To the west of Oxford, beyond the city’s dreaming spires, lie Wytham Woods. This expanse of ancient woodland stretches above the pretty village of Wytham with its thatched cottages and cosy pub. There are no signs to the woods from the road and, once there, no café, no shop. Just acres of oak and ash, beech and sycamore, spread over two hills that nestle in a bend in the river Thames.
The woods are a fine place to be on an autumnal day, away from the bustle of the city, and full of sights and sounds to enjoy. We find a spindleberry tree all ablaze – it’s leaves flickering in the breeze like flames; the pink pincushion-shaped berries still in tact, but soon to reveal the clash of bright orange seeds within. Elsewhere, prickly sweet chestnuts litter the floor, their shiny treasure held tight in fur lined cases. A silver birch is studded with bracket fungi. A Speckled Wood rests on a patch of nettles. A buzzard cries overhead.
We wander beneath the canopy, at times passing through densely wooded avenues, watching as the light breaks through the trees in golden shafts. At others, we find ourselves skirting the woodland’s edges, which give way to some of the finest views of the city below and the flat of the valley.
In medieval times monks on pilgrimage from Cirencester to Canterbury would burst into song as they glimpsed these same views: joyful realisation of the promise of food and shelter awaiting them. Their route is still known as the Singing Way.
Today the woods are an important research site – a living laboratory – owned by the University of Oxford; but walkers (without dogs) are welcomed – just apply for a permit, which comes with a hand-drawn map, before you visit.
Images by Helen Duncan & courtesy of Piers Nye on Flickr