There is a part of me that hopes no-one reads this post, as I am about to tell you about one of my favourite places, and to be honest I like it best when it’s just me & the dog.
However, I feel honour-bound to share with you the atmospheric, ever-changing beauty of Charmouth Forest. We spent ten years living about 4 miles away, and never really discovered it – and I think that is its magic: the fact that it’s so quiet, even at ‘peak season’, such as bluebell time.
There are two car parks – one at the top, at Wyld Warren (which my son pointed out sounds like a mad cowboy) and one further down in the beech woods, and each area has quite a different character. The area around Wyld Warren is typical Forestry Commission forest, with ranks of conifers and broad forest tracks, which is not the most inspirational woodland but is accessible for pushchairs, kids bikes etc.
For me, the best bit is further down the hill, where the giant, majestic beech woods are monumental in stature, and there are vast swathes of bluebells in spring and the most perfectly kickable piles of leaves in the autumn. This spring was particularly stunning, as the cool start meant the bluebells had all the light to themselves, and put on an incredible show for several weeks. (I have increasing numbers of readers from overseas these days – if you have never seen an English bluebell wood in early May, it is one of nature’s spectacles, that many Brits take for granted, but it is a breath-taking show on a sunny day). There is a nice hard gravelled access track running through the middle, where pushchairs, bikes and less able walkers will find it easy going, but the woods are also criss-crossed with little paths in all directions, meaning you can do anything from a five-minute whizz round to a couple of hours rambling wander.
Someone has built some very impressive dens, which keep getting added to, and there are some weird square ‘nests’ of sticks arranged in places – I don’t know why, but I always add one when I pass by. There are some brilliant climbing trees, and the beech trees, especially around the southern edge, are absolute giants. The high canopy , bare floor and clean, straight uprights in some areas are like a natural cathedral, especially with the light filtering through spring leaves, and the ancient boundaries, where the once-laid hedges are now fantastically twisted beech giants, are a reminder of how important a resource these woods would once have been, and how the management has shaped them over hundreds and hundreds of years.
Everybody loves bluebells, and everyone loves kicking piles of crisp golden leaves, but this autumn I have discovered a new joy in mushroom-spotting, of all things! We went for a walk with friends yesterday, and amongst loud children and crazy dogs, we started to notice fungi on some of the trunks. Once we started looking, there were fungi everywhere; in the fallen leaves, on fallen trunks, on standing trees, and in the nooks and crannies, ditches and even on quite slim branches above our heads. One day I will do a course and learn which is which, as the variety of colour, shape and texture was astonishing; from brown and leathery to translucently white and slippery. The children took great delight in puffing a fat ripe puffball (with their feet – they are toxic, I believe!) There are more & more Fungus Foray type courses and guided walks around; the Dorset Fungus Group may be able to help you find one near you, and Dorset Wildlife Trust are always very helpful.
I think there are a couple of geocaches hidden in the woods, and there are enough different types of woodland, from ancient beech & oak to quire recent birch and conifer planting, that the range of wildflowers and bird life is very impressive for the size of the area.
I absolutely love these woods – last year my son & I did the school run every day up the road through the woods towards Lamberts Castle, and every single day there was something different to see. If you see a place every day, you get to notice every little change, whether it’s new leaves unfurling, broken limbs after a storm, or different creatures going about their business. We used to call it our school-run safari, and our record on one journey was a deer, a fox, a rabbit, some squirrels, pheasants, a buzzard & a merlin. Coming home late one night, we also saw a deer cross in front of us followed by a tiny spotted fawn, which seemed to disappear. When we slowed right down, we spied it curled up next to the road, pretending to be invisible – I’ve never seen such a dainty little creature.
We are blessed with some wonderful woods in the area, from Thorncombe Woods near Dorchester (which has a fantastic visitor centre) in the east, to Trinity Hill near Rousdon – if anyone has any others to share, especially further west, I’d love to hear about them.
Charmouth Forest can be accessed from the North at the crossroads at the white gates, or from the South from Wootton Fitzpaine, and there is ample parking. If you’ve never been, I urge you to get down there now, while the leaves are still at their most kickable – it’s not very good for the leaves, but it’s definitely good for the soul.