PLACE NO: 16 SANDRINGHAM, NORFOLK, ENGLAND
I lay looking upwards into the bronzed leaves of autumn. The land had already started to hibernate and that mellow scent of mould and leaf litter filled my senses. It's too cold to stay in one place for long, but I lie a little longer none-the-less. This is the 'season of mists and mellow fruitfulness' and autumn makes me feel loved but hopeless.
I’ve been reading ‘The Consolations of the Forest’. It's a memoir by Sylvain Tesson about his hermitage on Lake Baikal. He muses on the nature of time, memory, the uselessness of life, all from the stillness of a cedar cabin in the woods. Quietitude stretches out moments - hanging them as though in a gallery. It glorifies them and allows us to examine moments in singularly. It's true that sometimes we need an existential remove to rediscover who we are. But then again, are these self imposed exiles merely giving us the space to indulge in the narcissism that says "we are a product of the soul only and not of our communities."
Tesson also meditates on happiness, deliberating on how we must balance danger and peace, winter and summer ‘never settling, always oscillating from one to the other extremity on the spectrum of sensations.’ Knowing this to be true, I must find a way to work through the sadness that is the onslaught of winter. Winter creates a certain emptiness inside me that’s difficult to alleviate, despite the stolid toilings of my atheistic mind. The world will renew, summer will burn, peace is cyclical and winter will test.
His forest filled my imagination. Permeating all corners like a thick fog. Filling in every crevice, creating borders and salients, building battlements and forts - keeping the riot of real life out of the lucid bounty of my imagination. The forest grew monstrous in my mind. It was black and dense, like deep waters, at once shocking and thrilling and dangerous.
Midsummer, this year, seemed to throw us straight into Samhain, ignoring the equinox as if it meant nothing. And now, I wanted to do nothing more than observe death in the forest. Forests are deep and quiet. The further into a forest you go the quieter it becomes. Just like the closer you are to the suffocating dark of the winter solstice, the more that weight of sonant silence pushes in upon your psyche. It tests the rationality of a consciousness shaped by stories of spirits and magic.
But this is still October and the sun shines golden. Leaves crackle with the colours of fire: oranges, reds, ochres and umbers. They proliferate in the canopy above and drench the forest floor. My boots spring over this spongy carpet, their tips dappled with moisture. The soil is starting to squelch and the ground is carpeted in biscotti coloured acorn hats. Littered below me are glossy chestnuts bursting out of spiked casings, clutches of egg-shaped pinecones and crisp crimson leaves .
Today, I've travelled to the Sandringham Estate in Norfolk with an inquisitive mind and a yearning for arboreal company.
I photograph leaves and trees - identifying them as I go; creating a small checklist of species. It's a meditative process fuelled by inquisition and creativity. I like it a lot.
Beneath me, toadstools multiply around moulding stumps. Some fungi ooze out of broken branches, whilst some glisten with waxy caps or stand upright like honey coloured parasols. Looking upwards tells a different story. Above I see sanguine yew berries clustered on their evergreen boughs, waiting to burst like blisters.
I once heard a story about a friend of a friend who had committed suicide by boiling up a vat of yew leaves into a heady brew and swallowing the vile concoction with a bottle of vodka. She died twisted in her bed sheets like her sinews in agony. Some people say that on a hot day, the sun’s rays can cause yew leaves to expire and create a miasma of psychotropic mist which bewitches those sitting underneath into a slumbering stupor. Heads softly drooping, and snores gently tumbling, we enter the limbo that is unconsciousness - the land between life and death.
Red and native oaks grow side by side, pitting the English against the American. But both alike sprinkle the ground with nutty treats for their squirrelly lodgers. Overhead tower Corsican pines shooting up in uniform lines. Striping the blue sky with white limbs.
Neither are native to our small island, but then again, a lot of the species at Sandringham are not native - is it an amalgamation of arboreal love strewn by aristocrats across the Norfolk landscape? Or a travesty of ecological management? I cannot tell.
The more natural Scot’s pine, with its heady scent and more painter friendly silhouette, stands black against the setting sun. I head deeper into the undergrowth and push my way though the birch leaves, dropped in their thousands like leaflets advertising the end of days. Then, I find my way back to where I started. Was civilisation a welcome relief? How long had I been gone? Six months alone in Siberia? Or 160 minutes in a paved wood, a couple of acres in size?
I don’t find it unreasonable that our neolithic ancestors would pray for spring, or indeed for the sun to rise - because sometimes these things don’t feel inevitable. Is it the sublime immenseness of trees that make us feel this fragile? Or the sudden realisation that we must be stopped as a species. That it is us and only us, that could ever create a darkness from which we will never return?
Sandringham Woods, the Queen's own private property, is open to the public all year round and is a 10 minute drive outside of Kings Lynn. Parking is free, and I'd recommend stopping for lunch, as the food is always good, and the tea respectable. Just recently, I had a partridge and pork terrine with toast and a salad sprinkled with a zingy mustard dressing which really hit the spot. You can visit all year round, but there is something about October colours that really bring the place to life.