“No animal, according to the rules of animal-etiquette, is ever expected to anything strenuous, or heroic, or even moderately active during the off-season of winter.”Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.
Now that winter seems to be in retreat, and the first tentative signs of spring are here, the thought of life in the great outdoors is that much more appealing. Woodland walks and adventures offer a refreshing change of scene for adults and children alike. Bisham Woods, near Marlow, is an area of forest between Maidenhead and Marlow, protected by the Woodland Trust. It is an ancient woodland that was owned by the Knights Templar in the thirteenth century, and subsequently by the Hoby family of Bisham Abbey. The most famous member of this family, Elizabeth Hoby (subsequently Lady Russell) is said to have ridden with Elizabeth I in these woods. Quarry Wood (part of Bisham Woods) is the site of a medieval quarry that supplied stone for Windsor Castle.
Bisham Woods’ more recent claim to fame is as the setting for Kenneth Grahame’s children’s story The Wind in the Willows. Grahame lived in the area as a child and returned, as an adult, to live at his country house, ‘Mayfield’ at Cookham Dean. The adventures of Ratty, Mole, Toad and Badger sit well in these woods, on the upper reaches of the Thames, especially on balmy summer afternoons!
At the moment (late February), the woods retain the spartan, architectural feel of winter. It soon becomes clear, however, that the ‘Wild Wood’ of Toad, Ratty, Mole and company is teeming with animal and plant life. The air is dense with birdsong, and you can’t walk too far without hearing the sounds of woodpecker carpentry – and you may even find some evidence on the ground!
The forest floor is rich in fungi, and plants such as Lords and Ladies are already in residence, to be joined later in the season by bluebells. There are signs of symbiosis everywhere, in the form of fungi and parasitic plants and, in the presence of plentiful dead wood, yet more fungi are thriving.
For children there is plenty of scope for play and, even during a brief walk, you will see numerous splendid dens!
As well as being a beautiful location, Bisham offers much to those with an interest in the natural world. It is a broadleaved woodland, meaning that most of the trees are deciduous, shedding their leaves in the autumn and winter. It is The woods are a Site of Special Scientific Interest both on account of their ground flora, and the different types of woodland to be seen. Among the more unusual plants are bird’s nest orchid, and nettle-leaved bellflower.
The bird’s nest orchid is particularly interesting, being leafless and lacking in chlorophyll. Instead of obtaining its energy through photosynthesis, it depends on host mycorrhizal fungus in the soil, which itself depends on attachment to trees. All three types of organism involved in this complex relationship survive, so it is clearly of mutual benefit. The plant takes its name from its apparently chaotic root-system.
The loss of deciduous woodland habitat has led to the decline of this interesting plant, which is now categorised as ‘vulnerable’ and tending towards ‘endangered.’ Plants such as the birds nest orchid depend on traditionally-managed woodland for the provision of a habitat which allows them to thrive.
Bisham Woods can be accessed by Quarry Wood Road: From Windsor, take the A404 to the Bisham roundabout, where you turn left towards Bisham on the Marlow Road. Continue along the road for about a mile, then take the right turn onto Quarry Wood Road. Continue for a further mile to the access to Quarry Wood (part of Bisham Woods). There is no car park, but there are lay-bys within easy walking distance.
In the words of the Sea Rat to Ratty:
‘Take the adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes!’Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.
 Hunt, Peter. “Grahame, Kenneth (1859–1932), writer and secretary of the Bank of England.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. May 19, 2011. Oxford University Press. Date of access 31 Jan. 2021, <https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-33511>