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Walking Wild withIan Finch

By Leanne Downs1 December 2018

What’s so wild about English forests? We joined expedition leader and wild walking guide Ian Finch, on a walk through a beautiful Hertfordshire woodland just outside the M25, to discover how to make an everyday walk in the woods just a little bit wilder.

The sound of footfall crunches rhythmically as we meander through towering chestnuts and oaks, heading deeper into the forest. The leaves have finally turned, and the low November sunlight ignites colours all around us, a riot of burnt orange and gold.

It is clear that Ian has walked this network of paths countless times. There are three waymarked routes in Great Northaw Wood, but today Ian has his own route in mind, and we soon lose any sense of direction as we twist and turn through the ancient woodland.

This country park, nature reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest spans over 200 hectares and is home to one of the country’s most extensive collections of ancient Hornbeams, remnants of an area of immense forest, where trees have stood since before the 11th century.

Ian stops us by a line of distinctive-looking trees, gnarled but uniform in a perfectly straight row. “These are Hornbeam Pollards, often found at the edges of land to mark where the border is, a practise which has been replaced by modern fencing today” he explains.

Pollarding, similar to Coppicing, keeps the trees short and the wood removed is usually used for timber or charcoal. These pollarded Hornbeams are likely to be some of the oldest trees in the woodland and are one of the reasons for the area’s SSSI status. “Hornbeam can be easily confused with beech, especially in winter” Ian explains, showing us the hornbeam seed on the ground at the base of the tree. “Looking for clues on the ground and learning what the seeds look like can help give clues to their identification.”

In the tame wilds of an English forest, only a stone’s throw from the M25, it might be easy to forget that Ian has been on many a treacherous and far-flung journey in his time. With a military career behind him, he has paddled the length of the Yukon river through Canadian wilderness, traversed the lofty heights of the Himalayas and lead expeditions to many remote and dangerous places; but it is here in the ancient forests of East England where he spends much of his time exploring and helping others discover adventure.

“By learning and understanding some simple clues and signs from nature, we can transform our experience of a place and that’s something that really fascinates me.” It’s this passion for everyday exploration that led Ian to set up Walk Wild, running guided walks, navigation workshops and wild camps, with the hope of helping others discover nature through a different lens and experience a simple walk in the woods a little differently than before.

As we wander, Ian points out various things and imparts small bits of wisdom to help us begin to ‘read nature’ which can not only help us discover the history of a place, but can also help us to navigate. Stopping at a broken tree, Ian encourages us to consider it in relation to our surroundings.

Firstly, we observe the sun. It is common knowledge that the sun roughly rises in the east and sets in the west, varying slightly depending on the time of year. “By considering where the sun is in the sky, we can work out where the compass points may lie in relation to our position and then we can apply this to help us navigate our way through the woods”. Next, we think about the prevailing wind, which in the UK is commonly considered to be arriving from a south westerly direction. This isn’t always the case, but often the strongest winds are from that direction.

Ian tells us that applying these clues to the tree as well as observing things like the direction the branches fell after the break, the condition of the bark around the break and how exposed the tree is, we can ascertain that our assumption is probably correct, and it is likely that the tree was damaged by the wind.

We can also get a feel for roughly how long ago that was by observing the break in the trunk. Is the bark green and fresh inside? Or is it dull, brown and rotted from the rain? In turn, the broken tree can help us decide how reliable our other navigational observations involving the sun were.

We look at the ways trees grow and what navigational clues this can give as we walk. Observing a large oak tree, we note heavier growth to one side. An inspection of the other trees around reveals the same.

This, we are told, is because trees tend to grow more heavily on their southern sides, towards the direction of the sunlight. Branches on the northern side grow upwards to reach the sunlight whereas southerly branches grow more horizontally.

“It is important to look at the whole picture, and consider all clues together rather than rely on one observation, like pieces of a puzzle.” Ian spots a rust coloured lichen which he tells us prefers damp conditions and as such, often grows only on the north sides of tree trunks.

As well as navigational clues, Ian occasionally points out a patch of moss or a type of tree and shares interesting and useful facts about them. We learn that sphagnum moss is good for use as an antiseptic, that hazel’s strong and straight growth makes for a great walking stick and that bracken has long been dried and used to make cordage. As we walk on, we pay close attention to our surroundings, noticing the different trees around us, differences in their size and height, colour, texture and proximity.

Stopping by a large expanse of holly deep within the woodland, we learn that it is not naturally spiky, as is commonly believed. “It starts out smooth but over time, as animals try to eat it or brush past it, it becomes spiky as a form of defence. You can see at the top or on more sheltered sides, the leaves are actually smooth. This can give clues to whether large animals often wander here or perhaps this is next to a path well-used by people.”

Looking at a map of Great Northaw Wood after our walk, we are surprised to discover that you can easily cross the woodland from one side to the other in thirty minutes or less. On our walk through we spent almost three hours, lost among the trees, barely retracing a single path.

The more we learned from Ian, the more we began to question the landscape: noticing small details such as seeds on the ground, the different leaf shapes, a patch of fungus growing on a tree. Each element easily overlooked, but each a piece of a huge and complicated puzzle; an entanglement of clues to the history and inner workings of this once vast forest and the key to expanding the confines of the mind. Perhaps wilderness, like adventure, is really just a mindset.

To learn more about Ian and his guided walks, visit his website Walk Wild.

Leanne Downs

About Leanne Downs

Leanne Downs is the content editor for Thryve and works as an outdoor writer, blogger and photographer. She loves hiking, hillwalking and wild camping.

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