A walk in Wytham Woods

Down George Street, the ugliest road in the city centre; straight on through the cyclists’ death-trap (the junction before the bridge); past the pharaonic Saïd Business School, and follow the cycle path; soon, on your right, sheepish Wadham students should be emerging with their granola from the Waitrose across the road; right turn after the graffitied underpass, and up the little path which comes out by the A-road; over the two pelican crossings and left turn onto the slip road. Stop. Dismount your bike (if you’ve been riding one) and wheel it through the gates before you (pictured).

As I walked through the gates for the first time, I started thinking that Clean Bandit had gone over the top by sampling birdsong for Symphony. Then a headphone fell out as I unclipped my helmet, and a more intense woodland soundscape than I had ever heard burst into my vacant ear. It was a true symphony that put Clean Bandit’s to shame. Fancying myself a Thomas Hardy, I leant upon the coppice gate for a moment, but it was not the growing gloom of Winter’s dregs that the birdsong had pierced, but the metropolitanism-riddled recesses of my sad soul, which till then had been choosing to neglect the sounds of the forest in favour of cheap electro-pop.

I had entered into Wytham Woods, an area of ancient woodland that is used by the University for environmental research. It is one of the most researched areas of woodland in the world. The woods have been owned by the University since 1942, when they were bequeathed to it by the ffennel family, after the death of their only daughter. The family wanted the beauty of the woods to be preserved, for them to be continued to be used for education and research, and to be open for the inhabitants of Oxford to enjoy. It is their legacy, then, that we are exploring.

It resists categorisation (which is rather at odds with the zoological and botanical research conducted within it), and this gives it a peculiar mystery

The woods on either side are wild and pathless, but the track is wide and artificial. Even in perfect weather there are few other walkers, but those are of all types, from young families to elderly walking groups; and though signs intimidatingly insist upon private access only, anyone affiliated with the University can get a walking permit for free. It’s like a wild and cultivated, secret and communal garden. It resists categorisation (which is rather at odds with the zoological and botanical research conducted within it), and this gives it a peculiar mystery. There are also strange rustlings in the vegetation by the track, which sometimes seem to follow you as you walk. And you can only wonder what creatures frequent the grassy banks, the fallen trees and the thick undergrowth which lie in the interior, since no path grants access to them. Combine the mystery with the sheer intensity of the green of the grass and the leaves, the dappled sunlight that plays at your feet and of course, the birdsong, and magic is the result. But throughout is also scattered evidence of hard science: little cages, nets and foil trays on sticks (I think they were temperature gauges); an enchanted laboratory is perhaps a good description.

For those of you looking for somewhere to escape the bus fumes, the motorcycle revving, the chock-a-block tourists, or the library LEDs, this is the place. The woods are large enough to accommodate a whole day’s ambulatory thinking (the most productive kind) if you need it. If there’s a heart you want to win over, what could be a more romantic day out? And, as everyone knows, producing an exclusive permit to something is the human equivalent of the male great tit (a notable occupant of Wytham Woods) flashing its beloved with an exceptionally wide belly-stripe. Just don’t tell your companion that you only need fill out a brief Google form to get one: http://www.wytham.ox.ac.uk/visiting.php.