Oak and Ash and Thorn: The Ancient Woods and New Forests of Britain by Peter Fiennes - review by Fiona Stafford

Fiona Stafford

Leaves of Life

Oak and Ash and Thorn: The Ancient Woods and New Forests of Britain


Oneworld 291pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

This is the story of a year. It is also the story of a lifetime. And the story of the British Isles. Each of these stories is told through trees. The author, Peter Fiennes, grew up surrounded by hills and trees, first in the small village of Wadhurst in East Sussex and then, from the age of thirteen, at Tenterden in Kent. Both place names derive from the ancient forests that were there when the Saxons settled. For many years Fiennes has lived in London, feeling more and more distant from the woods of his youth. His book is an account of a twelve-month pilgrimage into the woods of Britain, which reaches as far as Somerset in the west, Norfolk in the east, Yorkshire in the north and the blue remembered hills of his childhood. His journey takes him back to his own roots, to those of his parents and grandparents and, ultimately, through the history of land use in Britain and the pursuit of native trees, to the prehistoric moment when the British Isles were first separated by the sea from the European landmass. Among the highlights of the book is a race through five thousand years of arboreal history, which becomes more breathless and staccato as it approaches the 21st century, as if grammar and syntax are disappearing with the trees.

The book begins in early summer at Croft Castle in Herefordshire, not far from the border with Wales. Judging by the ‘dash of bluebells’, it is probably May, but if Fiennes’s title, Oak and Ash and Thorn, raises expectations of a paean to the unchanging pastoral beauty of rural England,

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