… It is not clear why a permit used to be required to pass through these woods, but I suspect it has something to do with the state in which the land had been left (especially the exposed and treacherous cellars of the house) after the demolition gangs had done their work in the 1960s. I make a polite farewell to my well-met stranger and approach the gate into the woods. As I step from Higher Coach Road into its sequel, I am conscious that I am walking down her memory lane and at the same time forging my own. It is an odd sensation.
As I start along the path through the wood I have a strong sense of having just crossed a threshhold and – like Lucy Pevensey looking back towards the Wardrobe – I cannot help but look back down the road, my eye telescoping to its presumed, unfocused end. The mist still idles in the hollow places and everything I see is revealed by slow degrees at the whim of the path and the weather. Beside me, South Lodge with its intricate but softened gable ends – portents of what once might be expected of Milner Field House – has clearly seen better days. New windows have taken the place of the old sashes which lie stacked, smashed, their frames rotten, a stone’s throw away. A playground for invertebrates and other woodland creatures. The shed is webbed over and its locks and hinges rusted shut. Already I am aware of decay and of the wood’s reclamation of this strip of land. I pass by quickly, wary of watchers in the Lodge who may be suspicious of my curiosity.
The start of the path through the woods is densely over-canopied, with branches forming a low rough vault over the way and holly (a favourite plant of the Salt family) hemming me in on either side, appearing oddly overdressed in its solid waxy green beside the slapdash nudity of the other trees. Over-braced by the flying buttresses of beech and horse chestnut, I am as secluded as one is ever likely to feel on a path and, funnelled through the wood, driven through to its secret hiding-places, am quickly lost to the wider world. A magpie twirls out from a tree in search of treasures, its wings a pied fan opening, and it is my turn to start, my heart pumping fear in my chest. The walking is not unpleasant, but it is tomb-stone quiet, and perhaps because of the stranger’s equivocation over access, there is a feeling of pacing through someone else’s privacy here, the leaves underfoot confirming the impression with their unmistakable shushing. I feel at once tucked away from the world and a keen sense of – not going back in time exactly – but a conspicuous awareness that the wood is keeping mum about the abandoned remains at its heart. Its secrets will perhaps not so easily be given up.
The trees that line the way show no signs of being managed, having seeded themselves at will, over stones and on top of one another, and encroaching on the path. There are multi-stemmed trees here as are more commonly found in a hazel coppice, except these are untended and their trunks sprout unchecked and unharvested. Gossamer strands spun out optimistically onto the breeze by orb weavers and other spiders which love the nooks of the cross-stitch trunkery catch unexpectedly, unwelcome, across my cheeks. Little snares, warnings perhaps. I am put strongly in mind of Kipling’s poem The Way Through the Woods and my steps begin to pace out its rhythms: “They shut the road through the woods/ Seventy years ago./ Weather and rain have undone it again,/ And now you would never know/ There was once a road through the woods/ Before they planted the trees.” When the road was in use by the Salts, it was open and there were certainly fewer trees. These are mostly incomers after the fact, like me, and that’s reassuring. Back in the day, the road was lined on either side with fashionable rhododendron bushes, many of which remain like clues, though most without tending have grown leggy and wilded themselves to the wood, making way for trees and sometimes stooping under them. The clumsy fall of my foot snapping a twig is as vital a crack in the stillness as the report of a gun and a jay leaps into flight, its chinoiserie plumage painting the sky.
The breeze is communicated up the canopy of the trees in whispers behind me, getting nearer and nearer: leaves catch the trembling flit of it from their neighbours and together they are made one seething organism, moving up the path behind and then overtaking me. Occasionally a following tread sounds on the path and I am backward-glancing and self-admonishing at the ghost of fear that spikes into me. There’s no one behind of course – probably a conker from a horse chestnut, though it’s late in the season for their fall. I stand for some time transfixed with my gaze directed backwards down the path, convinced I will see my mystery walker solidify from phantom to pedestrian reality if I look long enough. Nothing. And yet the treads had fallen with pronounced and unmistakable walking accents behind me. But I am alone on the path, in the wood, in the past.
When I reach the cross roads in the wood, I am assailed by a strong sense of deja vu; I’ve been here before. In the spring, whilst searching out the local flora I stumbled upon a public footpath called Sparable Lane (a corruption of Sparrow’s Bill) bounded on each side by dry stone walls. Looking across the clearing now, I make out the sloping of that other path and realise in a sudden moment of spooked uncanniness that I am indeed walking my own memory lane.
Though access is not legislated nor official through the wood, the fact that the path remains clear and easy to traverse (I can see that branches that would have struck across the way have been cut cleanly back) speaks of the local will to keep it open. This is a path informally maintained by common (if somewhat illicit) consent. Though presently alone in the woods, I see evidence of human activity here and there: empty beer cans and crisp packets, but also elective desire paths through the ground ivy, which I assume dog-walkers have made in their journeys through the wood.
I take the path to the left, accompanied by the ticklish sound of water running in little draining ditches at its sides, and ascend to where I know the house was situated. Even though I’m climbing up, it somehow feels like going down – like Orpheus going down into Hades. An old fir throws out a bough to mark where to turn aside for the area I believe the house to have occupied, and I feel a moment’s guilt at the discrepancy between Orpheus’s rescue mission and my own morbid quest to pick over old bones. I ignore the feeling, weaving a way between fallen trees until I see the first of the sizeable and haphazardly cast aside masonry pieces. They are wrapped lushly in blankets of moss and appear unmoved from where first they fell when discarded by the demolition gangs. As my eye deciphers the undulating mounds of greenery and stone, I begin to see pile upon pile of building materials, careless cast-offs like scattered thoughts that once made a house. Weather and rain have undone it again – or in this case the sledge hammers of demolition gangs who perhaps put more store in bricks and stone than in tales of terror and hauntings and shook their heads over such a waste. I walk gingerly between open tunnels and access hatches into the original cellars, testing the load-bearing capacity of patches of ground doubtfully with my toes.
My tip-toe exploration turns up salt-glazed bricks which were supplied by Joseph Cliff & Sons of Leeds, window glass and giant hefts of stone quarried from the top of the hill I passed on my way through the wood. Local materials and trades for a local house – a respectful approach from an incomer. Curiously I feel my own incomer status here even more keenly, looking at the wreckage of another’s dreams strewn at my feet.
Close-covering ivy and bursts of lush frilling tongue ferns clamber the ruins, redacting stone and brick so that the sense one might have been able to make of the building’s vocabulary – there a coping stone, there a window lintel – is all but lost. These plants are some of the typical ‘reclaimers’ when a once-developed area is left abandoned for any length of time. With the industry of soldiers, they move in and efficiently revert the land, steadily editing out all traces of cultivation and habitation. I find it difficult to overlay this chaotic and shambolic scene with the palimpsest of the Milner Field House which I hold in my mind’s eye, an image in which the house stands self-importantly in a desert of lawn and gardens. Few trees at all. This wood can be no more than sixty or perhaps seventy years old then: a comparatively young wood, surging into being through its own will and the simple neglect of the land. Here too there survive great bushes of the original rhododendrons, and I make a promise to myself to return the next spring to see them in bloom.
There’s one final sight I want to find – the wood’s incongruous mosaiced floor, along from the rubble heaps, and following the lines of where the winter garden used to stand. A soiled and leafed-over dance floor it seems in the middle of the wood, nothing could be stranger. It is the floor of the glass conservatory which housed all manner of exotic plants when owned by the Salts – perhaps to the delight of the visiting Prince and Princess of Wales. Now a muddy floor which leaves skip over. I push the toe of my shoe into its soil dermis and fresh, new-babe pink peeps out at me, and in other parts the original mosaic patterns can still be seen. Too difficult and too costly for the demolition gang to break up and remove, so here it lies still, creating its own little clearing, a landmark and fixture of the wood. Squirrels, foxes, shrews and hedgehogs perhaps navigate by it, their trails making room for it, crossing and re-crossing it, scenting it with scat: a posh woodland toilette. A happy thought.
A light rain starts up making me turn my steps homeward, flushing me out of the wood and out of the past. It is an odd parting: me full with the remnant history of this place; the “undone” house silent but eloquent. As I move gradually further out of the wood, leaving the remains of the house feels a little like coming up for air. With Higher Coach Road in sight, it is tempting, like Orpheus, to look behind to check that the path through the wood is still there; that I didn’t dream the house, the rubble, the mosaic floor in the guardedly slumbrous wood.
Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate,
(They fear not men in the woods,
Because they see so few.)
You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods.
But there is no road through the woods.
Rudyard Kipling, The Way Through the Woods
No, there is no longer a road through the woods, just a path that we keep open.