In my blog yesterday I decided after reading Melissa Harrison’s new book Rain to go for a walk to Wistman’s Wood (SX6177) in the rain -see here and that is exactly what I did. When I left Exeter if wasn’t raining at all but by the time I had reached Postbridge there were sheets of fine rain blowing in from the south west – moorland drizzle known locally as mizzle. I arrived at the car park opposite the Two Bridges Inn – it was surprisingly full for such a wet day but I fortunately got the last parking space.
I know this type of weather very well – from inside the car the fine rain looks innocuous but once you are in it you discover that although the droplets are tiny the air is laden with water. Always wear overtrousers, a heavy walking coat with a hood and walking boots in such weather – otherwise you will be soaked within 10 minutes.
It is a 30-40 minute walk from the car park to the wood and once I had got to the moor I discovered why the car park was full – there are a caterpillar of undergraduates making their way to the wood as well – I soon caught up with the tail enders – they had not followed my clothing advice and I suspect the reality of studying an environmental science degree was denting their enthusiasm for it. I dropped down to the lower part of the wood nearest the West Dart to avoid the begraggled crowd. I had brought my camera and a tripod to take some photographs of this special place.
I am not alone in feeling this – over the centuries many myths and legends have been produced – see here for a summary. For example an early Druid oak grove, the home of the Devil’s dogs – The Wisht Hounds, a place overrun by adders and the most haunted place on Dartmoor.
I always want to think that Wistman’s Wood is a relic of the original wildwood that clothed Dartmoor 8000 years ago – unfortunately the evidence doesn’t support such a theory. The oldest trees in the wood appear to be only 400 years old although I suspect that woodland here has ebbed and flowed over the centuries responding to the grazing of animals and the requirement for firewood. Perhaps its reputation as a haunted and sacred place meant people left it alone and allowed the trees to persist.
The strangest thing about Wistman’s Wood (and the other high altitude oak woods on Dartmoor Black a Tor and Piles Copses) is the species of oak growing in them. On Dartmoor our surviving Valley oak woods such as those along the Dart and the Teign are dominated by sessile oak (Quercus petrea) – the oak of the English, Welsh and Scottish uplands. However Wistman’s Wood contains no sessile oak and is dominated by the English Oak (Quercus robur) – the oak of the British lowlands. A mystery indeed.
When I was researching my talk ‘Fingle from the wildwood‘ I found a paper by IG Simmons which gave some pollen diagrams for the early history of Dartmoor’s vegetation and woodlands – you can read his paper here. These pollen diagrams are produced by coring into a column of peat and then looking for the microscopic pollen grains that have been trapped within them. Pollen grains can be identified to species and the deeper down the column they are the older they are – these different depths can then be dated.
The interesting thing is that these pollen diagrams seem to only contain English oak pollen and not sessile oak pollen – something Simmons discusses. More research is required to unravel this intriguing anomaly. Maybe just maybe as with the Tortworth sweet chestnut (see here) and the small-leaves limes I mentioned in that blog the above ground oaks are only 400 years old but their sub surface roots are much older – pure speculation ……
Simmons wrote about the high altitude oak woods on Dartmoor – see here.
A perfect afternoon out and as a result of my clothing only my hair got wet.