Getting back to nature by exploring woodland

Peter Fiennes
Peter Fiennes

When the Government announced its intention to sell off up to 150,000 hectares of English forests and woodland seven years ago, campaigners mounted a determined fight - and the furore convinced Peter Fiennes the time was right to pick up his pen.

“I’m in my mid-50s and I’ve lived in London for years, but I grew up in Kent and Sussex among woods,” says the writer. “When the sell-off started the fact I hadn’t thought about them enough, and they were under threat, made me want to go out and discover what was going on.”

Peter has written numerous books about Britain’s countryside and seaside and, as a director for Time Out, published their city guides.

His new book - called Oak and Ash and Thorn, quoting Rudyard Kipling’s poem A Tree Song - focuses on the ancient woods and new forests of Britain, making a strident case for their value and need for protection.

He visits Norwegian spruces on the Welsh and English borders, examines wildflowers in a haunted Norfolk wood, and spends a chapter touring Smithy Wood, the site of a proposed M1 service station near Chapeltown in Sheffield.

Smithy Wood has been around for at least 800 years, he writes, and could plausibly date from the last Ice Age.

“In its pomp, it would have been part of a great expanse of northern forest and you could have strolled from here to Sherwood without once leaving the shade of the canopy, but over the centuries the wood has been parcelled off, gnawed, nibbled and uprooted.

“Its fate is fairly typical of much of Britain’s woods.”

The surviving portion of woodland looks to have been given a reprieve, as MSA Extra - the firm behind the service station - has asked for its application to be put on hold while a similar proposal further along the M1 in Rotherham is decided on.

“The choice between a service station and an ancient wood is not a hard one,” says Peter. “People should be able to hang on five minutes longer for a coffee or a doughnut.”

While writing the book, the controversy over the felling of street trees in Sheffield was reaching its height. It’s mentioned in brief - the city is described as ‘butchering’ its urban greenery - but the author chose to stick to his original remit.

“It’s a book about woods rather than street trees.”

He says engaging with the subject was an ‘amazing opportunity’.

“Woodlands are glorious and wonderful places.”

But Peter adds: “Britain has less woodland now than any nation in Europe apart from Ireland and the Netherlands, so there’s a bleak background to the story. We all love them, and love walking around them, but we haven’t really looked after them that well.

“Nature isn’t something ‘out there’, it’s everywhere. The tragedy of what seems to be happening in Sheffield is that people have forgotten that woods should be in our cities and trees need to be in our streets.”

The book is part of a wider trend for literary explorations of nature, some of which have been big sellers - popular titles include H Is For Hawk, Helen Macdonald’s memoir about training a falcon, and The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, who gave an account of recovering from alcoholism while moving back to Orkney where she grew up.

“There’s a great hunger to read about nature and watch it on TV. There’s a disconnect; we’re not out there ourselves.”

Peter is speaking at Sheffield’s Off The Shelf festival on October 15 at 1pm in Sheffield University’s Students’ Union auditorium. Oak and Ash and Thorn is out now, published by Oneworld, priced £16.99 in hardback.