This article was written for Annabel & Grace, which is now part of Rest Less.
I think perhaps Winter is my favourite time to walk through a forest with my dogs, well, apart from Spring, Summer and Autumn, that is!
It’s always so peaceful and quiet, and if you are very still, you can hear, or perhaps I should say feel, the soft breath of sleep, like everything is just gently slumbering, dreaming of spring. In my mind’s eye I instantly see Dormice, neatly curled, their noses under their tails and hedgehogs, gently snoring at the base of trees or under piles of discarded leaves and branches. There is that wonderful pungent odour, a mix of musky, damp, loam tinged with the sharp sweetness of death. The ground is soft and squidgy underfoot like a well-laid carpet, the tan and orange leaves have turned black, now peppered with fine, silver cobwebs. Everywhere there are neat, emerald mounds of moss and abundant arrangements of various fungi. There are tiny creamy domes on long, thin, spindly stems bending in clusters like teenagers at a dance, the penny bun, fat and squat, looking like freshly baked bread, its shiny chestnut colour complimenting the oak and conifers it so favours, but most magic of all is the Fly Agaric. Flashes of bright scarlet, its fluted stem with its raised, ivory spots, enchantingly toxic and the home of faeries and magical creatures since the dawn of time, so recognisable.
Together we wander aimlessly, not in a hurry, nowhere to be except here, appreciating the alchemy that is, of itself, a forest. We see no one on our little morning jaunt, but then it is rather cold again, the hoar frost still clinging stubbornly to the flora like everything has been dusted with tiny, white crystals, silently sparkling where the thin light catches it.
Growing up in the middle of central London, we were lucky in that we could easily walk to Kensington Gardens, Battersea Park or Hyde Park, and we were never very far away from well-manicured formal gardens, their grand houses all around in neat squares. For children like us, though, these were only ever to be observed through railings, never entered, their ‘private’ status jealously guarded. So much greenery, but it was not the same as wild woods or an open forest, a place where my senses were bombarded by strangeness, and my imagination ran riot, expecting bears and even big cats to be hiding behind every log and tree, ready to leap out at me.
Very occasionally, as children, we would be bundled into the car with the dog and driven to Epping Forest, but we learned to sit absolutely silent, lest my father should take offence at something, get cross and drive us all home again, never even setting foot out of the car. Sadly this was not uncommon and perhaps because we were children, we learned to find it funny. I cannot tell you how many times we drove to the coast, the forest, Hampstead Heath only to get all the way there and because there wasn’t an instant parking space, the dog cocked his leg on the cars tyre, or on one occasion, my father got hit on the head by bird poo, and instantly we would all be bundled back into the car and driven home in silence, our picnic eaten on our bedroom carpet with my mother. So used were we with this routine that my sisters and I would take bets on how far we’d actually get or if we’d eat our egg sandwiches at the desired destination. It’s bizarre now looking back how sanguine we were about these little forays, how accepting and cheerful, making it about the car ride itself, the egg sandwiches, and seeing the comedy in the situation, though I accept that in retrospect, it must have been very different for my mother.
Perhaps though, because it was such a rare treat, once independent and driving, I have spent hour upon hour in the sacred solitude of the forest. It never ceases to make me feel at one with nature and the earth and replenishes my soul, making me feel utterly alive, regardless of the season. There is so much to see and smell, so much to enjoy and appreciate, accompanied as I am by the ghosts of all the dogs I have ever owned that have trod the ferny floor alongside me, their noses scenting wildly, their tails wagging frantically as we pick our way through. Sitting on a fallen tree, Arthur and Ila beside me, stroking soft ears, my furry friends from years gone by settle down quietly at our feet, heads rested on muddy paws. Four German Shepherds, a Dachshund, a Dachshund cross, two Leonbergers, a Jack Russell and a Heinz 57 are all still here, my memories bridging the divide out here in the open so that we can still enjoy our walks together.
Eventually, endorphins popping, and we make our way back to the car, my Shiba’s fur like Teflon so that I never have to worry about debris coming with them, and I start the engine. Looking in my rearview mirror, I see my past friends all lined up at the edge of the trees, tails wagging. Arthur has taken note and is watching them, ears alert as we leave. Smiling, I whisper my goodbyes in the sure understanding that they will never leave me, their individual characters still vivid, my mind contented as we pull out of the car park and make our way back onto the open road to go home, boiled eggs already prepared on the kitchen counter.