Caught by the River

A Year in Oxleas Woods

Emma Warren | 28th January 2014

photo (50)

by Emma Warren

On the floor of Oxleas Woods there’s a circle of dropped leaf, twig and acorn underneath a tree. It’s not a special tree, just one I’ve stopped under during this autumn stroll. The acorns have been on the floor for a few weeks now, and no doubt some of them will have been trodden into the ground and into the blackness ready to push through in the spring.

I find two smooth, plump acorns and put them in my pocket. At home I plant them, one each in a small black pot and put them between the window and the kitchen sink. It’s a nice spot: I stand at the sink and wash up, looking down the road where there are scrappy trees and bushes and lines of parked cars. It’s an edgeland of sorts, between urban and suburban, and I’ve just brought a tiny piece of ancient woodland into it. The wood’s Saxon name refers to oxen pasture and the ground there has been pushing up trees and watching them fall for thousands of years. Some parts of Oxleas date back to the ice age, although these days the woods fizz with barky dogs, not cattle.

My windowsill, onto which I’ve translocated these acorns, has only been here since 1988. I have a passing thought that perhaps I’ve committed a crime of space and time, stealing children from the oak mother and hurtling them through the centuries so that they’re growing up to the sight of streetlights and Nissan Micra rather than the unbending scenery of oak with an understory of hazel and sweet chestnut.

For weeks nothing happens and then just before Christmas a fat tuft appears in one pot. Two weeks on and it’s still foetal, a thin green line topped with pre-curled leaf on the top. You can’t see the oak in it yet: the parts that will be leaves look like claws or deep-sea creatures or perhaps an exotic flytrap.

The new tree growing in my kitchen is on my mind when I go back to Oxleas Woods for a run on Boxing Day, amidst the statue silhouettes of the gorgeously stark trunks and branches and twigs. The trees look like charcoal sketches of synapses, all sky-cupping black lines and channels and diversions; living receivers and receptors ready for the atmosphere to signal the next phase of their growth.

I run down an incline and into a scrubby patch of wood with ankle-high leaf mulch and a large stand of scrappy hazel. I jog along minor paths, bending under branches and leaping badly over fallen trees. I tack across particularly muddy paths, like the kids at the start of Swallows And Amazons who pretend to sail down their garden.

Then I run into a small clearing and there’s a man with two squat dogs standing there. Freedom is suddenly transmuted into fear and as I pass him I’m no longer running towards something, I’m running away from it. The guy is just standing there with his dogs but his presence instantly shifts my perception of the place from benign to dangerous, even though we’re only ever minutes from the main road that sits hard at the edges of the woods. I’m reminded of the famous bandits who used Oxleas as cover in the Middle Ages and of the salutary gibbets that lined Shooters Hill, and I work my way towards the many muddy arteries that convey runners and amblers and dog walkers in loops.

There are two huge oak trees up by the café at the top of Oxleas Meadow, just before you reach the car park. They’re full of promise; all raw, living wood. The once-green leaf cover has turned brown and fallen into a circle of mulch and twig around the trunk. I’m looking upwards into the venous jumble of the naked crown when it occurs to me that the sapling at home already has leaves, or a proto-leaf, at a time when all of its siblings and cousins are undressed. The sapling is an end-of-year signal from the next generation that spring is coming.