For a number of years, while we were working towards our PhD’s, Mark and I lived on a university field campus near Ascot. We spent memorable hours of our free time wandering around Windsor Great Park. One of the areas of the park, Virginia Water, takes its name from the created lake at its centre; a big lake surrounded by woodland and walks of azaleas, magnolias and rhododendrons. It is a particularly beautiful place to stroll when the flowers are out. At one end of the lake is an impressive ornamental waterfall and there are monuments dotted around in unexpected places – an obelisk built in honour of the Duke of Cumberland, son of King George the Second; a folly constructed in 1827-28 to look like a Roman ruin, built using stones from a Roman town near Triopoli; a towering totem pole errected in 1958, a present to the Queen from Canada. As I wandered these grounds originally set up as a royal pleasure garden, I used to wonder whether or not the Queen knew what she had in her park. What would it be like to own something that was so big you didn’t know every plant that lived in the space? It seemed impossible to me. I knew every onion and potato plant on my allotment intimately. Nothing in my garden, (a 30cm strip reclaimed from the mohonia hedge round our six patio slabs), could grow as much as a leaf without me knowing about it.
And then, years later, suddenly we did own something that was so big we couldn’t know it all. On our first few visits the wood appeared massive; we seemed to wander lost for hours. But gradually, links were made, landmarks pinpointed, random paths connected into networks, the wood mapped itself into my head. It was no longer a wilderness of trees, but familiar territory. The wood seemed to become smaller, different parts showed their different characters and I am confident I will not get lost in the trees now. But I definitely don’t know everywhere. Even last week, Mark and I found a little dell we had stumbled across on the first visit (I’d noted it as a great place for a summer party), but not found since. There is always the potential for new discovery when I go to the woods, and that’s really exciting. But surprisingly, it’s not the size of the woods that is important. On our last visit Peta found a spider web, dripping with water, suspended over a badger sett entrance. Mark found a plum stone one of us must have discarded last summer, in the wood pile. It had been carefully opened and the kernel eaten – the tooth marks were so neat, and perfectly lined up along the cut edge. I found a new primrose plant with delicate yellow flowers unfurled. It seems it is not the scale of the place that brings the pleasure. Owning piece of land larger than a postage stamp has not changed the way I find happiness in nature. Whether in my minute garden at university or standing in the woods, it is still the small things that catch my attention and make the day’s happy memories.