Magical ancient woods

ONE of my favourite things to do is walk in woods, and one of the most magical woods in the country is Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor.

The latest exhibition by The Arborealists, the group of professional artists whose work focuses on trees and forests, is Trees and Woodland on Exmoor and Dartmoor, currently on view digitally at the Museum of Somerset.

The 20 artists, responding to specific trees and woodland sites on Exmoor and Dartmoor, include Tim Craven, Paul Newman, Fiona McIntyre, Abi Kremer, Mike Dodd and Blaze Cyan.

The pandemic has deprived us of the chance to see the paintings, prints and drawings “in the flesh,”but it has given new significance to the work. Lockdown has meant that woodland and the countryside have been inaccessible to many people. For others the natural world is a vital place for solace and reflection in a time of crisis.

Through their work the Arborealists seek to reconnect us to nature’s beauty and power. They also want to mobilise a largely urban population in the struggle against climate change.

Wistman’s Wood, a place of haunting beauty and mystery in the heart of Dartmoor, is a fragmented ancient woodland, characterised by stunted and twisted epiphyte-covered oak trees. It is a relic of the once widespread coppice woodland that was used to make charcoal for smelting tin. The landscape contains extensive remains of Bronze Age settlement as well as of medieval mining. Many legends are associated with the wood, including tales of devil hounds that slept by day in the hollows between granite boulders then hunted with the devil by night.

Horner Wood on Exmoor is one of the largest and most beautiful ancient oak woods in Britain. The wood is within the National Park and is a National Nature Reserve on the National Trust’s Holincote Estate. It contains 330 species of trees, some of them rare, as well as many lichens that grow on the ancient trees and on dead wood. Conservationists and rangers use traditional woodland management to create healthier habitats where wildlife can thrive. The forest canopy has been opened up so that more light can reach the wood, encouraging wildflowers and pollinating insects.

Other featured woods and areas include Culbone Wood, the beech wood at Simonsbath, Wilmersham Common, Badgworthy Wood, Burrator Reservoir, Black-a-Tor Copse and Stumpy Oak.

To see the exhibition online, visit https://swheritage.org.uk/digital-exhibitions/the-arborealists/exmoor-horner-wood-and-cloutsham/

Pictured: Blaze Cyan, The General (west) in Horner Wood, wood engraving: Abi Kremer, Wistman’s Wood 2, watercolour.