The beechwood stood on top of a hill, above a village at the edge of town, a stiff, steep walk up a narrow banked road. At the top were a couple of dirt clearings where you could park, an ancient church and graveyard (getting funeral processions up there must have been hard work), and a high mesh fence along the boundary of a golf course.
Not many plants grow under beech trees, so the floor of the wood was mostly drifts of last year’s leaves and twigs. In Autumn a riot of fungi appeared, from big grey brackets that sprouted on dead trees like gargoyles to the cheery fairytale death threats of scarlet fly agarics. It was best in summer, cool and quiet on the hottest day, for all that you’d be scratching a hundred flybites by the evening. There were a couple of vague trails but it was surprisingly easy to get lost in, and you could usually hear someone in the distance yelling for a dog that had dived into the brambles after a rabbit or muntjac deer, or just taken off up a track as some genetic wolf-memory kicked in. Rickety dens of sticks and rope-and-branch swings would appear in the summer, as would clandestine firepits (often with beer cans).
It was different things to different people: somewhere to tire the children or the dogs, ride a bike, pick blackberries or chestnuts, walk off a hangover, have a picnic or a party or a row. A place for solitude and adventure, assignations and foraging, exercise and peril, a familiar territory but just wild enough to tickle your hindbrain with primitive unease even in the daylight and properly creepy at night. It was full of life the way few other habitats are, most of it rustling out of sight. But none of this mattered in the face of the other thing the beechwood was: a crop. One autumn afternoon, after forty years of adventures, we got to the top of the hill and the acres of trees had gone, the bare earth churned like a battlefield, a place familiar for my whole life vanquished in a week or two by money and heavy machinery.
The next year, hundreds of saplings in plastic sleeves went into the ground, and the woods will one day stand tall there again, although not in my lifetime. At least the timber is still valuable enough to entice the landowner into replanting, and the site too awkward for housing or warehouses, unlike other woods which will only ever return when the concrete that replaced them crumbles into dereliction.