Hosted by Venetia Hoare, our online talk on 20 April was the perfect entertainment for a spring evening, as naturalist Richard Fortey transported us to a beech and bluebell wood in the Chilterns.
Richard, well known as the presenter of BBC4’s Nature’s Wonderlands documentaries, worked for some 40 years as senior palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum and is the author of nine popular science books. When, in 2011, he bought his own four-acre patch of woodland near Henley, he set about investigating the interwoven histories of the plants, animals and people who shaped this corner of Oxfordshire. His findings are recorded in his 2016 book, The Wood for the Trees which builds close, sometimes microscopic, detail into a lyrical study of biodiversity and land management.
‘As soon as I started researching the book, I discovered that, of course, you couldn’t subtract the wood from its historical context and the people who had lived there. For at least 800 years, the wood was part of Greys Court manor, and from medieval times onwards, it had to earn its living. So the story of the wood is inevitably the story of humans and economics.’
In medieval times when cooking was done on open fires, Greys Court supplied firewood, as well as timber for construction, to the capital, but when coal was discovered the firewood boom was over:
‘Luckily, ‘explained Richard, ‘the furniture industry came to the rescue, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the woods were full of ‘bodgers’ turning beechwood for chair legs and backs. Then, during the two World Wars, the wood had a new lease of life as a source of tent pegs. Finally, the beechwood was used for brush backs and the Star Brush Company had cutting rights until the 1950s when plastic put wooden brushes out of business. That was probably the last time there was a clear fell through our wood.’
The decipherable history of the land, however, stretches back to time before human exploitation:
‘My training was a geologist, so of course I tried to work out something about the ground on which the wood was standing,’ said Richard. ‘The soil on which the wood grows lies above the chalk, on a layer of so-called “clay with flints”. Mixed in with the flints, you have some “strangers”, probably deposited during or after the last Ice Age, by a sort of proto-river Thames that came all the way from the Midlands. One pebble, which I managed to section, has rounded quartz crystals which look to me as if they derived from rocks that came, originally, from the region of Kidderminster. So you see, just in the geology of the wood we have a huge history stretching back tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or even millions of years.’
Richard’s forensic investigations also revealed intricate relationships between flora and fauna:
‘With the help of a friend, I identified no less than 150 different species of moth, and among them was the wonderfully named Clouded Magpie. The interesting thing about these moths is that they live exclusively on elm, and as we all know, Dutch elm disease has wiped out most of the English elms. I looked a bit more carefully and discovered that growing among the beech trees, but much less conspicuous, were wych elms, a second species of ulmus – not the same as the English elm – and they were making a good recovery in the wood. But I would never have learned about them had it not been for this little moth.’
A born raconteur with an exhaustible fund of expertise and anecdotes, Richard engaged, with great verve, with questions from ‘the floor’, covering everything from ash dieback to rare fungi, pest control, and spiders. The beechwood project, he told his enthralled audience, had rekindled his enthusiasm for ‘nature in the round: ‘After being a specialist for so many years, this was me rediscovering my inner boy. And at heart the small boy never went away. He just came back and fossicked around in the woodland.’