There’s a sense of comfort about the familiar walks that I take. I know where each path will lead and what I can expect to see on the journey. I know where I’m likely to find particular plants and animals and there is satisfaction in being able to mark their progress. But the adventure of the path not yet taken is altogether different. To know roughly where you are, but not quite. To know that there are secrets yet to discover, which perhaps even those who live here are not aware of.
I’m walking to Tocil Wood, a patch of ancient woodland in Warwickshire. I have a rudimentary map in my head and a maze of buildings and footpaths to negotiate. I could have asked for directions, but I prefer to see a path and wonder where it will lead, so I head off into the unknown, sure that I’ll find what I seek eventually, but with that slight disquiet of not knowing exactly where I am. The path I take skirts a pond and is bordered by meadow: a profusion of ox-eye daisies, viper’s bugloss, speedwell and poppies. Rabbits hop among the flowers and scores of waterfowl rummage around the pool.
There’s a gap in the hedge ahead of me, so of course I go through it, finding a lush green path bordering a field of young crops. At its end, a wounded tree forms an archway and what more invitation do I need? Just as I’d suspected it would, this beckoning leads to a moment of magic. A secret hollow. An enchanted, perhaps even slightly sinister place that seems detached from the bright, open world beyond. The hollow is shady, secluded, riddled with rabbit holes and surrounded by steep banks. A baby rabbit grazes among the undergrowth. There is a narrow path in the distance, blocked by trees. But someone has discovered this place, because on the edge of the hollow a swing has been fashioned from wood and rope. It hangs, empty, waiting for its maker to return.
Later, I cross a small meadow of buttercups to reach a lake, fringed with reeds and littered with yellow water lilies. A grey heron is hunched in the trees by the path that leads into the woods, like a grumpy guardian of the border to this arboreal world. It’s a world of huge, gnarled oaks and papery hazel coppice: a four hundred year old wood with traces of more ancient earthworks beneath it. A world of bracken and bluebells. Of small, winding paths. There is a brackish stream, straddled by an ivy-cloaked tree that has rooted on both sides of the water.
I follow narrow paths, deeper into the forest, until I come across a clearing. A glade sheltered by tall old trees that form a natural circle. The ground is blanketed with bracken and bluebells, the sun slants in hazy beams. It is a hushed place, steeped in atmosphere. A space for magic or devotion. The clearing has been enclosed by a thorny barricade, perhaps to conserve it, perhaps because if I was to step into it, it would transport me to a fairy realm from which I’d never return. I long to cross into the clearing, to move between pools of sunlight and the shade of those ancient trees. Instead, I’m stranded at the border, craving the enchantment that is just out of reach.
I visit Tocil Wood twice, briefly, between the work commitments I’m here for. I may never come here again. But already I’ve found my secrets. Those little pockets of enchantment that will endure in my memory of the place. If I was to come again, they would be my pilgrimage places, those pauses that we return to again and again because they spark something inside us. They’ll become part of my memory map of the places I’ve been, the paths I’ve walked, the things I’ve seen, enriching each recollection.