But then lockdown came. And the forests we had visited became suddenly distant. They became places we dreamed of rather than walked through. Meanwhile the woods that were closer to home became a lifeline, a comfort, steadying reminders in these difficult times that things do pass, that buds burst into leaf.
The woods and parks on this list are some of our favourites, the ones we visited before lockdown, or which were top of our list to go to when it lifted. This is the perfect time to visit the woods that are closest to you – a moment in which you can catch autumn’s last glories and find mental escape from everyday worries. There are few things more comforting, and good for our heads, than a walk in the woods.
Until 2017 the Hermitage was home to a Douglas Fir that was, at 64.5m, the third tallest in the UK. That mighty trunk may have crashed in a storm into the River Braan below, but many other mighty firs remain standing. The trees in this so-called pleasure ground, created for the Dukes of Atholl, are so sublime it has been a venue for many a woodland wedding. One interviewee who married there, described to us an area that has been dubbed The Cathedral; “You’re standing there and you look up and you feel so tiny”. Walk through this section and you do feel like you are walking through some sacred space. The feeling that whispers through us in the presence of these mighty organisms is awe and reverence. Trunks tower like the ceiling of some great church. Which came first, they seem to ask, us or your buildings?
Here you can walk through the kind of oak woods that once cloaked Europe’s Atlantic coast. Marvel at not just the trees themselves but the abundant biodiversity these woodlands support. Over 200 species of lichen have been recorded, some rare and scarce. There’s even the possibility of spotting – if you’re very lucky – pine martens, otters and wildcats.
Creag Meagaidh Nature Reserve, Roy Bridge
Most of us think of the bare rugged slopes of the Highlands as wild, and untamed by humans. But of course, that’s not the case. This is a landscape that has been shaped by years of our presence – nibbled bare by sheep and deer. It is missing something – trees. The Creag Meagaidh nature reserve shows us the beginnings of what our Highlands could be. It’s here that, as mountaineer Cameron McNeish told, conservationist Dick Balharry encouraged removal of sheep and the reduction of deer numbers – and here that we can see what regeneration could be like. There has been a regrowth of the native woodland of birch, alder, willow, rowan and oak. Walk higher and you’ll reach montane scrub and rare woolly willow. This is where you go to wander through a patch of ancient birchland that is returning to its former glory.
Benmore Botanic Garden, Cowal peninsula
There are few things that put the world more in perspective than a walk down the glorious avenue of giants, the redwoods that line the entrance to Benmore. But these magnificent organisms are needing some TLC - so much so that David Knott, curator of the living collection at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, has been campaigning to raise money to save them by hugging a tree a day. ”The Sequoiadendrons are the most iconic living feature of any of our gardens – a fantastic avenue of trees… But they are not able to react quickly enough to these subtle changes in climate, so what we’re doing is an arboricultural intervention that will hopefully stop the decline we’ve been noticing and get some vigour back in the trees.” Even without that vigour though, the redwoods are awe-inspiring – they put you in your place.
Chatelherault Country Park, Hamilton
Oaks in this country park are some of the oldest in Scotland. Dendrochronologists have dated them back to the 15th century – and there are more still on farmland nearby. Judy Dowling, an ancient tree hunter, who we interviewed for For The Love Of Trees recalled coming across them for the first time when she visited on a blizzarding winter day: “I drove into the farmyard, saw the field with the most trees in it – over 200. There’s really nothing like it in Scotland.” It’s also the perfect year to collect acorns – a mast year in which oaks all over the country produce more acorns than usual.
This estate consists of 10,000 hectares of ancient Caledonian forest, lochs and mountains. Stand for a moment, let time slip away and imagine when this covered 1.5 million hectares of Scotland (only 5 percent of the original coverage is left). One of our favourite walks is around the haunting Loch An Eilean , a 5km trail through ancient pine trees, perfect for spotting red squirrel, crested tit and even osprey. The 14th-century castle on a tiny island just offshore is a wonderful spot for shouting and receiving a loud echo back. And if that’s whetted your appetite for Caledonian forest – try visiting pockets at Glen Affric, Abernethy, Glen Tanar, Mar Lodge or Beinn Eighe .
Corstorphine Hill, Edinburgh
This nature reserve within the city of Edinburgh feels like a little escape to the countryside, with criss-crossing pathways meandering up and down the hill and spectacular views to the Firth of Forth and across the city. The huge beech, ash and oaks are home to plenty of wildlife including badgers owls and kestrels, and you can even spot the zebra and ostriches from the nearby zoo through the trees!
Dalkeith Country Park, Midlothian
Take the Old Wood walk and see some of Scotland’s oldest oaks. The trees in this beautiful country park are thought to be the last remnant of the ancient forest of the Lothians, and it’s not only the ancient oaks that make it special – it’s the rare species of beetle that live here. In For The Love Of Trees, we talked to dendrochronologist Dr Coralie Mills who studied the tree rings of the fallen dead oaks and found they date back to the 16th century. “We really have to look after and expand more the tiny fraction of ancient woodland we have. Such trees are so precious for both their natural and cultural heritage,” she says.
For The Love Of Trees by Vicky Allan and Anna Deacon is published by Black and White, hardback, £20