The woods of the North York Moors are, without doubt, my favourite place to walk. Yes, a hike up a fell in the dales is sometimes just the job – a formidable trek as the lowlands give way to exposed limestone hunks; a narrowing path and brittle air; an ascent into cloud and moisture.
But the forest trail is gently yielding. And the forest is a place where the imagination can wander too, a place of eerie depths where the imagination tends to work overtime, provoking pleasantly sublime instincts.
My favourite forest walk starts in the secluded village of Nether Silton and follows the narrow road towards the woods. Turning from the road up onto a bridleway that leads up a steep, woody bank, I climb up into the trees, skirting the edge of the forest, and walk along a ridge with occasional views into the vale below. Ahead, the path turns gently to the right and widens.
Then a fork, and with it, a choice: either following the metalled bridleway straight ahead, or delving deep into the forest proper, a shuddering of creaking pines and an almost eerie darkness. The forest floor is a barren waste of dead pine needles; the trunks of Scots pine almost wholly denuded of branches until the top of the canopy. I can’t help feeling that I could easily get lost.
Of course, there’s no such luck. Hiking in any direction would bring me safely back to civilisation fairly soon, although it wasn’t always this way. Thousands of years ago, the landscape of Britain was dominated by the ‘wildwood’, a vast forest that stretched the length and breadth of the isles. Just how dense this forest was is subject to debate: research in recent decades, focused on ancient beetle remains and native shrubs and trees which thrive in light, suggests that Britain’s primordial forest may have been much more fragmented than we might imagine.
The wildwood gradually disappeared, starting over five thousand years ago with the Neolithic people, who cleared woodland for crops and grazing livestock. Later came the Bronze Age people, who used timber for structures. The Iron Age Celts and the Romans cleared land for grazing. By 1000 AD, perhaps as little as twenty percent of Great Britain was covered by woodland.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, woodland covered just 5% of Great Britain. The Forestry Commission, founded in 1919, began to reforest ancient woodlands, often with non-native species. During the Great Depression, new forests were planted: Dalby in North Yorkshire, Hamsterley in County Durham and Kielder in Northumberland.
In North Yorkshire, we’re lucky. Twenty percent of the North York Moors National Park is covered with forest, and the neighbouring Howardian Hills AONB is similarly swathed in plentiful woodland. The largest plantation, Dalby Forest, is extensive and popular because it offers various activities such as mountain bike hire and high rope outdoor activities. But it’s good to go hiking off the way-marked trails and explore.
Forestry England owns many plantations in the national park. Their woodland has public access guaranteed in perpetuity, meaning visitors can roam and explore on foot. Even land in private ownership, such as Yearsley Moor, owned by Ampleforth Abbey, has an extensive network of public footpaths and bridleways.
Through the seasons, the forest offers a changing and diverse array of nature. In spring, there’s wild garlic, primroses, bluebells, wood sorrel. An early morning walk can bring the sight of a deer. In summer, the forest makes for brilliant walking: dipping in and out of the shade as you explore the riggs and the stacked piles of felled trees. In autumn, the forest is a blaze of mellow colour. Finally, in winter, a walk in the woods is bracing, especially when the sun sinks beneath the hills and a chill envelopes the trees.
Back on the trail in Silton Forest, Black Hambleton is visible through the trees on the eastern riggs of the woodland. Here, I rarely encounter another soul on these inviting paths through the trees. It’s intensely fragrant and light dapples the ground.
The forest excites our imagination like no other place. The forest invites cosiness – a cabin tucked inside the pines, a wreath of blue smoke curling from the chimney. It can also suggest something sinister: a primal fear that still lurks inside all of us.
It’s great to bag peaks sometimes – and when we crave the hills, North Yorkshire delivers – but a woodland walk is just as perfect.