"Perhaps it is the oaks themselves, rather than any ghoulish entity within, that endow this forest with its unnerving, mysterious figures."
The origin of Wistman’s Wood is, as one might expect, not entirely clear. A study carried out by English Nature suggests that the oak grove may be a surviving enclave of a much larger natural oakwood, possibly dating as far back as 7000BC. It is likely that this parcel of forest was consciously spared as surrounding trees fell to grazing land. But typical of most ‘pygmy’ forests, the arboricultural dwarfism is more directly the result of environmental factors, such as poor soil and high altitude. Wistman’s Wood grows on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, which encompasses some of the highest of Dartmoor’s tors. Residing at around 1,300ft above sea level, it is one of Britain’s most elevated oak forests, and the stunted tree habit makes it a true rarity of its kind. In 1964 the forest was selected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, now protected by law and conserved by Natural England.
Before I leave to retrace my path back to the road, I sit for a moment on a larger protruding boulder positioned towards the outer edge of the wood. The trees gradually thin out near the lower reaches, with a few individuals standing alone just outside. Their form appears even more unique and misshapen when viewed in this way, isolated and removed from the group. The sun is going down and, as I get up to leave, it passes unexpectedly through a gap in the clouds. The sudden burst illuminates the entire wood and the rock I’m sat on lights up beneath me. The granite sparkles, as it does throughout the forest, shining like glitter from a surface of scattered stones. With the sun on its final glow before setting behind the hill in front, it’s noticeable for the first time that in fact Wistman’s oaks appear to be facing it, leaning in towards it. Growing out from the hillside gradient they are a congregation of sorts, like worshippers in an auditorium, with arms reaching forward. I stand with the trees, drawn into the fading light, as if enacting some quiet springtime ritual. Perhaps it is the oaks themselves, rather than any ghoulish entity within, that endow this forest with its unnerving, mysterious figures.
Words by Matt Collins. Images by Roo Lewis.