My canal side walk to Century Wood

Henry David Thoreau famously borrowed an axe in 1845 and went to the woods to build himself a cabin. Well in the spring of 2024, I went to the woods to cut myself a walking stick, and began my journey from my home at the north edge of Cheshire, to Century Wood in Shropshire. A walk of over 78 miles over five days, mostly along the canal towpaths.

Normally the journey is 80 minutes in the car. Listening to a couple of podcast episodes maybe, or some music. But since about 2018 I started planning to walk there, because I only feel I really know where places are relative to each other by walking. For me, walking answers the question “But how far is it really?” Plus I realised I could use the canal towpaths for most of the distance and so it would be a lovely walk through the countryside from town to town, without miles of slogging through muddy fields or walking busy roads.

(I’ve also made the text and photos of this blog available as a video.)

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Clearing rides video

Here is my first new video about the wood for quite a while, about clearing one of the rides back in October 2022.

This video shows reopening one of the woodland tracks in Century Wood in Shropshire that had become overgrown. Woodland tracks were called rides if they were open enough to ride a horse along them. At Century Wood the network of rides provides a way of getting around on foot or with the tractor without trampling lots of ground flora. The sunlight is able to get in and encourage grass to grow and we get a wider variety of plants on the edges than if there was just deep shade from the trees. But, the rides are an artificial, human intervention, and the wood is always trying to reclaim them. Left alone, the trees drop branches, nettles and brambles grow, and bushes and then new trees start to get established, and the ride will disappear. There is a stretch of one of the rides which I neglected for the past few years, and in this video I reopen it. 

Woodland planning reform

I’ve written about the practicalities of woodland planning over the years and created an extensive guide to the legal situation on the Century Wood website. But here I’m going to present a “shopping list” of what changes I’d like to see.

There is a lot of emphasis on woodland creation at the moment. The benefits of woodland that are promoted include “boosting wildlife, providing shelter for livestock, preventing soil erosion, reducing flooding, providing timber, supporting the economy, and improving mental health and wellbeing.” Those benefits rely on appropriate management, including human interventions which replace the actions of species we removed in the past.

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Wet woodland

This has been a week of flooding in Shropshire and much of the rest of the country. At Century Wood, the water levels have been higher as they usually are in winter, and our seasonal ponds where the water table breaks through the surface, are back.

Here are two contrasting photos of one of the boundary ditches: on the left, to show the depth of the ditch, here it is empty during the drought year of 2011 when I believe water was diverted for irrigation; and almost overflowing this week. That fallen log is the standing tree with the fork in the 2011 photo.

There is normally a foot or two of water in that ditch all year round. This next photo is of another drainage ditch which is normally dry but fills up and then starts flowing when there are floods. A bit back from the ditch is a dead tree with orange fruiting bodies from the fungi consuming the rotting timber inside. The fungus is something like Velvet Shank.

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Stopping by Woods, in France

I went for a walk on a snowy afternoon earlier this month in woods on the French/Swiss border. Naturally I took lots of photos and I’ve set them to a recording from 1952 of Robert Frost reciting his famous poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.

Here are the stills used in the video, with some extras:

Birds at the wood

I’ve never been a bird watcher, but one of the aspects of opened-ended activities like owning a wood is that you’re drawn outside your comfort zone. Early on I wanted to know what the “big birds” were (common buzzards) and I spent time trying to creep up on the woodpeckers I could hear drumming on tree trunks (great spotted woodpecker). As well as small songbirds, I’ve since seen or heard pheasants, pigeons, rooks, tawny owls, mallard ducks, and most recently a heron a couple of times by the South Ditch.

Common buzzard on a trail camera
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Holiday at Century Wood

We’ve had the Log Cabin at the wood for 12 years now and as well as being genuinely useful for forestry, it doubles up as a getaway we can use any time and without any notice. With all the travel disruption at home and abroad this summer we decided to have a couple of weekend breaks away, and spend a Monday to Friday week at the wood when the weather hadn’t gone haywire.

The setup is very similar to these pictures from solo stays when I’m doing forestry work. Camp beds, gas stove for cooking, and electric 12V lights or gas lanterns. You can see more in this video I did.

During the days we did touristy things, including the Ironbridge museums, Lilleshall Abbey and Lilleshall Hall National Sports Centre, Hoo Farm which now has an impressive woodland dinosaur park, and Wightwick Manor near Wolverhampton.

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Mid summer week

It’s now high summer in Century Wood and the place is full of life. I was here at the weekend, for the sun and the heat and the welcome downpours of rain. Today is Monday 20th of June 2022 and tonight will be the shortest night of the year. The Summer Solstice is tomorrow. At 10:14am BST the Sun will reach the end of its annual journey north, stop, and begin again to move southwards against the pattern of fixed stars and constellations in the sky. This makes tomorrow the longest day of the year.

Later in the week, the traditional Midsummer Day is on Friday 24th of June, which is also the saint’s day of St John the Baptist. Along with Christmas Day, the 25th of March and 29th of September, Midsummer Day was one of the Quarter Days which divided the year and on which rents were traditionally due. It was a day for many of our lost traditions of bonfires, maypoles, and fairs.

Mid summer features in one of my favourite Kipling poems, “Tree Song”, set to music by Peter Bellamy in the 1970s as “Oak and Ash and Thorn”. Of the trees the poem lists, Century Wood is only missing Yew and Beech.

Of all the trees that grow so fair,
    Old England to adorn, 
Greater are none beneath the Sun,
    Than Oak, and Ash, and Thorn. 
Sing Oak, and Ash, and Thorn, good sirs,    
    All of a Midsummer morn! 
Surely we sing no little thing,
    In Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!

A walk to Walden Pond

In this video from May 2022, I walk from the busy crossroads into Walden Woods and to the site of Thoreau’s cabin, where he lived for 2 years, 2 months, and 2 days from July 1845. I add a stone brought from Century Wood to the cairn by the cabin site. I then look at the wildlife and views of the pond and the forest.