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.
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!