Friday, 8 September 2017

Sacred Spaces of Milton Keynes

I will be leading a creative walk through Milton Keynes on Sunday 1st October, for the community organisation Back to Books, one of a series of walks they are commissioning to celebrate parks and gardens, woods and water, crafts and industry.

We will work as a group to create temporary art installations in some of the locations, reflecting on the spiritual and metaphysical designs, structures and geometry that can be found in the unique town of Milton Keynes.
The event is free and there is a free bus to and from Corby, or you can meet us in Milton Keynes.

The walk will be about 4 miles with a stop for a picnic, please bring your own! 
Places are limited, so please book via the Eventbrite page.

Back to Books' project is funded by Awards for All and Tesco Bags of Help.

I hope you can join us.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Introducing Imagining Woodlands' collaborators: Freya Sierhuis

Dr Freya Sierhuis teaches English literature at the University of York. By training a historian who specializes in Renaissance literature and literary culture, particularly of religious writing and of the stage, she has in recent years branched out into the field of ecocriticism and the environmental humanities.

At York, she teaches a module on literature and the environment which offers a variety of historical and critical perspectives on our relation to the environment, ranging from the poetry of Wordsworth and John Clare, to classics of nature writing, such as Thoreau’s Walden and Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, to the novels of Aboriginal writer and activist Alexis Wright. Drawing on studies in literary criticism, nature writing, and philosophy, it asks the question of what constitutes environmental literature, how such literature shapes environmental consciousness and action, and how new perspectives generated by the emergence of ecocriticism raise questions about the relationship between human perception and the natural world, and our co-existence as human beings in the larger living organism of the earth.
“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it”.
Søren Kierkegaard
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in”.   
John Muir
A keen hiker and mountain walker, Freya is interested in the relationship between walking, writing and thinking. The connection between walking and philosophy as we know it from Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker and Thoreau’s essay ‘Walking’ is part of a tradition whose roots stretch back far into history; perhaps to the very origins of philosophy with the peripatetic philosophers of ancient Greece. Walking, writers like Rebecca Solnit and Frédéric Gros have argued, can be a form of liberation through the crossing of spatial geographical and personal boundaries, and through the freedom afforded by simplicity and self-reliance. Yet walking also affords a particular kind of knowledge or insight, both of the self and of the walked landscape. The act of walking itself involves a kind of knowing that is both sensory, cognitive and embodied, reliant on physical sensation, movement, sight and smell as a medium for thought. Nature writers often describe this sort of knowledge as a process, rather than an outcome, and view it as ever-developing, and open-ended, rather than fixed, stable and finite.
“People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love — and to defend what we love we need a particularising language, for we love what we particularly know.”
Wendel Berry

Walking can also be a way of retrieving, recuperating specific forms of knowledge about the natural world. In our late-capitalist, urbanized, and increasingly digital culture, time-honoured forms of knowledge of our natural surroundings are beginning to fall into abeyance. Words to describe the natural world, its flora, fauna, soil- and weather conditions are, as Robert Macfarlane noted in Landmarks, disappearing from our dictionaries and vocabularies at alarming rate and speed. If language does indeed shape perception, and if the limits of our language constitute the limits of our world, such a process of linguistic impoverishment must inevitably have a detrimental effect upon our relationship to nature.

Walking, then, Freya claims, can function as form of cultural resistance against environmental ‘forgetfulness’, by enabling an imaginative and affective re-possession of the landscapes that were shaped by centuries of human coexistence with the natural world. Beyond and behind the routes marked out on the Ordinance Survey map lies a myriad of itineraries and pathways, parish boundaries, pilgrimage routes and Holloways, many of them now sunk into oblivion. Taking imaginative possession of a landscape thus makes it possible to ‘read’ its physical and linguistic signs and features, to know the etymology of place names, and to understand how geography and environment evolved over time.  It is here that environmental activism and literary criticism converge. For the language of place, the ‘particularising language’ of which Wendel Berry speaks has common ground with literary criticism in its attention to what is historically specific, singular, and irreducible.

Such intimate attention to the particularity of place we can find for instance in the work of John Clare (1793-1864), perhaps England’s best, and certainly most radically innovative, nature poet. Clare was born in Helpston, Northamptonshire, and witnessed the transformation of the rural landscapes of his youth in the wake of the industrial revolution and the enclosure movement. As a naturalist, his knowledge far exceeds that of other Romantic poets like Wordsworth. Clare’s bird poems betray an intimate but entirely unsentimental understanding of animal behaviour, while a poem like ‘A Copse in Winter’ requires the reader to make the link between the woodland practice of coppicing, and the appearance of flowers in summer.

Yet Clare’s poetry does not simply celebrate the beauty of a vanishing world in a pastoral, elegiac mode, rather, it creates through its language a poetics of resistance. Clare’s highly personal, idiosyncratic spelling and frequent use of dialect words (eliminated by his editor John Taylor, but reinstated in most modern editions) shape a poetic voice that is as unique as it is specific to the particularities of place: only in Northamptonshire is a song thrush called a ‘throstle’, a ladybird a ‘lady-cow’. Local language, Clare knew, conveys forms of knowledge that is historically and locally specific, and which is often lost in attempts of classification or systematization. Throughout his career Clare rejected any form of language that was abstract and universalizing, and whose rules he associated with the rationalist, efficiency-driven impetus behind the enclosure movement. He had no patience with grammar, which he viewed as a tyrannical form of constraint on the freedom of language. A skilled herbalist, he was indifferent to the grand classificatory work of Linneaean botany, yet discovered in the vernacular language of plants and flowers something that filled him with delight, something which he regarded as a kind of poetry. Rather than nostalgic, or backward-looking, Clare’s poetic language is radical in the sense that it articulates a claim, made explicit in poems like ‘To a fallen Elm’, that the land belongs to those who truly know it, rather than to those who merely own it.

If you have any favourite literary quotes about woodlands, please send them to us at and we will share them.

Images in this post by Jo Dacombe.

This post was originally posted as a newsletter on 8 July 2017

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Introducing Imagining Woodlands' collaborators: Suzi Richer

Scanning electron microscope image of pollen grains

Dr Suzi Richer works in palaeoecology, in particular studying sub-fossil* pollen grains to start to reconstruct past ecologies and environments.

Suzi is interested in how palaeoecology interacts with other disciplines to broaden understanding and interpretations of environments over time. She is interested in “flattening knowledge structures” and sharing knowledge, not just from experts such as archaeologists and biologists, but also from oral histories and people’s local knowledge of their area.

Recently Suzi, in conjunction with Dr Benjamin Gearey from University College Cork, Ireland, has been talking and writing about “ecocritical palaeoecology”, which broadly means the way that palaeoecology can contribute towards the way we think, write, speak and respond to current global ecological and environmental problems. This crosses scientific and archaeological study with cultural responses.

Suzi instigated the Imagining Woodlands project to explore how cross disciplines such as palaeoecology, art and literature, can interact to connect us to woodlands and examine our cultural perceptions of woodlands.  Suzi has extensive experience undertaking pollen analysis and studying woodland, and will bring her knowledge to the project.

Follow this link to see Suzi and her colleague Ben Gearey explaining the idea of ecocritical palaeoecology at the Theoretical Archaeology Group Conference last December - where Jo and Suzi met and first dreamed up the Imagining Woodlands project!

How do you imagine the woodlands of the past? Where do you think your idea of the past comes from and what are the cultural influences that affect this? Send us your thoughts at

Next update:  Introducing Dr Freya Sierhuis, Lecturer in literature at the University of York.

This post was originally posted as a newsletter on 23 June 2017.

Image by Dartmouth College Electron Microscope Facility - Source and public domain notice at Dartmouth College Electron Microscope Facility ([1], [2]), Public Domain,

*a stage before full fossilisation.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Introducing Imagining Woodlands' collaborators: Jo Dacombe

Imagining Woodlands is a cross-disciplinary project. Our next few updates will introduce each of the project collaborators, who all work in different areas and are coming together for this project, bringing their different perspectives to the work.

Old Law Beacons, Kings Wood, Corby 2014

First up is artist Jo Dacombe. Jo has created a number of art projects in and about woodlands over recent years. She is interested in the way that art can connect us with the sensory environment of woodlands and landscapes. Often Jo's art projects involve creative walks, participatory activity and moments to tune in to our sensory perception. She uses a variety of media and art forms, often as site specific work engaging with a sense of place.

The Hunter and the Hunted, Colwick Wood, Nottingham 2015
a storytelling walk by Sidelong

Jo collaborates often. She has been commissioned to work in woodlands to explore their history and heritage, through storytelling, family events, art installations in woods and through collaborating with other artists.

Jo is also interested in archaeology. She began working alongside archaeology in 2013, with her collaborative practice Sidelong with Laura-Jade Vaughan. Sidelong worked with Trent Archaeology to create a project about the caves of Nottingham.

This led on to Jo working as artist in residence alongside zooarchaeologists at the University of Leicester over two years, resulting in The Reliquary Project. Although this project pursued an interest in bones, the project also brought her back to landscape and thinking about how archaeologists read landscapes in different ways.

Bone Forest, drawing made for The Reliquary Project, 2016

The project also connected her with other archaeologists, including in the Wyre Forest and with the University of York. These archaeologists were working in woodlands and, with Jo's ongoing interest in woods and archaeology, their conversations began to form the Imagining Woodlands project.

For Imagining Woodlands, Jo is interested in ways in which she might respond artistically to the science and archaeological evidence of woods, and how a creative approach might connect people imaginatively with woodlands research.

Continuum, a time travelling woodland walk, Thoroughsale Wood, Corby 2017

Next update:  introducing project collaborator Dr Suzi Richer, palaeoecologist and research associate in Archaeology and Environment.

All images in this post by Jo Dacombe, except Sidelong photo taken by Matthew Vaughan.

This post was originally posted as a newsletter on 6 May 2017.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Forests, Woodlands - Your responses

We had a great response from our readers on the post "Woodlands - Forests - What's the Difference?" Here is a selection of some of the replies we received, ranging from the factual to the poetic. Thanks to everybody who joined the conversation.

When you close your eyes and imagine a forest, what do you see? And how is that different from what you imagine as a woodland?
The forest is thick with trees and dark... the woodland has open spaces, is lighter and there are varying shades of colour and light throughout.
The forest in my imagination consists mainly of conifers which go on for miles and miles.  The woodland in my imagination is smaller and has glades and rides and small streams and lakes with people and wildlife benefiting from all these things.
It's interesting that I should see them this way as my role as a social forester... woodland management for me is mainly done by hand through sustainable methods such as coppicing - which leads to something similar to what I imagine to be a woodland.  However the word forester suggests I would work in something more like the forest from my imagination using machinery and chainsaws.
Kirsten Manley

For me, and this links back to my childhood living in Canada, I imagine deciduous forests when I imagine the word "forest". It reminds me of my childhood running in the woods, going on hikes, and spending time with my family. Whereas woodlands have always been something from a fairytale, specifically English fairy tales, that should have woodland creatures, Robin Hood's and the like. As a result, my idea of a woodland is purely fantasy and is for some reason always associated with a hidden grove or picturesque field on the edge of a walkable woodland as a setting. So for myself, the difference is reality versus fantasy.
Charlotte Black

In the Wyre Forest. Photo by Jo Dacombe

Common question, lots of different answers across space and time too...
The feeling at the meeting I was at the other day that woodlands are a British thing and forests are a continental and American thing...
Suzi Richer

The thoughts of wood and forest instantly conjure up our collective human awe and whispered reverence, of whatever is obscured in the world, both in nature and in spirit. The difference to me is that woods are small, local, friendly and familiar. The trees are well spaced and the undergrowth is deep as it scrambles around in dappled light. The woods woosh and creak and hoot and scuttle. The woods have a dawn chorus and a cacophonous roost. They shout in the Summer; “Come and climb my trees!”. They groan from their loaded lushness in August… “Come soon and relieve me of my heavy bounty. Prepare to kick leaves and collect conkers.” They shiver on the whitening air of Winter: “Tread softly now, we are sleeping.” And soon there are Snowdrops and Violets and Bluebells and last minute digging for stashed hoardes. “Oh…are we to start again? Splish splosh, then let’s get ON with it!

That Forest which jumps around enigmatically in our (usually so clear) minds’ eye, avoiding our direct glance and glamouring the view into its interior… That Forest is Dark. That forest invades your mind with stealthy fears of twisted boughs and sickened roots and shifting corners beyond your gaze. Gaze on…it will entrap your consciousness, remove your beliefs and replace them with something not of this world - that forest. Mostly, it is silent. The noise it makes cannot be heard with your pretty, clever, fleshy ear. But it speaks a roar that we all know. It screams; “If you value your teeth and your tongue, STAY AWAY FROM ME!” It places the notion firmly in your gut; “Do not play with me if you won’t forfeit your soul. DO NOT play near me even if you think you might want to be emptied and spat to the lurking Crows (who know to stay above and beside me, rather stalking the fields than even caw at This Forest.) Wise birds those Crows – See you follow their lead.” As through decaying stumps and rotting hapless wild things’ frozen jaws, IT chokes out, as it turns its ivy cloaked back; “Consider that your final warning.”
Clare Jackson


Woodland at Beacon Hill, Leicestershire. Photo by Andrew Postlethwaite

For me, woods are an area of land that is covered in trees. Some are managed to produce crops of wood and timber, others are wild or feral. As someone who enjoys being in the countryside and now makes a living riding mountain bikes, I spend a lot of time in woods and love being amongst trees. I find them restful but endlessly engaging places to be. There is always something new to experience and enjoy.
Forests mean two, very different, things to me. The first is “forest” which is legal term for a medieval crown hunting area. It was managed to encourage large game, particularly deer. In these areas there were particular laws about protecting the game for hunting and punishing (or at least raising revenue from) people who infringed upon the sole right of the crown to take game. Whilst the forests are no longer legal entities they often retain the personality of this former use. They often retain a feel of being “different” from place that were not forests.
“Forestry”, by contrast is an area where trees, usually conifers are managed as an arable crop to be harvested when mature or when the value of the crop is highest. This term appears to have come into Britain after the Second World War (though I stand ready to be corrected on that). They are often monocultural as befits an arable crop. As such, though they are often pleasant, they hold less of a joyous experience for me.
Andy Whincup
A forest might have only one species while a woodland will have several species.... What does Oliver Rackham say??
Dale Thomso

Good question. So we looked it up in The History of the Countryside by Oliver Rackham, 1986:

"Woods are land on which trees have arisen naturally. They are managed by the art of woodmanship to yield successive crops of produce in a perpetual succession. When cut down the trees replace themselves by natural regrowth."

"The word 'forest' has been much abused in its history. In this book I use it only in two distinct senses. A Forest (spelt with a capital F) is land on which the king (or some other magnate) has the right to keep deer. This is the original sense of the word: to the medievals a Forest was a place of deer, not a place of trees. If a Forest happened to be wooded it formed part of the wood-pasture tradition; but there were many woodless Forests...I also use forestry in the modern sense as the art of managing plantations. Historians of modern forestry often fall into the trap of assuming that it is the successor of the medieval Forest system, but the two have little in common but the name."

Interestingly, Rackham's definitions of woodlands, Forests and forestry all involve the interaction of humans with trees, and are not about trees being from a world of nature separate from us. I feel the idea of nature as "other" is a much more recent concept. Something we will discuss more in our project, no doubt.

In the next update:  An introduction to the first of Imagining Woodlands' collaborators, artist Jo Dacombe.

As ever, thanks for following.

This post was originally posted as a newsletter on 21 April 2017.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

What are we planning next?

In our project, we hope to explore perceptions of woodlands in the UK by bringing different people together with various expertise and ideas. This will include perspectives from art, science, archaeology and literature. Importantly, we also hope to include people who live and work locally to woodlands, and integrate their viewpoints in the project.

Our initial online conversations have been really useful so far, so thanks to everybody who has been joining in, either in response to these email updates or via the twitter account @imagwoods. We are currently collating your responses about the difference between Forests and Woodlands, and will post these in the next couple of weeks.

We also plan to organise events in woodlands around the country, and we are currently making funding applications in order to do this.

Meanwhile, we will be posting short introductions to the people who are currently involved in Imagining Woodlands, with insight into their practice. They are a fascinating bunch!

If you have anything to share relating to woodlands, we welcome contributions, so do send it to us to keep the conversation going! You can email us at

So in the spirit of sharing, here's a seasonal tree tradition from Medievalist Eleanor Parker (@ClerkofOxford):

"On Palm Sunday eve, people went 'palming' to collect willow, box or yew branches - originally to be blessed at church, later just for fun."

and here's the extract from Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain by Ronald Hutton that describes this practice:

This post was originally posted as a newsletter on 9 April 2017.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

What's the difference?

When we were planning the Forests and Woodlands questionnaire (you can read the results in the March newsletter at this link), we started to talk about the difference between a "woodland" and a "forest". I didn't get into that in the first survey, it would have become too long - so the question remains open.
One of our survey respondents did touch on this. When asked about their first thought regarding forests and woodlands, they wrote:
"Forests aren't woodlands. After that it's trees (which don't necessarily occur in forests)"

If you work in an occupation that involves you with forests, you will probably know that there is a legal classification of what comprises a "forest", for the purposes of land use in planning. A forest is a legally defined area under management - which may or may not include any trees or vegetation!

If you try to look up the definition of a forest, you will come up with a number of other answers too, with can vary depending on which country you are in.

If, like me, you don't work in planning or a forest related occupation, you may have a different perception of what is "woodland" and what is "forest". When you close your eyes and imagine a forest, what do you see? And how is that different from what you imagine as a woodland? Rather than official definitions, I'd be interested to know what we feel is the difference between a woodland and a forest.

I know what I think, and I will reveal that at a later date - but not now, for fear of biasing your own opinion! But I think there is more to it than just the size of an area of trees. I'm not sure this merits another survey, but I would love to hear your thoughts:

In your imagination, what's the difference between a forest and a woodland?

Please email us a couple of sentences to  I will collate any responses at a later date and share them with you.

Thanks for following.

This post was originally posted as a newsletter on 31 March 2017 by Jo Dacombe.