A strange sight, the allegorical bronze sculpture called 'Verity' by Damien Hirst looking out to sea in the North-Devon coastal town of Ilfracombe. Standing on law books and holding the traditional attributes of Justice, sword and scales (though hidden behind her back and off-balance), this symbol of truth is also very pregnant. A perhaps unintended effect of her placement is that the westering sun hides the controversial anatomy lesson of her exposed right side.
Names, science, history... not even the most adamantly down-to-earth botanist thinks of species and ecologies when he or she first stands at Wistman's Wood. It is too strange for that. The normal full-grown height of the common oak is thirty to forty metres. Here the very largest, and even though they are centuries old, rarely top five metres. They are just coming into leaf, long after their lowland kin, in every shade from yellow-green to bronze. Their dark branches grow to an extraordinary extent laterally; are endlessly angled, twisted, raked, interlocked, and reach quite as much downward as upwards. These trees are inconceivably different from the normal habit of their species, far more like specimens from a natural bonzai nursery. They seem, even though the day is windless, to be writhing, convulsed, each its own Laocoön, caught and frozen in some fanatically private struggle for existence.
The clitter of granite boulders, bare on the windswept moors, here provides a tumbling and chaotic floor of moss-covered mounds and humps, which add both to the impression of frozen movement and to that of an astounding internal fertility, since they seem to stain the upward air with their vivid green. This floor like a tilted emerald sea, the contorted trunks, the interlacing branches with their luxuriant secondary aerial gardens... there is only one true epithet to convey the first sight of Wistman's Wood, even today. It is fairy-like.
But it is the silence, the waitingness of the place, that is so haunting; a quality all woods will have on occasion, but which is overwhelming here - a drama, but of a time-span humanity cannot conceive. A pastness, a presentness, a skill with tenses the writer in me knows he will never know; partly out of his own inadequacies, partly because there are tenses human language has yet to invent.
- John Fowles, 'The Tree' (1979)
In his novella-length essay 'The Tree' John Fowles explores his relationship with nature, wilderness, and above all trees and woods, which he called "the last green churches and chapels outside the walled civilization and culture we have made with our tools."
Its climax is his evocative description of a visit to the Dartmoor high altitude oakwood copse Wistman's Wood, whose name perhaps derived from the old Devon 'wisht', meaning haunted.
Here is an impression of Wistman's Wood today, the trees just coming into leaf...
There runs, between Lyme Regis and Axmouth six miles to the west, one of the strangest coastal landscapes in Southern England. From the air it is not very striking; one notes merely that whereas elsewhere on the coast the fields run to the cliff-edge, here they stop a mile or so short of it. The cultivated chequer of green and red-brown breaks, with a kind of joyous indiscipline, into a dark cascade of trees and undergrowth. There are no roofs. If one flies low enough one can see that the terrain is very abrupt, cut by deep chasms and accented by strange bluffs and towers of chalk and flint, which loom over the lush foliage around them like the walls of ruined castles. From the air ... but on foot this seemingly unimportant wilderness gains a strange extension. People have been lost in it for hours, and cannot believe, when they see on the map where they were lost, that their sense of isolation - and if the weather be bad, desolation - could have seemed so great.
The Undercliff - for this land is really the mile-long slope caused by the erosion of the ancient vertical cliff-face - is very steep. Flat places are as rare as visitors in it. But this teepness in effect tilts it, and its vegetation, towards the sun; and it is this fact, together with the water from the countless springs that have caused the erosion, that lends the area its botanical strangeness - its wild arbutus and ilex and other trees rarely seen growing in England; its enormous ashes and beeches; its green Brazilian chasms choked with ivy and the liana of wild clamatis; its bracken that grows seven, eight feet tall; its flowers that bloom a month earlier than anywhere else in the district. In summer it is the nearest this country can offer to a tropical jungle. It has also, like all land that has never been worked or lived on by man, its mysteries, its shadows, its dangers - only too literal ones geologically, since there are crevices and sudden falls that can bring disaster, and in places where a man with a broken leg could shout all week and not be heard. Strange as it may seem, it was slightly less solitary a hundred years ago than it is today. There is not a single cottage in the Undercliff now; in 1867 there were several, lived in by gamekeepers, woodmen, a pigherd or two. The roedeer, sure proof of abundant solitude, then must have spent less peaceful days. Now the Undercliff has reverted to a state of total wildness. The cottage walls have reverted to ivied stumps, the old branch paths have gone; no car road goes near it, the one remaining track that traverses it is often impassable.
- Jown Fowles, 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' (1969)
Here's the Undercliff today, a well-trodden part of the South West Coast Path, though it continues to be unstable ground, and the track indeed proved impassable near Axmouth, blocked by ample warning signs...
These days a new Banksy piece might just be whisked off to the museum right away. This one, 'Mobile Lovers', is now on display at Bristol Museum. Here it was in the wild.
Elsewhere in Bristol (Clifton) the message is even more direct...