There is always a reason you are called to a specific landscape at a certain time, and the call to Burnham Beeches has been insistent ever since my return to Old Blighty, where if you are still and quiet you may be able to hear the message whispered upon the breeze. It’s been a while since we at ‘In the Chimehours’ have posted, but my feet are now firmly settled back on English soil and I’m ready to write! Actually, since returning home (and sticking my feet deep into the rich, ancient soil upon which I have spilt my blood, sweat and tears), there has been a slight shift in focus. I’m sure you will notice the difference in the material well be posting in upcoming articles, but for now we head back to the Whispering Woods of Burnham…
These woods have held me in thrall and deep admiration since I was my son’s age, and I once again found myself wandering amongst veteran pollarded Beech and Oak a few weekends ago. The distinctive shapes caused by the upper branches of these trees being allowed to grow when pollarding ceased about 200 years ago happens to be one of my longest standing memories of this place, and one of the forest’s well-loved features. These trees are the survivors from centuries ago when this area was mainly wood pasture, and what lends to the impact of this unique place.
Upon entering the ancient forest, one which once covered most of Buckinghamshire, Berkshire (the county Burnham was originally located in before the county borders were moved) and North Hampshire, the first thing you notice is the stillness. Crackling branches and crushed leaves underfoot are at times the only things that break that unreal silence, other times it is the whispering, the murmuring which builds in the deep dark places. A silence that fills the air thickly, not an empty silence, but one with a presence. A very strong presence. For a woodland which is now an oasis of calm surrounded by modern day life, and minutes from the M25, it always takes the unsuspecting by surprise, but memories came flooding back as soon as my feet fell softly upon the damp, sun-dappled floor.
It has been quite a few years since I was here last, and I made the most of the time I had wandering the truly diverse landscape of ancient woodland, wood pasture, deep ponds and glistening streams. You may, if you are lucky even spot the occasional Adder slithering through the grasslands. The acidic heathland populated by Heathers, Heath Milkwort, Betony, Gorse, Broom and old Junipers, lead into mire and bog. These damper areas contain a number of species of Bog Moss, Water Mint, the delicate Marsh Violet, Wood Club-rush, Wood horsetail, Water-lilies, the Yellow Iris, and Bog Bean that is beautiful when in flower. The woods themselves at certain times of year are littered with Bluebells, Woodruff, Wood Anemone, and rings of Amanita Muscaria. In the Summer when the shade and shadows beneath the trees are at their deepest, tiny white flowers appear to litter the forest floor where nothing else blooms: the evocatively named Enchanter’s Nightshade (the Circaea is not a member of the Nightshade family, Solanaceae, but was named after enchantress Circe who was supposed to have used enchanter’s nightshade in her magic), which was once called Aelfthone by the Anglo-Saxons and was used in charms against the wily ways of Elves.
The Fleet Wood and New Coppice are another two areas that draw me back time and time again. These areas were taken from the common land and made into Coppice Woods. Coppiced trees are those that are cut at ground level to produce regular crops of straight branches. These straight branches were used in a manner of ways, but are very handy if you require a stang of hazel, oak or beech. I don’t always use a straight stang myself, my favourite ‘riding pole’ is fantastically crooked and twisted – A little serpentine to say the least.
Lost in a reverie, I was startled by the cawing of a Crow just a few feet away from where I was standing. The filtered sunlight catching on it’s dark feathers, reflecting tones of emerald and sapphire, as it cocked it’s head my way, hopped a few paces deeper into the woods and paused on the roots of an old Beech tree. I had gained a companion for the day, as it seemed wherever I strolled that darkly jeweled beauty wasn’t far away.
The Beech’s snake-like roots speak of wisdom and rebirth, but to be reborn one must first die. Crossing thresholds can be a daunting challenge, rife with uncertainty and change. It’s always easier for us to stay with what we know, that comforting familiarity with ‘the way things are’, but to crawl out of our stagnant situations we must confront our fears head on, be willing to step out of our comfort zones and take a leap of faith. Not every question can be answered straight away, nor every step accounted for and planned meticulously. The Beech speaks of using the ancient knowledge as revealed through dreams, vision, old objects and the wild places to gain insight about the future, and to provide a measure of protection when stepping into new territory. Beechwood has been placed in pockets of travelers for luck and protection on roads unknown for many a century.
When growing so near to the Hazel it speaks of rising beyond the personal limitations we have set for ourselves. It reminds us that nothing is impossible, even if we may not see a clear path to where we desire to be. There is a piece of folklore I learned many moons ago whilst wandering beneath these same pollarded Oak and Beech. I was told by a man who had storytelling in his blood that the Beech was once widely known as ‘The Wishing Tree’. Rods, representing wishes, were tied to its branches, and the breeze would carry them away to be fulfilled when the time was right. Or that if one has a need or a want you should inscribe your wish onto a sliver of Beech wood, or a fallen branch, and push it into the ground. Your desire is then carried swiftly by the hands of Fagus into the deep, the Underworld, for the consideration of the Queen of Elphame herself. These wishes were granted more often than not, but not in the way one would expect. Oft times men and women were left wishing they had never made their initial wish to begin with, and therein lies the simple advice: “Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.”
The jeweled Crow soared from the Beech within the forest, across the clearing, and came to rest upon a mighty Oak. The wind changed and a new set of whispers were carried upon the breeze. He whispers of patience, endurance and strength. He speaks of weathering storms, of standing fast, of traveling deep and holding tight. Thick, intricately carved doors bar the way, His wood heavy and solid against the hands, it does not ‘give’ like some other woods. It has braved lightning strikes and many a storm, yet still stands strong. The strength we need to open this gate is not brute strength, as nothing will budge these doors unless they themselves want to open for you. If you listen closely and have patience, like the acorn we can achieve much from such humble beginnings, you may be granted the password and permission to enter. What you will receive on the Otherside no one can say. The Land will give you what you need, not necessarily what you want, when you need it the most; if you approach the Land with reverence and respect.
Burnham Beeches has been used as a site for Witchcraft for many a year.
Here, deep within the forest the Old Ones still linger. Watching. The forgotten gates, hidden and barred, lay in wait for those who have gained the keys to enter; those who would become their guardians, and restore them to their former glory. Altars of years gone by, lost within the gloom of the sands of time, await their rediscovery. The hair will rise all over your body, skin set a-tingling, as the watchful gaze of familiar eyes are felt. Ancient eyes. The air will thicken and murmuring will be heard from all directions and none, as dark figures meander at the edges of your vision. The head flares. The shadows lurk here. They dance around the long-dead tree, course and careen amongst the haunted Bluebells where the wise would only tip-toe or enter not at all, flitting from tree to tree, from shade to shade. Waiting and watching for an offering. An offering cast deep.
When monks, by holy church well schooled,
Were lawyers, statesmen, leeches.
Cured souls and bodies, judged or ruled,
Then flourished Burnham beeches,
Skirting the convent’s walls of yore,
As yonder ruin teaches.
But shaven crown and cowl no more
Shall darken Burnham beeches.
Here bards have mused, here lovers true
Have dealt in softest speeches.
While Sun’s decline and parting, threw
Their gold o’er Burnham beeches.
O, ne’er may woodman’s axe resound.
Nor tempest making breaches.
In the sweet shade that cools the ground
Beneath our Burnham beeches.
- Excerpt from “Burnham Beeches” by Henry Luttrell
Text – Sarah-Jayne Farrer
“The Offering” © Sarah-Jayne Farrer & Matt Baldwin-Ives
All Other Images © Matt Baldwin-Ives (www.milescross.co.uk)