There are times when you follow the tracks around Fingle Woods and you can sense the atmosphere of ancient woods around you. There are times when, between the trees, you can see evidence on the ground of how the woods may have looked in the past, and there are days when you can actually touch the past and even help to save it for future generations.
As the restoration of the ancient woodland continues, more of these stories of Fingle’s past will be carefully revealed and preserved as the rows of conifers are cut and the forest reclaims its age-old woodland character. Back in the 19th century when the Ordnance Survey maps were drawn by hand, they recorded a moment in time when the ancient oak woods and surrounding fields were about to change. As an example of this, the black and white map of the late 1800s shows a row of fields along the higher ground to the south of the river Teign as open grazing land.
As the next version of the map was drawn in 1905 the strip of three meadows had been covered with young conifers. Records show that larch was the first of the timber crops to be planted in the area that has since been known as Willingstone Plantations. After that time, the initial planting of larch has been felled and replanted with Douglas fir which today are becoming substantial timber trees in their own right. In spite of all this upheaval, one tell-tale feature remains; a memoir of the changing landscape. The story of the original ancient woodland boundary still stands among the trees, a little run down by time but it resists the ravages of decades of neglect.
Gnarled oak stumps survive and grand old beech trees stand along the tumbling stone wall that once divided the woods from the farmland. Taking a few steps along the track beside the rocky relic and the changes become clear. On the lower side of the wall a few oak remnants are waiting to be rescued from the captivity of the densely planted conifers and, on the other side, the regular sized ranks of Douglas fir tower over what was once all fields. There are no oaks to be seen.
The woodland restoration work here has been planned in careful stages. Though forestry machines will be needed to thin out the lines of tightly packed conifers, their heavy weight impact can be diminished. A route has been cut beside the precious old boundary to guide the mechanical harvester, keeping it on track, and local contractor Pete Newick took a moment to stand back and said “it’s good to give these old oaks some space to grow”. Brash piles have been strategically placed to provide a wildlife haven and to keep this century’s tracks away from the historic wall. Once the conifers are removed the additional sunlight can bring life back to the old broadleaves along this boundary which will then have the chance to do their original job of marking out the edge of the ancient woodlands for all to see.
by Matt Parkins