Through the Woods

19 May 2013
Ben Pentreath

One of my favourite books, that I find myself returning to from time to time, is H. E. Bates’s Through the Woods. Years ago, I used to spend a lot of time with my great friends Jane & Johnny Holland at the house they had in North Wales. In those days we were rather eccentric. Our idea of a good time aged 24 was to get pretty drunk then lie on the sofa in that wonderful house (without electricity, central heating, or running water) and read extracts from Through the Woods, sometimes for hours, by flickering candlelight.

Reflecting on this weekend, when Bridie came to stay in Dorset, I was reminded of those days. There have been a few coincidences today. “What do you want to do, Bride?” I said, collecting Bridie from the station yesterday, running a bit late. “What I REALLY want to do is visit a bluebell wood. I’ve never been”.

So, this morning, we called for coffee with my friends Gracie and Adrian, who run the fantastic Little Toller Books, which I’ve written about before – we sell some of their books in the shop, including the brilliant new re-issue of Barbara Jones’s The Unsophisticated Arts, which is by my bedside table at the moment.  Gracie gave us a tour of beautiful, remote, lost Toller Fratrum, the tiny hidden hamlet where they run Little Toller Books. If you visit, be sure to make your way past the decaying Manor to the tiny chapel, with its extraordinary carved font (memorably photographed by John Piper)…

So, it just so happens that on the Little Toller list is a fine reissue of  the H. E. Bates; I’m not sure we have it in the shop yet, but you can buy a copy here, direct from them. And I note that the cover is a drawing by Nicholas Hely Hutchinson of a transcendent bluebell wood.

Well, we said goodbye and drove back to the Bride Valley – stopping briefly in nearby Wynford Eagle, where you find this remarkable view down to the Manor Farm. Dreamy West Dorset:

And after lunch, we decided to head back to London via Cranborne Chase, where I’d heard of the beautiful bluebell woods at Garston. But nothing quite prepared us for what we found.

The smell of wild garlic was tangible; the colour of the bluebells and their scent remarkable. I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen anything like it.  As we headed east, through to Bowerchalk, we drove through the extraordinary Beech avenue which opened this blog. There is nothing, nothing, like the saturated green of beech leaves that have just broken in May. Our eyes, which have got used to months of the heavy placid greens of late summer and the browns and yellows of autumn and then damp wintry greys are  literally startled, jolted, by the acid shock of this colour.  This combination of May Beech woods on gently folding chalk hills is one that sends a shiver down my spine.  Travelling today through the woods of Dorset and Wiltshire has been about as close to an idea of heaven as I’ve known for a while.

24 comments on this post

Ben dear I’m glad you didn’t mention the nudity at our weekends in North Wales, what would people think…..


Thank you Ben- fabulous descriptions. We’ll be following these footsteps when we visit Dorset next week.

On an interiors note ..are there any places in Dorset to look out for good things for the home?


Dear Sue – good markets in Bridport on a Saturday… that’s where I’ve found a lot of things at the Parsonage. And Malabar on South Street Bridport. All best, B


Ben, I’ve been quietly following your blog for a couple of years now. This is where I land when I’ve had my fill of demoralizing news headlines on a Sunday morning, the world is too loud on a weekday evening, or I need to walk through a beautifully lit English garden on a Saturday afternoon. The world as you write and capture it is so often my brief escape and I just want to extend my appreciation to you for keeping up such a lovely page. With gratitude, Sara


Thank you Sara – and thank you everyone who posts little comments like this one, just when I’m wondering why I write the blog from time to time!!


I went down to the village shop at lunchtime to get something to eat – the smell of freshly cut wild garlic by the roadside just spurred me on!

“A blue hallucination” (pimpmybricks) says it all. Hard to believe it’s real, but so glad you shared this wonderful vision.

Margaret Powlingsays:

A bluebell wood is the quintessential English scene, is it not? Whoever first wrote “blue and green should never be seen” was colour blind. The combination is calming and inspiring at the same time. We are lucky to have a bluebell wood about a mile or two away from us … hope to get there soon …
I presume all the white flowers are wild garlic?


Dear Margaret yes wild garlic, almost more amazing than the bluebell bit!

beautiful lifesays:

How intoxicating are your images. Wild garlic leaves also very delicious to eat, steamed or raw in a salad, a brief season, but so perfect. We so enjoy cycling or walking through along the Jubilee Path from Rockcliffe to Kippford on the Solway Firth, to enjoy the delicious scent of the garlic and then the bluebells. How perfect. Thanks so much for posting. s

Steven Zicksays:

For anyone who hasn’t yet gotten their fill of bluebells, i can highly recommend the opening scenes of Merchant Ivory’s “Howards End,” where Vanessa Redgrave stalks through the bluebells surrounding her half-timbered cottage, her Edwardian gown trailing behind her. Once seen, no lover of bluebells (or of this blog) will ever forget it, I wager…




Do the woods and avenue make you want to go back to painting?

Elizabeth Barrsays:

OK, you win. The English countryside is the most beautiful in the world.


Sometimes,it’s hard to believe that there is sooooo much beauty in this world! Such tranquility! Thank you!


awe inspiring!

I was wandering through a bluebell wood last Friday evening – this year they seem to be better than ever – their blue haze and sweet perfume are hypnotic.

There is nothing quite like a bluebell wood – wonderful – it just takes your breath away.


Sublime, a tonic for the soul. Many thanks!


astonishingly beautiful.
i dream of having a bluebell wood, but like the commenter above – in australia – the bulbs can’t hack it.

that top picture. amazing.

This is heaven, made real. I can’t believe you were able to see this with your own eyes. I can’t tell you how much I adored these photos. Thank you!

What a dreamy post. So much to enjoy and your images of the woods and flowers are superb!

Twenty one years ago, almost to the week, I took a walk through the bluebell woods in Osterley House gardens. It was the afternoon before the night when my daughter was born and it was a moment of such transcendent peace, coming as it did before another astonishing experience. That walk was a blue hallucination. Everything melted into that blue and calmed. One of my defining moments. I’ve planted a whole heap of bluebells here, but bulbs just can’t hack it in Australia. Thanks, as they say, for the memory. PP

Was at Kew yesterday seeing just these tremulous acid greens and luminous blues. Am enjoying your blog so much.

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