobody cares, unless the wood is for commercial timber or game, or officially recognised as a nature reserve. Even National Trust property is not without its eyesores (and nature-sores) and in places suffers from the wear and tear of too many visitors. 'Take your litter home' plead the notices at beauty-spots: but some of us don't need reminding, while others would rather have a tidy car.
Odd bits of neglected land are the nearest thing to natural woodland (or potential woodland) that most of us can visit frequently, all the year round. Their value should be more appreciated. Some of us must be prepared to take other people's litter home, before local authorities or landowners come along to tidy up and plant neat poplars.
Such fragments of medieval forest as have survived in more than name are now usually more overgrown and mature than when they served the chase and the needs of commoners. Even the great royal forests were largely common land and also contained neat patches of coppice. The greatest is the New Forest, very popular, of course - the verderers' men cheerfully remove thousands of tons of rubbish every year- but rich in every sort of woodland and wild life. The Forest of Dean also contains old oakwoods besides a lot of conifer plantations. Both these large forests are Forest Parks looked after by the Forestry Commission.
Wilderness, with deer as permanent inhabitants, can be found as close to London as Epping Forest, which with Hatfield Forest and Lingwood Common (Chelmsford) are the small remnants of the almost continuous forest which once covered Essex - manorial and royal. The wildest parts of Hatfield Forest are now the overgrown coppices of hazel, hornbeam and wych-elm: the chases are given over to cars and ball games. Hindhead Commons and the Wealden Ridge from Holmwood to Hurst Wood in Surrey, and the St Leonard's Forest and Ashdown Forest in Sussex are combinations of heath and oakwood which perhaps come closest to typical 'forest' countryside.
The biggest concentration of oaks in Britain is still in Sussex.
Sherwood Forest, parcelled off into the Dukeries and other estates by 'deforestation' in times of royal penury, is no more, except for a few old oaks near Edwinstowe. Sherwood, like Cannock Chase and some other resoundingly named forests and purlieus, is being re-assembled as conifer plantations by the Forestry Commission -twentieth century forests as monuments to medieval ones.
Most of the forests and commons became farms as they were enclosed: odd corners were sometimes left and on the map still show patchily where the old forests were. The lord's demesne, enclosed and protected while the forests were still open, usually became a park - often 'improved' in the eighteenth century by landscape gardening. Such landscaped parks are now very mature - often bordered by old plantations of hardwood trees. Not all, by any means, are open to the public, and this we cannot regret. Managed well for profit they are preserved for the future, without notices and 'toilet facilities'.