‘And for a hundred years she dreamed while the forest grew around her. Each dream took a whole year, and acorns became oak trees while she dreamed’
This is the end chapter of Sara Maitland’s book ‘Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of our Forests and Fairytales’. Granta Publications 2013’. I picked this book up in a serendipitous look around the bookshop at the Needlemakers in Lewes, where The Frogmore Papers magazine is to be found. I have been reading it over the December disruptions to my normal quiet life and it has taken me back into the land of fairy tale and deep into some of the ancient and not so ancient forests of the British Isles.
I was a fortunate child to have a next door neighbour who was a lover of woods. Mrs Betty Turk appears in a set of my poems about the war and was the person who took me deep into Springpark Woods when I was a small girl. I only remember really the freedom of walking through leaves and leaf mould, the smell of bracken, the sticky stems and overwhelming smell of new bluebell. I became familiar with them and went there on my bicycle and built camps in the bracken as I grew older. I wonder what else Mrs. Turk gave me? A fascination with the foreign and unexpected; her house with its silent refugees, the unknown language, music pouring out of the piano and violin, all this in a tiny pre-war suburban row of houses.
Now I am remembering that there were also refugees across the road. One day I was sent home from school, on the bus and alone, maybe five years old my father still away in the war I think. I was sitting on the doorstep – red tiles in a semi circle pattern that I recognised as the threshold in so many temples in Sri Lanka. Across the road an old man came out and took me into his house, I vaguely knew his grand daughter Mary – she had beautiful curls but she didn’t play with any of us in the street. There was a strange ‘foreign’ smell in the house. They sat me on a straight back, hard wooden chair in a crowded room and the old man kept watch out of the window for my mother and grandmother returning from shopping. Now I wonder about them all. We were all fatherless, parent-less, displaced. My father away in the army and my mother and grandmother displaced to the suburbs from inner London and family, on their ‘way up’.
Now I wish I could ask questions about these people, surely someone knew them and their history, yet I wonder. There was a sense of keeping yourself to yourself there too. Insecure people trying to find a way back into their lives. I am writing about my father’s return, this unknown man entering the family of women. It makes me very aware of being ‘orphaned’ – that there is no-one left to ask.
Heligan was where I lived for many years before it became tourist material and cleaned up. Still if you know where to look there is a sense of mystery and the old places where we used to walk, collect our wood, pick daffodils and make flutes frothe bamboo. I am standing in the gateway of Heligan Mill still lived in by Brenda who came to live ‘in the woods’ over 50 years ago.
So Mrs. Turk introduced me tothe woods and I have loved woodland and forest ever since; sought them out to camp in or near, to walk in and to find a way into the unknown. Sara Maitland tends not to give a lot of weight to the psychological woods and fairyland that many have explored and that attracts me very much. When I was writing stories with children I found many of them went into ‘dark, dark woods’ or ‘deep into the forest’ and that there was change and transformation taking place there. But I do love the way that Sara Maitland identifies fairy stories with particular ‘woody places’. I have gathered together Zipes and Warner and other stories and am going to soak myself in fairyland for a while. I hope that deep within I will find that words spiral, gossip spools out, that the strange and the phantasmagoric constellate into new forms and poems.