Staverton Thicks Part 1: Autumn

While talking about what adventures should follow our latest one in search of ancient pollard oaks in north Suffolk, a friend of mine mentioned Staverton Thicks. I had a vague memory of having heard the name before but I didn’t really know where or what it was. Out came the Ordnance Survey map which revealed that we had driven straight past it, to the east of Rendlesham Forest, on our way to Orford Ness a couple of months before.

I looked up the Thicks on the internet, but there was little beyond the basics to be found. The most extensive account of it was a blog post which consisted mainly of photos, but neither the words nor the photos particularly captured my imagination, beyond making me think I would just have to go and see it for myself. I had been given strict instructions by my friend, Mark, not to go without him, although I didn’t realise at the time he had been there before. But, weekend after weekend passed with one or other of us unavailable or the weather uncooperative, until I reached a bright and mild Saturday early in December when I needed to get away from home and couldn’t wait any longer, so went alone.

There was no missing the Thicks this time: gradually the conifers gave way to gnarled oaks along the road through Rendlesham Forest, until eventually only oaks were to be seen. There is only one public footpath through the Thicks, which runs up the eastern edge and continues past Staverton Park, which is more open than the Thicks. The Thicks were most likely part of the Park, but the Park is now fenced in. Luckily (it turned out) for me, due to various large fallen trees, after the first ten or twenty metres it was not at all easy to find this path, and so, I thought to myself, if anyone ‘official’ finds me wandering around in the middle of the Thicks, I can legitimately claim to have got lost…

I did eventually find the correct path, however, and decided to follow it for a while. It was like walking into Alice in Wonderland: everything was strange, unexpected and wonderful. It was messy, with countless fallen trunks lying around in varying stages of decay, such as you rarely find in managed woods these days. What was clear to me from the moment I stepped into this world, almost before I could formulate a thought, was that this would be the first of many visits. Although it is nearly an hour’s drive from home, I wondered hopefully whether I might eventually come to know it as well as the fields and footpaths surrounding my house.

After just a few metres I came across the first awe-inspiring sights: giant hollies and ancient oaks growing as Siamese twins, hollow oak trunks with live twigs at their extremities, and a large dead tree stripped of its bark that had fallen into the lap of an ancient pollard oak.

Pollard oakThis was too much temptation: I had to get into that oak tree. I am not a seasoned, nor agile, tree climber, but I am quick to notice when they look inviting, and then not easily dissuaded from trying. I don’t know if this instinct is a childhood relic, or one from our early tree-climbing ancestors – perhaps it is both. The challenge is not a significant part of its appeal for me, since I usually only notice ‘easy’ trees with branches near the ground; rather it is the opportunity offered for a new perspective on the world, and the sense of becoming part of the tree and part of the landscape for a short time.

First I thought I could climb straight up the oak, as it had plenty of potential footholds; however, the contours of the trunk made it difficult and I could not get a good hand grip, so I resorted instead to using the dead tree as a ramp.

With plenty of branches to hold and step on to reach the main trunk, I was soon not far from my destination. Unfortunately my lack of head for heights, if I do not feel entirely safe, proved to be the next obstacle. I tried more than once, but each time was prevented from crossing the last three or four metre length of trunk high off the ground by the absence of any branch within reach to steady my balance, which was perhaps more psychologically than physically necessary. My efforts to convince myself that, had the trunk been lying on the ground, I would not hesitate to walk along it with no thought of losing my balance, were to no avail. I decided the only solution would be to find a long branch for my next visit, which I could lean onto the dead tree and use as a balancing pole to cross the chasm…

The idea of climbing a tree had now taken hold and I walked with only one aim: to find an oak tree I could sit in. The first opportunity I arrived at was near the pig field to the right. It was half fallen but the broken branch was high enough to allow me to feel I was in the tree. I sat here for a while taking in the curious surroundings before carrying on. When I reached the junction with Staverton Park, I found a large oak outside the fence which was wider than it was tall, and decided this one I could definitely climb. The numerous burrs made it more difficult to navigate than it first appeared, and I almost overbalanced when I misjudged the dead stub of a small branch and sat partially leaning on it until it gave way under me. Luckily I did not fall, and I enjoyed my novel perspective on the world for a while until my desire to explore the Thicks further won over.

The fence around Staverton Park was offputting, and so instead of continuing on the footpath running alongside it I took a left turn between Staverton Thicks and the Park, before diving back into the middle of the Thicks. Almost every tree I passed held some new interest: an oak that had snapped in half – its top end lying next to the standing trunk – with a hole through which you could see the sun shining into a hollow. Undulating boughs rising out of the soil and falling again. Horizontal birches continuing to sprout upwards. More giant holly-oaks. A gravity-defying oak sculpture.

Then I happened across a tree I wasn’t sure I’d ever find again, and I couldn’t quite believe what I was looking at: an oak with what looked like large old vines growing up around its dead trunk, but which turned out to be the tree’s own bark. The bark had pulled away from the trunk at ground level, then split and curled up into various thick vertical ropes that even on close inspection showed no join where the edges of the bark had come together. These ropes then flattened out again higher up, where the tree had once been pollarded, to become bark again. What was even more astounding was that, contrary to almost all appearances, the tree was alive, thanks to its bark’s unusual survival strategy. What had caused the bark to pull away from the trunk in the first place remained a mystery. I looked and looked again, examined the bark and the tree at close quarters, walked round and round it, not quite believing either that the vine-like bark branches were actually part of the tree, or that the tree could still be alive.

It was around the time of finding this tree that for some reason the idea presented itself to me that my next visit to Staverton Thicks had to be in the dark, at full moon. As soon as I arrived home, I looked in my diary to find out when the next one would be. Christmas Day! Perfect. Except for two obstacles: first, I wouldn’t be at home on Christmas Day, and second, even if I was, there was no guarantee that the night would be clear. As the moon rises nearly an hour later each day, and a visit after full moon could easily end up being in the middle of the night if I were to wait for the moon to rise high enough in the sky to light my way, I settled with myself that I would go on the first clear night after 20th December – and hope that there would indeed be one before Christmas Day.