Caught by the River

A Year In Oxleas Woods: November

Emma Warren | 8th December 2014


Words and picture by Emma Warren.

It is very early and very foggy, like being inside a cloud. Everything is draped in heavy air, bar the sphere of vision that extends about twenty metres ahead and around. Everything else is flat and removed, turned two-dimensional by the fog. It looks like a Gerhard Richter painting, says my friend.

The sky, as viewed through one of the asymmetric boundary oaks on the edge of Oxleas, looks steamed up like my bathroom after a very hot shower. It’s not raining, but you can feel the water condensing into droplets as the day warms up over Sunday morning minutes. It’s a strange feeling, moisture in the process of becoming rain but without enough dropping range to become rain proper. This cloud has come up from the ground, wrapping itself around a scrap of a robin and the edges of a goat willow like felt.

I walk across Oxleas Meadow, just skirting the line of ancient hedgerow in the middle of the field. It looks a bit menacing today, especially as the other people in the woods keep moving in and out of view like ghosts being absorbed through a wall. A dog runs into view and launches itself at me. There are muddy green markings on my new grey sweater and there’s slobber on my coat. The owner appears out of the mist, apologises, and apologises even more when she realises her dog has jumped up on a non-dog walker. This somehow, is worse than jumping up on someone with canine in tow. I see the same idea at play later, at the café, when two dogs go for each other whilst the owners shake their heads at the nannying state of the world. “Some people don’t get it, do they? They’re just playing,” they say and sigh as one dog rolls the other over and goes for the neck.

Inside the café it’s a different story. It is wall-to-wall rockers, and the only fog is the mist created by three table-fulls of Full English being demolished by men and women with good quiffs and even better turn-ups. It’s the monthly meet-up for members of the Detonators vintage car club, which explains the biscuit-coloured Mustang in the car park.

A few weeks before, it was all looking a bit more transitionary. Strands of autumn were still hanging around Oxleas’ interior; leaves falling and circling like an arboreal murmuration. I’d met illustrator Karen D Tregaskin at Blackheath station in my battered Nissan Micra in order to show her the woods and we were walking, talking and climbing over fallen trees to get a better look at this coppice hazel or that half-naked alder.

A man on a red mountain bike has stopped on the path and is pointing his binoculars towards the canopy in the hope of spying a lesser spotted woodpecker. He’s chatty, describing this smallest and rarest of our woodpeckers and chuckling about the kestrels that are now breeding in the woods, and have taken to dive-bombing the local dogs.

It’s great being in here with someone with equally hungry eyes and we zig and zag into the woods, past two poorly-looking wild service trees whose froggy crown leaves are almost entirely masked by neighbouring oaks until we reach a teenage sweet chestnut. It has fallen across the path that leads to the bit of the woods local call Spaghetti Junction – a broad, open path by a riverbed in the lower central flatness of the woods. We look at it for ages, looking for clues. We find the snapped root that unstopped it from the earth, presenting like a broken wrist.

Our eyes have become attuned to fallen sweet chestnuts, so naturally they’re scattered all over the place as if a giant hand had gone around Oxleas flicking them over. Some roots have aged and become empty of moss and soil, so that rays of tangled wood beam out of the ground like an ancient sun statue. Others have found new life in near-death. Karen’s pointing to fallen trunks where branches have turned into new trees, a result known lyrically as a Phoenix tree. It’s stem cell magic, where roots become shoots, bark becomes soil, endings become beginnings.

They don’t look very stable, though, these Phoenix trees. Maybe it’s the damp ground but these look like trees that are finding it hard to stand up; drunk trees.