At this time of the year, there is no other place where Elinor Goodman would prefer to be than walking through the carpet of bluebells under the elegant beech trees of West Woods.
The UK boasts 50% of the world’s entire population and although bluebells are flourishing in many part of the country, according to Katherine Stewart of Plantlife there are concerns over the potential hybridisation with the Spanish bluebell. However, their simple beauty is undisputed. Indeed to the layman the sight of their blue haze extending as far as the eye can see might seem like a painter’s dream. Yet Niall Hamilton, who teaches history of art at Marlborough College believes that it is no coincidence that the great artists have avoided them as a subject, because no painting could never compete with nature’s splendour.
To the east of Marlborough is the ancient Savernake Forest. It is here with the help of Graham Bathe, who is writing a book about the history of Savernake Forest, that Elinor measures and ages one of the veteran oak trees, The King of Limbs. With a girth of over 10.5m it is likely to be well over 1100 years old. The age and sprawling shape of these veteran trees (7,000 in all, though they are not all named), indicates that originally the forest would have been wood pasture with cattle, sheep, pigs and deer grazing between the trees. It was established as a hunting forest when it was put in the care of one of the victorious knights who fought at the Battle of Hastings. Since then Savernake Forest has passed down from father to son (or daughter on four occasions) in an unbroken line for 31 generations, never once being sold in a 1,000 years and today is the only forest in Britain in private hands. In Tudor times the head of the family was Sir John Seymour whose daughter Jane became the third wife of Henry VIII, providing a much wanted son.
In the Second World War it was used for hiding ammunitions and local historian Roger Day relates the stories of the two devastating explosions which occurred just after the war, with both loss of life and damage to nearby property.
Although owned by the Earl of Cardigan, the timber rights have been released to the Forestry Commission who take care of the bluebells and veteran trees. Tim Frayling of Natural England is also making sure that the habitat is maintained for wildlife. To this end he is working in cooperation with farmer Pat Holloway who on the day Elinor visits, delivers 12 of her White Park cattle to graze the forest, as cattle would have done a thousand years ago.