My third visit to Staverton Thicks was in mid April, on the third anniversary of my father’s death. I wanted to go back to Staverton Thicks to see spring arriving, and I wanted to do something fitting to remember my father on this day. I would have liked to have taken him there. But I also like to imagine that perhaps he took me there as a small child and I do not remember it.
Despite the dreary forecast, by the time I reached the Thicks it had turned into a beautiful, warm spring morning. The oaks were just beginning to glow yellow-green at their tips and I was excited at the prospect of seeing them coming back to life – for their many-hundredth time, but my first.
Having experienced the place twice now, purposely unadulterated by the distraction of photography, I had decided to bring my camera with the intention of making an attempt to capture a little of the atmosphere and the incredible tree forms. I had more hope of achieving the latter than the former, for which I would certainly have had to time my visit more carefully, and which in any case would perhaps have stretched my photography skills further than their capability.
As well as searching for books, I had searched for photographs of the Thicks, with little success beyond those contained in a few blog posts, and I reluctantly came to the conclusion that there are few, if any (my attempts included), that even remotely convey the grandeur and other-worldly atmosphere of the place. I am also not entirely sure that photography is the best art form to attempt to express such a place. Painting or poetry might have more chance of success: as my father always used to say of my brother’s painting of onions that hung on his wall, ‘they look more like onions than onions do’.
This time I had little trouble finding the path, but still I had not found a long, straight and light enough branch that would enable me to climb into the pollard oak, so only lingered long enough to attempt to photograph the trees. At the junction with Staverton Park, I inadvertently frightened off a flock of shelducks, which I hadn’t seen for such a long time I had to confirm their identity when I got home.
I was hoping, though not at all sure, that I would find the vine-tree again in order to take a photograph of it. I had tried to describe it to a few people after my first visit but struggled without a visual aid. Knowing roughly where I had entered the Thicks from the edge of Staverton Park, the impenetrable undergrowth to my left proved useful in guiding me in the general direction of this tree, and my ramblings eventually took me back to the impressive oakwood sculpture which looked as though it might fall down at any moment, and the vine-tree just a few metres away.
It wasn’t until after this second visit, when I was repotting a fig tree that had been severely mistreated by my goats, that it occurred to me how this curiosity might possibly have come about. The reason for the repotting was that the previous summer the goats had managed to knock over the fig’s heavy pot and break it. As they had also, for good measure, very nearly ring-barked the tree, I removed the tree out of reach and decided to wait until it became clear whether the tree would survive before buying a new pot and reinstating it in its previous place with extra precautions against the goats’ antics. It surprised me by showing no signs of dying, but I thought it might not sprout again the following spring. Somehow, though, the tree did sprout. Admittedly it was not in the best of health, but while assessing the state of its stem (hardly a trunk), I could see that the sliver of remaining bark that had been spared by the goats had broken, and the sections of bark above and below the area of damage were now entirely separate.
As I was wondering at the miracle of the tree’s green leaves, and thinking that, even more strangely, this was a repeat of the same phenomenon that had occurred in one of my house plants (in that instance caused by my pet rodents during a brief but mistaken period of cohabitation) – which was triggering a serious questioning of my basic understanding of tree biology – I noticed how the bark had curled up vertically where only the sliver had remained. I instantly thought of that oak tree in Staverton Thicks: how could this not have occurred to me before! Perhaps when the oak tree was young, and had soft, flexible bark, it was stripped by deer or some other browsing creature, but only in parts. Although oak leaves and acorns are toxic to livestock (with the exception of pigs), the bark is not. The remaining thin vertical strips of bark might have pulled away from the trunk and curled up, as one had on my fig tree, and the tree survived. As the tree grew, the bark would have grown and hardened independently of the tree trunk. If it had happened early on in the oak’s life, and the tree must now be at least several hundred years old, there could quite conceivably now be no visible join where the bark had once curled.
I then could not help trying to work out whether the stripping would have to have happened before or after first pollarding. After much brain-twisting, I decided that, theoretically, the formation of the bark allowed for either possibility, but since (according to Peterken) only mature oaks were pollarded, it is much more likely that it would have happened beforehand: the oak’s bark would probably already have been relatively thick and hard by the time it was considered mature enough to pollard.
Shortly after visiting this tree, I heard a loud rustling a little way off and caught a fleeting glimpse of a herd of deer passing through the undergrowth. They looked large, even at a distance, which made me suspect they were red deer rather than the roe deer I was used to seeing around Suffolk. But they were too far off, and the glimpse too fleeting, for me to attempt identification by anything other than size.
I was lucky enough to encounter them several more times in my wanderings. The third time they were close enough for me to confirm that, although without any bearing the males’ typically large antlers to aid identification (I read later that female and male deer live apart for most of the year) they were indeed very large, and their markings different to roe deer’s. Their rustling in the leaves, camouflage, appearance and disappearance in the undergrowth reminded me of Sara Maitland’s diversion into magic in Gossip from the Forest. Magic in fairy tales was undeserved and unsought, she thought, and this magic was also forest magic: the kind to be found in Staverton Thicks. These deer did certainly did seem to be forest spirits.