Having walked and cycled around the ancient pinewoods of Scotland for his first book, Clifton Bain’s next challenge to cover the rainforests of Britain and Ireland was somewhat more daunting. Here he tells us about what he found along the way.
Our rainforests are woods of oak, birch, hazel and ash that hug the length of the Atlantic coastline from Sutherland down through Argyll, south west Scotland, the Lake District and Wales, to Exmoor and Dartmoor, and along the west of Ireland.
With the help of Forestry Commission Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and one of our great woodland plant experts, Ben Averis, we managed to identify the key Atlantic rainforest remnants. We selected sites to provide both a good visitor experience and an interesting journey. There is an intense thrill to be had from entering the lush, moisture-laden environment of our ancient west coast woodlands. Here, nature throws up its most bizarre life forms, with stunted and contorted trees growing among steep boulder strew mountain slopes.
The luxury of a sabbatical with my employer, RSPB Scotland, provided me with extended leave, and snatched weekends allowed me to cover over 40 woods in the space of a year. My partner and daughters did start to get suspicious when every family outing just happened to be near a woodland. Surprisingly, despite one of the defining characteristics of these woods being that they experience over 220 rain days a year, I managed to plan each visit on a sunny day! My publisher was even becoming alarmed that my photographs were too pleasant for what he thought was meant to be a damp and dank habitat. In fact, these are immensely bright, colourful places. In spring the woods are carpeted with drifts of bluebells and the white of wild garlic. Even in the depths of winter, mosses and lichens drape every branch and rock surface in an array of greens, browns and yellows.
In an era where the impact of climate change is all too real, choosing to go by public transport, cycling and walking was important but challenging. The low-carbon option can be extremely rewarding, however. At its simplest, there is a glowing contentment from returning after an exhausting day out under your own steam. Not all sites require great exertion and it is remarkable how well trains and buses can reach our far-flung places. Longer travel often requires an overnight stay with the chance of meeting interesting people and an opportunity to delve into the history of the woods and their many associations.
Sometimes referred to as the ‘Celtic rainforest’, occupying areas where ancient culture persists in language and place names, the woods have long had a spiritual importance for people. Human interactions over thousands of years have shaped these woods. The cultural and built heritage surrounding them adds more to a visit. Royal hunting forests, medieval monasteries, iron furnaces and abandoned villages of the 19th century right up to our modern-day nature reserves help explain many of the woodland features and the shapes of the trees themselves. In researching the book I was amazed at how many of the woods remaining today have been referred to by historians and naturalists over many hundreds of years. The wonderful 16th-century maps of Timothy Pont available online through the National Library of Scotland, and the writings of John Leland and even earlier 12th century travel notes of Gerald Cambrensis all give a fascinating insight into how these woods looked and were managed.
The journey to the woods can also provide a connection with the past. Heritage paths, long used by cattle drovers and military roads constructed after the Jacobite uprisings are the same routes used by the great travel writers, who remarked on the natural woodlands, such as Dorothy Wordsworth, Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens.
My books are aimed at encouraging people to both explore our natural heritage and gain an understanding of their interactions with people – past and present. The conservation of these precious but vulnerable habitats depends on people valuing them and appreciating the lasting emotional reward to be gained from ‘Forty Shades of Green’, as Johnny Cash lamented. After publishing the pinewood and rainforest books I have given many talks to groups around the country – and always I get the same reaction – people just are not aware of such amazing places, and want to go and see them.
As my day job involves the conservation of peatlands, the obvious next book really must be the Peatlands of Britain and Ireland. Thanks to encouraging words from Des Thompson, my publisher is convinced that there will be interest in this subject. I know that across the country there are dozens of wonderful peatland sites offering some of the best days out that nature can provide. Time now to service the bike, and start planning my next journeys into the wilds.