Not Austria Day Fourteen – The People Who Came Before

Earthwork in Highgate Wood

Dear Readers, it’s easy to forget that the ancient woodlands are just that – ancient. In Austria, it’s possible to see the remains of fenced enclosures where pastoralists kept their sheep as far back as 4500 BC, and in Coldfall Wood and Highgate Wood there are the remains of earthworks, such as the ones in the photo above. While these ditches and mounds undoubtedly existed in the Medieval period, and were used to prevent the domestic animals belonging to Commoners from straying into the wood, they may also have been built on top of prehistoric boundary markers. Humans are very keen on taking what already exists, and repurposing it; we have been recycling for millenia. It’s only in the last hundred years that we’ve started to be so lackadaisical about the things that we own; throwaway culture is a very recent phenomenon, and even now it isn’t universal. When I was in Cameroon I was impressed by the way that cars that we would have given up as write-offs were repaired and regenerated, though I doubt that many of them would have passed their MOT.

Whenever I walk through ancient woodland like Highgate or Coldfall wood, I always half expect to see a deer silently lift its head, or hear the rustle of wild boar. Sadly, both woods are far too urban and well-used for anything more exciting than a squirrel to put in an appearance, though occasionally I glimpse a German Shepherd trotting past and remember that there would once have been wolves here. The whole area was once part of the Bishop of London’s estate, and would have been used for hunting. It is largely made up of hornbeam with oak ‘standards’ – the hornbeams would have been cut back for firewood, while the oaks would have been allowed to grow. This makes for some strangely contorted hornbeams, who were maybe cut a few times in their early lives before the practice was discontinued, and they were allowed to grow to maturity. In Medieval times the wood have been much more open, and much more diverse, with a varied understorey of different plants. Today, such woods always remind me of an underwater world. I feel like a little fish swimming through stands of kelp.

If I was on my usual holiday, today would have been the day for a quick walk, and then some packing up. We often walked down to Sölden through a very different wood, made up of Arolla pine trees, but there was something of the same sense of an enclosed world. The flora was very different, but there was something very comforting about being so contained, by the forest and the steep sides of the canyon on one side, and the river rushing down hill on the other.

Small Yellow Foxglove (Digitalis lutea)


And so, whilst on a normal year I would be preparing to come home, this year I am already home. So much of being on holiday seems to be about a state of mind, a willingness to let go of day to day worries and to be curious and open. I have found a lot of pleasure in exploring my local habitat with a holiday state-of-mind. Many of the things that I love about Obergurgl, from Hugo Cocktails to the pleasure of taking a break and reading a book are still available here in East Finchley. Do I miss the mountains? Of course. Do I hope to go to Austria next year? Yes please! Am I sorry that I took two weeks off, even though I had to stay put? Not a bit of it.  It’s been a lovely few weeks, and I’ve enjoyed having the time to let the emotions of this tumultuous year catch up with me a bit. I hope to jump back into work refreshed on Monday, and to have taken myself just a little bit further along the path of bereavement. But just to finish, here are a few of my favourite photos from the last few years in Obergurgl. I hope you enjoy them!

The Smugglers’ statue on the Timmelsjoch Road

Melancholy thistle with fritillaries and rose chafer beetle

Swallowtail butterfly on white clover

Alpine ‘blue’ cow

The view towards Hangerer

The Rotmoos and Gaisberg valleys

Alpenrose (Rhododendron ferrugineum)


14 thoughts on “Not Austria Day Fourteen – The People Who Came Before

  1. Sarah

    I’m glad you found something of the holiday spirit. I’ve got two weeks holiday coming up too and am feeling a bit flat. I’m looking forward to the break from work, but will miss the presence of family and friends.

    I lived in Muswell Hill in the 1990s and regularly walked in Highgate Woods – and sometimes saw muntjacs. Are they not there any more?

    1. Bug Woman

      I haven’t ever seen a muntjac, Sarah – it’s very heavily used by dog walkers, and the dogs are often not very well controlled so they might have scared the deer off. I believe that there are some on Hampstead Heath, though, where there’s more room and more dense cover…

  2. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    I often think that I’ve not visited all the places in the UK yet, without having to go jetting around the globe. With that in mind my wife and I are picking off all the places we’d like to see in Switzerland, making sure we’ve visited every canton. Yesterday we were looking over towards Austria and I hope I’ve managed to get a picture for you with Austria on it somewhere. I shall be doing a series of posts, so you will be able to continue your ‘holiday’ in the Alps. 😊

  3. Charlie Bowman

    You might not know that the road into Obergurgl from Soelden has been blocked for weeks, specifically between Zwieselstein and Untergurgl because of a very significant landslide caused by melt-water. Only this week I think will it be possible to access Obergurgl from a conventional route, although the Timmelsjoch pass and helicopters have been used where a need to leave and access into the village has been essential.

    1. Bug Woman

      No, I didn’t know – perhaps it’s just as well that we were unable to get there this year because of the pandemic. I do wonder if they will end up as a winter-only resort…thanks for the info, Charlie. Are you hoping to go later in the year?

  4. Charlie Bowman

    Hi. As the lifts only operate until the first week of September, despite my direct request for the lift company to lengthen the operational period so those unable to go in the early stages of what is a short summer season could get there in the Autumn, I doubt it. Not many hotels open in the summer but the Lohmann is a good option. Other than that I am quite happy to stay in Soelden where the lifts run for longer, but that involves travelling independently instead of with Inghams, or whoever. I suspect it will be Slovenia for me in early October, which isn’t exactly a hardship!

  5. Bug Woman

    Ah, I didn’t know that the Lohmann was opening in summer – that is interesting, we usually go to the Wiesental. We used to go to the Olympia which was fab, but they started closing in the summer :-(. Slovenia is ace – lots of great walking/hiking around Kranska Gora and Bohinj, not so keen on Bled (a bit too touristy and didn’t find a decent hotel). Hope you have a great time if you manage to get away, do let me know what you think!

  6. Charlie Bowman

    I have dined at the Wiesental but didn’t find it overly friendly. Have stayed at Jenewein, Alpenland, etc but the Lohmann offers a decent all inclusive deal. Have stayed in Bohinj half a dozen times or so; the Vogel cable car runs until November so plenty of scope for a late Autumn break. Will keep you posted!

    1. Bug Woman

      Thanks Charlie. But, as you were saying, they’re still planning to close the lifts at the end of September? It’ll be the shortest season ever…

      1. Charlie Bowman

        6th September in Obergurgl (Hohe Mut and Wurmkogel/Hochgurgl lifts) with the vast majority of the ones in Sölden running until the 27th. Despite Covid-19 and the road closure the season hasn’t been lengthened!

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