Staverton Thicks Part 2: Winter

This plan of a full-moon pilgrimage around the official start of winter fitted in well with another intention of mine: for the last few years I had been wanting, but somehow failing, to celebrate the winter solstice, which would fall on 22nd December this year.

Every year that I live in the countryside, the more connected to the seasons I feel, and the more natural and logical it seems to celebrate with the Earth: the solstices and equinoxes, the first day of spring (falling on the spring equinox, by the astronomical calendar), the first duck’s nest found in the garden, the arrival of the swallows and swifts, my first duckling sighting, the bluebell woods in bloom… There are hundreds of excuses for celebrations throughout the year. An additional excuse for celebrating this particular annual event is that it is my name day: Yalda means the ‘birth of the sun’, and is a Persian festival celebrated in Iran on the winter solstice.

I know little about the country or its customs, despite the fact my mother was Iranian, but the festivals of the winter solstice and the Persian New Year (the latter falling on the spring equinox), are celebrations that make complete sense to me now, and I appreciate them more every year, along with the meaning of my name. Thinking about this, and my middle name, which I have never used or liked except for its meaning – clover – I have begun to wonder (in a Staverton Thicks-induced frame of mind) whether names have the power to influence the life course and passions of their bearers. None of my older four siblings have earth-related names, and none are so earth-bound. I will never forget hearing of a bird protection charity office where every single employee had a surname that was a bird species.

I got lucky: 23rd December was a beautifully clear night. This time my friend Mark, and his dog, did come along. It was even harder to find the footpath in the dark – inconvenient only because I wanted to go first to the dead tree leaning into the pollard oak, which was nearby along the path – but otherwise it was not at all difficult to navigate, and the moon lit our way quite well enough.

We did eventually find the tree in question, and Mark was confident that he could surpass my poor efforts at climbing into the pollard oak. After several attempts at scaling the trunk in his infamous ‘honky donks’1, however, even he had to admit defeat.

A pig’s scream in the dark from the adjacent field – which took me a second or two to identify, having forgotten their presence – caused us both a moment of alarm. Otherwise the moonlit night silence was broken only by the occasional sound of an owl. I did not read until later that ‘there is a tradition that this is a Druidic grove and at night, when the owls are crying and the gaunt arms of the ancient trees seem outstretched to clutch, this is an eerie place…’2. This perhaps makes poetic sense of my intuition that this was a place to be at full moon; but aside from the pig’s scream, eeriness did not form part of my night experience.

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Sometime after this exploration of the Thicks, I revisited the first blog post3 I had come across, to see if it could offer any further insights now that I had seen the place in person. I particularly noticed two book references this time, and decided to widen my search terms to see if any other books would come up. While doing this, I began to suspect that a good old-fashioned library would be the better place to search for accounts of the Thicks; fittingly, since they, like Staverton Thicks, have much more mystery and history about them than the internet. But which library would have a comprehensive collection of such books? I did not know how I would even begin to track them down without knowing in advance their titles or their authors.

Already owning the first book referenced by the blog post, Oliver Rackham’s Woodlands (2006), which I had unexpectedly received as a Christmas gift, I eagerly took it down from my bookshelf. Just as unexpectedly – due partly to the thickness of the book, and partly to my shamefully limited knowledge of Oliver Rackham’s writing – instead of a dry, encyclopaedic account of woodlands, I found an emotionally-engaged and -engaging read. After stumbling first on the amusing photo caption, ‘The oak that thinks it’s a holly’, which surprised me greatly in my state of Rackham-ignorance, I turned to the index to find page numbers for references to Staverton Thicks. Here was the first little paragraph I had found so far to do justice to this place, dismissive of scientific classification and instead offering up its place in history and the imagination:

‘Staverton Park, to the NVC [National Vegetation Classification], is a specimen of W10: Quercus robor – Pteridium aquilinum – Rubus fruticosus woodland, of which there are thousands of other examples, and a rather poor specimen with few species of herbs. True but trivial: the point of Staverton is that it is one of the biggest collections of ancient trees in Europe: oaks of vast bulk and surrealist shape, giant hollies, giant birches, trees that are part oak, part holly and part birch, and a hundred years’ accumulation of dead wood. Besides its unique qualities as a habitat, Staverton is a place of mystery and wonder; it has a peculiar effect on first-time visitors who have no foreknowledge that the world contains such places’.4

After this promising start, it occurred to me that more exciting than trying to track down a library containing the unidentified books I was looking for would be to attempt to create a home library on Staverton Thicks myself, by purchasing every book referencing the Thicks that I could track down and didn’t already own. As well as Woodlands, I already had on my shelves books by Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane that mentioned, but strangely did not linger in, the Thicks. I did not remember if it featured in Wildwood (Deakin, 2008), and with no index to enlighten me I had the perfect excuse to reread the book to find out.

The first new additions to my library were Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of our Forests and Fairytales (Sara Maitland, 2012) and The Time by the Sea (Ronald Blythe, 2013). The latter led me to a third, The Cottage in the Forest by Hugh Farmar (1949) – the only book almost exclusively about the Thicks and, in great detail, its birds and other wildlife – as well as to a biological-historical paper by George Peterken (1969) called Development of vegetation in Staverton Park, Suffolk, which the Field Studies Council has helpfully made available online. Eventually I happened across another paragraph on the Thicks in The History of the Countryside (Oliver Rackham, 1986) and a further chapter in Blythe’s latest book, Stour Seasons (2016), which I had bought as a present for a friend without prior knowledge of its inclusion.

I liked the way the search was turning into a journey through books into other books, going deeper and deeper into words and stories just as I had gone deeper and deeper into the Thicks. The books led me into legends, magical realms, and back into history (not always distinguishable from each other): the murder of St Edmund possibly but improbably in Staverton Thicks5; the Duke of Suffolk’s picnic under the oaks with his wife, Henry VIII’s sister Mary6; and the ‘local legend’ that the oaks were planted by the monks of the nearby Butley Priory7. The books also led sideways to visits by recent artists, writers, poets and musicians. I enjoyed the feeling of ghosts and kindred spirits, including people my father knew before I was born, wandering around the Thicks before and, no doubt, after me.

On stepping into the Thicks, Sara Maitland was instantly transported into magic and fairy tales, as was I, though not to the analytical degree presented in her book. I did not need, or want, to compare it to the details of fairy tales and their various types of magic to feel its magical, fairy tale-like atmosphere. Nor did I agree August was the only proper month to visit, being the magical season of school summer holidays: I found the more secretive and still season of December perfectly suited to a magically-minded first-time visitor. Of course, the more often I visited, the more I would come to realise that each season possesses its own particular type of magic, and there were hardly more people, but a good deal more wildlife, to be encountered there in August than in December.

Blythe found the Thicks a ‘loving, contemplative silence’. Again, I agreed. Perhaps his idea that the mood of the Thicks depends on that of the visitor is truer than it first struck me, making sense of the apparent discrepancy between two accounts Hugh Farmar gave of the Thicks. This caused me some confusion at first, thinking the accounts were from the same source. The first, mentioned earlier, describes the place as eerie at night; and the other in The Cottage in the Forest, runs as follows:

‘There is, too, a tradition that this glade […] was once a Druidic grove. Be that as it may, there is nothing of the sinister in the Thicks except in appearance […] Eerie as the place appears, the keeper’s children play here happily and without fear.’8

Apart from wanting to understand what Staverton Thicks was, how it originated and how it came to be as it is now – or, as Blythe’s chapter in The Time by the Sea is strangely titled, ‘Staverton – What Happened? – What Is Happening?’ – to which I found only partial answers and theories in Farmar’s book and Peterken’s paper, with hindsight I think it was mostly other people’s imaginative, artistic reactions to this unique place that I was seeking. The lack of certain information as to its origins simply adds to its mystery.

I found what I was looking for, to an extent. Nevertheless, it surprises me that so few writers and artists taken in by its spell – as they must have been – have felt compelled to give it a human voice.


[1] Suffolk word for big, heavy boots (Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks, 2015).

[2] Hugh Farmar, from an article in an Aldeburgh Festival Programme Book (no date given), quoted in Ronald Blythe, The Time by the Sea (2013). Farmar gives no source or evidence to support the idea that Staverton Thicks was a Druidic grove.

[3] http://blog.rowleygallery.co.uk/staverton-thicks/

[4] Oliver Rackham (2006), p.432.

[5] Ronald Blythe (2013) makes this claim and explains how it originated, but most other sources do not mention Staverton as a possible site of his demise. Rackham (1986) states that the story is not true, without giving any reasons; Blythe’s later book, Stour Seasons (2016), does not repeat the claim, but only says that Edmund may have been buried there temporarily.

[6] Ronald Blythe (2013), and Sara Maitland (2012).

[7] George Peterken (1969), quoting Hugh Farmar (1949). Farmar concludes this is probable, partly because the Director of Kew Gardens at the time thought the Thicks were an ancient plantation. However, Peterken offers no opinion for or against the validity of this ‘legend’; the only certainty is that, whether as a woodland remnant or a plantation, a park existed there in or before the 13th century.

[8] Hugh Farmar (1949) p.14.