Robert Penn on woodland

Looking down into St Mary's Vale, the Sugarloaf, Monmouthshire

From Dean to Epping, Hatfield to Sherwood; the National Trust manages hundreds of woods, covering over 24,000 hectares (60,000 acres) of England and Wales. In his book Woods, author Robert Penn writes evocatively about our forests: their past, present and future. Here, in an interview with the National Trust Magazine, he tells us a little more about his favourite places in Britain and the challenges facing woodlands today.

What’s your favourite thing about exploring woods in the autumn?

Come autumn, the experience of being in the woods is somehow amplified. The gathering winds, the mushrooms and berries, the leaf colours, the re-opening of the sky and the dramatic changes that take place as the trees re-organise themselves for winter all summon us to the woods.

My favourite thing, though, is to watch a single leaf fall. You need to stop and look up on a still day, around the beginning of November. There is often a feint sound as the stalk snaps off the twig. The leaf then sidles down out of the sky, spinning here, stalling there, twisting and rolling in its half flight and somehow hesitating a moment before touching the earth. Watching a leaf fall only takes a few seconds, but it is a poignant and occasionally poetic moment in the annual cycle of a tree.

Enjoy Blickling's woodland in the autumn
Blickling woodland filled with autumn colour

National Trust woodland covers over 24,000 hectares (60,000 acres) of England and Wales. Is there a particular woodland that is special to you and why?

That’s a tough question. I love Horner Wood on the Holnicote Estate in west Somerset. It is one of the largest, unenclosed ancient woodlands in Britain and you can get properly lost there. There are some 2,000 veteran trees dotted over the steep-sided Exmoor combes, giving the woodland an air of antiquity, especially in winter.

" I love Horner Wood on the Holnicote Estate in west Somerset. It is one of the largest, unenclosed ancient woodlands in Britain and you can get properly lost there."
- Robert Penn

If pushed, though, I would choose St Mary’s Vale, an exquisite wood on the edge of the Black Mountains in south Wales. This type of woodland, known as Atlantic oak wood, is only found in western Britain. The sessile oaks have grown freely into a host of extraordinary shapes, on an amazing carpet of leaves, liverworts and electric green moss. There is a powerful, transcendent sense of place throughout the year, and it’s round the corner from where I live.

Ancient oak trees at Horner Wood
An ancient oak tree in Horner Wood on the Holnicote Estate, Somerset

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing our woodland today?

There are many, I’m afraid. On top of the familiar problems – grey squirrels, deer and poor management or neglect – we now have to factor in climate change and the globalisation of tree pests and pathogens.

Take ash, my favourite tree: it faces an uncertain future, and it’s not the only species we should be worrying about. However, as the aftermath of the Great Storm of 15 and 16 October 1987 showed us, our woodlands are very resilient and, over time, adaptable. There is cause for hope too.

The abridged version of this interview was first published in the National Trust Magazine, Autumn 2017.

Robert Penn's book Woods

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In this National Trust book, Woods: A Celebration, Robert Penn explores the natural history of some of our most iconic British woods. Penn celebrates the trees that give them their characters and reflects on the plants and animals that inhabit them and their changing appearance through the seasons.