Walking among trees: pleasure or penance?24th March 2009
My ongoing updates to the photo gallery (my attention is drifting towards the Argyll & Mull section at the time of writing) has caused my eye to fall upon coniferous forestry more often than not. It seems that my journeys in search of wilder countryside have taken through me by more plantations than I care to remember. Scotland is particular prone to them, it seems, but my native Éire has them too, a consequence of government policy in the 1960’s and after. I seem to remember from secondary school geography lessons that statements like adding to the visual appeal of the landscape and making good use of marginal land were stated as its advantages. The first of these is a matter of personal taste but the second is being challenged by the realisation that marginal land only yields wood of a quality perhaps only useful for paper manufacture has since dawned upon our collective consciousness. It seems that some such plantations could be left without felling because their economic value cannot justify the expenditure involved. All in all, the advance of coniferous woodland wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be.
Whatever the reservations may be, even I have to admit these commercial plantations have allowed the opportunity to create recreational spaces from which to escape our cluttered lives. In Ireland, trips to the likes of the Ballyhoura Mountains or Gougane Barra cannot be managed without the sight of conifers and they accompanied my early introductions to the pleasure of exploring hill country. In latter times, many a trek in Scotland has had me encountering similar sights.
It almost goes without saying that some plantations are more walker friendly than others. Ireland’s forestry agency, Coillte, is one of the better owners and I ask myself how many Looped Walks or off road sections of the Waymarked Ways there would be without them. Also coming up for an honourable mention is the Forestry Commission with their work on paths and tracks around Loch Long and Glen Croe. They also made a contribution to the development of the Rob Roy Way in the shape of the way marking that I found useful while following the trail from Drymen to Callander.
Even with these helping hands, passage through plantations should never be taken for granted and I have caused myself torment of this kind more often than I should have. All it takes for an OS map to be unhelpful is for a new track to appear or an old one to become overgrown or obstructed. The ensuing navigational confusion can lead you to do things like my reaching the A85 in cross country fashion while walking from Inverarnan to Dalmally. It’s not the only lesson teaching me never to rush woodland walking unless I know really well where I am going.
Aside from navigation, the other downside of passing through forestry is that you often cannot see the wider vistas that surround you. That point can be driven home rather too firmly by an outbreak of sod’s law where the sun is released from its cloudy lair when the trees block your view only for it to be hidden again when you finally reach open country. In days when the prospects of capturing those panoramic views was a stronger draw for me, misgivings about woodland walking arose from this very kind of thing. There are times when the trees are felled to release the vistas but the challenge of making pleasing photos while avoiding having the remaining wreckage in the foreground rears its head on you.
While on the subject of photography, it has to be said that broadleaved woodland probably does you more favours than the conifers with their homogeneous and near unchanging hues; they do need the surrounding countryside to help them for wider views. For one thing, there’s more diversity on the floor of one of the former and I have memories of the extensive bluebell glades etched in my mind from a yomp along the bonny banks of Loch Lomond to bag the WHW between Inverarnan and Drymen. The colours of new growth in May is another pleasure and any unease at the year reaching its autumnal phase is at least partly dispelled by the sights of the russets, oranges and yellows in the trees. It’s the sort of thing that has brightened up many a lunchtime walk for me and there’s birdsong too to make it a truly audiovisual experience. It’s these sorts of experiences that soothed any misgivings about woodland walking that I may have had but coniferous forests have their pleasures too and you can always get above the tree line.