Friday, 18 August 2017

Down in the Woods by Lu Hersey

 Much of the action in my latest book takes place in a woodland grove. Without giving too many plot spoilers, the grove turns out to be a point of contact between here and otherworld. I didn’t just make this idea up – it’s my contemporary take on ancient folklore.

Roman records tell us that the Celts didn't worship their gods and goddesses in temples, but outdoors, in sacred woodland groves. Which makes perfect sense, as their deities were strongly connected to the land and their environment. 

(from the Gundestrup cauldron) 

The Celts probably weren’t the first, either. Forests provide the setting for so many myths and fairytales, it seems they've been stuffed with ghosts, nature spirits, gods, goddesses and demons (not to mention big bad wolves) since primordial times. There’s something mysterious and magical about woodland and forests, and our stories and legends reflect this.

Arthur Rackham illustration (from Mother Goose)

Britain was once covered in woodland, but we’ve been cutting it down to create farmland, and coppicing and managing most of what’s left, for thousands of years. But there are still some pockets of ancient woodland scattered here and there, and they're well worth exploring.

An article published in the Guardian a few years ago listed Britain's top 10 legendary woods. Legends associated with these woods include stories of giants, ghost animals, dragons, magical white harts, mysterious black dogs, phantom coaches and a headless woman. 

The closest one to where I live is Shervage Forest, set high in the Quantock hills in Somerset. This oak woodland is famed for its Gurt Wurm, the dragon who once lived there and went about ravaging the land and creating havoc. Before it was slain, the wurm laid an egg, which no one has ever found...
Dragons were known as wyrms and were depicted as huge serpents with wings right up until medieval times - they only grew legs and became fire breathers more recently. So the legend of the Gurt Wurm, like Shervage Forest itself, is probably very old.

The Gurt Wurm (illustration by fountainsflowing)

Not included in the Guardian's list, but a personal favourite, is Wistman's Wood on Dartmoor. Legend has it that this dwarf oak woodland was once the site of a ancient druid grove, and it's reputed to be haunted. When no one else is around, the gnarled, twisted branches of the old lichen covered oaks and the strange shapes of the granite boulders can send chills down the spine. My parents used to take me there when they went bilberry picking, and I saw some very strange things – but only ever when my parents had disappeared out of sight...

Wistman's Wood, Dartmoor

I went to Canada this year, and for the first time in my life got to see what totally uninhabited, untouched, virgin (non-tropical) rainforest is like. It's extraordinary. I've never experienced anything like it, as there’s nothing here that's so primordial, untamed - or so BIG. 

Forest in British Columbia

Somehow, it explained everything. It took me straight back to a time when woods were full of scary creatures, nature spirits and ghostly mists, and were deeply magical, spine tingling places.

And it reminded me why a woodland grove was the perfect setting for my story.

Lu Hersey
Twitter: @LuWrites
Blog: Lu Writes
Deep Water, published by Usborne, out now


Rowena House said...

Lovely blog! And your new story sounds wonderful. I absolutely agree about Wistman's Wood. Magical. Though it's also sad that quite so many of us have discovered it now and there is damage to the moss and fern-covered rocks. A place to treasure & protect.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Fascinating post! Great photo of Cernunnos too. Thanks for sharing and I'm sure your story is full of the ambience of these forests. Ours are very different, though of course they have their own traditions, both indigenous and European. But a Melbourne writer, Gabrielle Wang, had to rewrite her latest novel The Beast Of Hushing Wood, setting it in America(she visited a friend there to get the feel of it)because, well, we just don't have WOODS here in that sense.

A Visit From The Local Member

LuWrites said...

thanks Rowena and Sue - sorry, I was away for a few days after posting this so didn't see your lovely comments. Yes to protecting Wistman's Wood, Rowena - and Sue, I never realised before, but guess it's obvious - Australia doesn't have the same kind of woods!