Wistman's Wood

Wistman’s Wood, Dartmoor, Devon

Listening with wonder, reverence and joy

Wistman’s Wood is a special place. It is one of the highest oak woods in Britain, but its not like any other oak wood I’ve ever visited. The oaks grow through crevices between large granite boulders called clatters; as a result their growth is stunted and their trunks and branches are contorted. Both the clatters and the oaks are covered in lichen and moss, which lend a particularly vivid greenness to the wood. It’s a weird mix of the fecund – Hildegard Von Bingen may have called it viriditas, the green creative life force – and the misshapen and stunted.

But I confess, despite the interesting natural features of the wood, I was even more drawn to its folklore. ‘Wisht’ means weird, uncanny or eerie and the wood is associated with the mythic Wild Hunt. I’ve heard of people having strange sensations of malevolence directed towards them; of feeling watched, or even being driven out of the wood. What would such a place sound like?

I arrived about 8pm on a suitably windy and damp summer evening. Out of respect – and self-preservation – I asked, as usual, if it was ok for me to enter. I received a positive response and did so. I had the wood to myself. 

It took me a while to set up my tripod for a photo and I became annoyed with myself for messing about and wasting time when I had come to be still and listen. So I put my camera away and sat on a clatter. At this point, I was unaware of the presence of a large adder population in the wood, so take care if you do the same. 

The more I have listened, the more I have become attuned not just to sound, but to all vibrations. This includes feeling, sensations and “knowing.” That’s how I can confidently say that I was invited into the wood. There wasn’t much to hear here that was audible – the wind, the odd raven call – but there was a lot going on on the non-audible level. I was truly surprised how benign the wood felt. I felt not only that I was welcome, but that the wood was happy that I was there. Yes, I did feel a presence behind me, but it was not threatening.

I heard voices: a young couple appeared. The woman was complaining about the speed they were hopping across the clatters and that it would be his fault if she broke an ankle. They disappeared. Then a family with an unhappy child arrived. The child was also upset about the terrain and was crying until his father picked him up. It took them longer to pass me and I could hear the child still whining for a while, but eventually they too were gone. What did they think of me sitting there? Did they wonder what could there be to do sat in the one place? Maybe they knew about the adders? What did I think of them? Well, truthfully, I felt sad for them, rushing through such a magical place, without stopping to simply be there, with wonder, reverence and more than a little joy.