Beech Droves and Gnarled Oaks

I’ve developed a bit of a thing for the Quantock Hills… ever since visiting for the first time last year, I’ve taken every opportunity I can to explore this ancient landscape – usually this means a very early start on a survey in the south-west to factor in some free time when I get there!

One of my favourite places is the Drove Road which is a prehistoric track running across the higher ground, presumed to be an ancient trading route which avoided the wetter lowlands. At one end is the Triscombe Stone accompanied by an information board which has the following to say:

‘[the drove road] is also on a ‘Harepath’ (a Saxon army route) recorded in the 14th century as the “Alferode”. In the year 878 King Alfred may have been familiar with the route during his stay nearby at Athelny, on the Somerset Levels.’

The track is lined with ancient beeches which have been coppiced – their boles much older than their branches – but they encompass the road as though the two have always been together, the arches echoing the holloway which runs beneath.

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If you continue beyond the Drove Road, leaving Crowcombe behind and taking a left along the winding lane towards Nether Stowey, you pass through stunning oak woodland. The gnarled contorted oaks are much older than you might guess from their dwarf stature – the exposed aspect and low nutrients of their habitat slows growth and the result is an eerie, exhilarating woodland – made all the more spectacular by the mist which eddied through the trunks on my last visit.

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This is an ancient landscape, one which is far from intact yet which retains remnants and features which have been lost in much of our modern countryside. The sessile oaks which twist and spiral were coppied for centuries for use for charcoal and in tanning leather. This practise of cutting to the base stimulated fresh growth and allowed the trees to be sustainably harvested by generation after generation – a far cry from the clearfell destruction which you can see at work in the Forestry Commission plantations which have appropriated parts of the nearby Great Wood.

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The ongoing ecological value of these woodlands is incredible – I know from experience that the trees beside the road are packed with bats – and the continuity and history make it culturally important. But you need know little of either to be awed by the impression of entering these spaces. The photograph below is perhaps my favorite – it taps into something primeval which is captured in some of the best literature and still to be appreciated in light and bark and leaf. This is the kind of lane which brings to mind Tolkien’s words:

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

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A November Walk in the Quantocks

Sometimes surveys take me further from home, and a Monday morning survey in Somerset invited an early start to take advantage of the opportunity to explore somewhere new. A chance leaf through the Guardian Travel’s Best Autumn Walks section on Sunday night obliged me with an excellent suggestion – a walk from Adscombe across the Quantock hills to Crowcombe and back.

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The drive on the approach to Crowcombe presented this autumnal treat – it’s difficult to get over how beautiful beech trees look in their yellows and golds. The beech is generally considered native only towards the south of Englan, and whilst there are plenty of specimens tp be seen around the Midlands, it’s only really on a trip south that you can really enjoy their autumn exhuberance en masse.

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There must be a name for when something inanimate catches your eye and morphs into something alien. When I was on a field site at uni, I remember we watched a hare stock-still in the woods for a good 5 minutes before realising it was an apt arrangement of log and stick. This piece of branch and moss caught through the wire fence at the beginning of the walk put me in mind of a tiny maurauder breaking through the defences, strangely sinister!

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The walk took me up through Great Wood, managed by the Forestry Commission. The woodland is varied – from dull conifer plantation to glorious semi-natural oak woodland, all punctuated by beech boundaries where the roots pour over the tops of the banks as the trees cling to their precarious looking anchor points. This smartly-spaced plantation of conifers caught my eye, especially the way the light increases as the beech re-asserts itself on the banks which rise up behind.

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There were plenty of mushrooms and fungi to be seen in the woods – this was a particuarly impressive ring around a conifer. I’m not sure on the species but would welcome enlightenment!

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The route I took went close to Dead Woman’s Ditch, and passed through this spectacuarly gnarled sessile oak woodland. These trees are of a considerable age, but the poor quality of the soils and the exposure results in them being relativly small and encourages these gnarled, twisted growth forms. These are ancient woodland sites, many of which had uses for charcoal and tanning in the past. These days, they provide excellent roosts for a range of bat species including rare barbastelle and Bechstein bats.

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The walk back up from Adescombe took me up Quantock Combe – this is the name given to a steep narrow vally which cuts down the hillsides. The stream running through this combe was gentle and shallow, crossable at almost all points, and overshadowed by ferns and bracken.

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Back up to the top once more, I crossed a cow-grazed pasture to reach the Drove Road which took me back towards Crowcombe. This beech-lined trackway has the gnarled roots replacing the rocks in the walls in places, and provides a sheltered passage across the open fields. Sadly, the exposure meant most of the autumn leaves had already been consigned to the wind, but it must be glorious in its peak. This track is probably pre-historic and was once an important trading route. The sunken track bears testimony to centuries of footfalls, which is a truly humbling thought.

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Before the descent back into Crowcombe, I walked up to Beacon Hill to take in the view from the trig point. Here, the scenery changes from the lushious woodlands to a blasted heath with gorse, heather and Deschampsia with the flar agricultural plains stretching out below.

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Despite being well into the middle of November, there were plenty of flowers to be seen along the route including red campion, bramble, gorse, dandelion, herb robert, wood sage, hedge woundwort and heather.

There are many tracks between Crowcombe and Adscombe, meaning there is no need to retrace your steps on a circular walk between the two. The route I took was a pleasant 8 1/2 miles with some good ascents and descents (certainly compared with my neck of the Midlands!). Allow a few hours to meander and explore, there’s plenty to distract you along the way!