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If you go down to Blean Woods today… - Patrick Barkham

Blog | By Patrick Barkham | Jul 07, 2022

RSPB Blean Woods car park, Rough Common Rd, Port Ellen, Upper Harbledown, Canterbury CT2 9DD. A variety of trail-marked walks available, including an eight-mile loop and my more modest red route

Patrick Barkham says that early spring might just be the best time of year to admire the woods - despite it being rewetting season

This month must be peak wood-admiration season. Given a single moment to visit a wood, most of us would choose to stroll a carpet of purple haze beneath a canopy of lime-green, just when the birds are at their busiest, singing their hearts out.

I wandered through Blean Woods near Canterbury shortly before the shimmering beauty of bluebell season, and became convinced that actually early spring is the greatest time to be inside a wood. After several hours of ecstatic forest-bathing – as wood-wandering is known in Japan – I realised that whenever we take a forest foray, the wood sprites persuade us that very moment is the optimum time to do it.

There is no occasion when we think, oh, this is a grotty time to visit a forest. Wood-walking remorse is not a thing. Midsummer, when purple emperors soar through the deep green canopy, is bewitching. Autumn, when it all turns gold and the whole place smells edible, is totally romantic. The hush of midwinter, when the broadleaved trees reveal their sculptural splendour, is deeply moving.

So to a sunny spring morning in Blean, where leafless trees were a-bounce with tits – great, coal, blue, long-tailed – playing kiss chase through the branches.

The two-and-a-half-mile red route I took from the car park began in the birches of a young wood which had naturally regenerated in place of a conifer plantation, part of the restoration of Blean, much of which is an RSPB reserve.

There is no brighter time in a wood than spring, and the birches shone magenta and silver in the sunlight.

The path twisted through a glade of heather and gorse and then entered a section of the wood dominated by middle-aged oaks. The effect was as if I was walking from a chapel into a cathedral. I was enjoying the birches but here was another dimension of majesty – a wood in three big dimensions. At the lowest level darted a wren. Then came the tits, and higher up were screeching jays and cackling woodpeckers.

Each oak possessed a yard-high base of moss before the trunk rose like a mighty column into the canopy. Up there, each oak was in aerial combat for light, its limbs crazing and mazing in an attempt to seize the middle airspace. This fight was conducted at tree speed, a pace far too subtle for our powers of perception. Each oak also duetted with the wind and one another, making a song of rhythmic creaks in the dappled sunlight.

By now the wood had worked its magic and I had lost all sense of direction and time, wholly dependent on the red-route fingerposts to find my way back.

These posts, and an abundance of slightly bossy noticeboards, meant that this was not a wilderness walk, which isn’t really a viable expectation in a land shorn of wild wood. The RSPB like an instruction and a pun. ‘Rewetting the Blean: give a dam!’ said the notice explaining how diminutive dams of twisted hazel poles had been built by volunteers to slow the flow of water into the ditches and streams that cut through the wood’s heavy clay. A wetter wood is more biodiverse, stores more carbon and reduces flooding downstream.

I can confirm that the rewetting was a success – the paths were claggy and muddy.

Over a milky stream, up and round, this walk felt far longer than under three miles.

On the path back, I passed a stunted yew embracing a young beech that had thrust its trunk up its middle. The sprinting beech had won the race to the sky, but the yew will win the endurance race. It will still be here when the beech has rotted, tumbled and decomposed, feeding the yew’s feet.

We can’t hope to witness the 200-year denouement of this epic drama, but I’ll bet there will still be people finding succour in the wood here, whatever the state of society living alongside these trees, in 2222.