I did some work for The Woodland Trust recently. A lovely couple of days in the north of England to photograph some of their woodlands. Smithills Estate near Bolton made a big impression on me. Located on the outskirts of Bolton, the mixed woodland thrives in several glens leading up onto the high moors beyond.
But it’s the proximity to Bolton, a hard-working industrial town, and Manchester beyond, that really struck me. From high up on the moors, looking over the rich tapestry of woodland, the sprawling skyline of Manchester dominated. In the middle distance the remains of Bolton’s industrial roots are visible, tall chimneys thrusting skywards and old mill buildings converted to luxury residences.
I’m not sure if anyone else has the same experience as me, but every time I point a large lens at a tree, a passerby asks “…what are you photographing?” and then looks at me in disbelief when I answer “…trees, I’m photographing trees!”
When I was with a group in the USA it became rather unnerving to be asked numerous times when spotted with a large lens pointed into a thicket: “Is it a moose? Is it a bear? Is it a wolf?” and to have a snort of disbelief in response to my explanation “..no just photographing the trees”. (I’ve written about this here.)
Unfortunately there are no wolves or bears in Smithills Wood, but its still pretty impressive. I had fleeting glimpses of roe deer, saw fox scat, and ravens wheeled overhead at dusk and dawn.But I still had to explain to many walkers what I was pointing my lens at: “Yes’ ‘just’ trees!”
Despite its proximity to several major towns and being well used by the local community, the woodland retains a real sense of ‘wild’. Going off the path and into the narrow glens where the river runs revealed gloriously lush vegetation, moss and ferns thriving. The windrush in the leaves, and the tinkle of the stream drowning out any other sounds. It felt remote and wonderful. Occasionally a passing jet from Manchester Airport reminded me of the real world, but standing with my feet buried in the moss and watching foam swirl in the peaty black water soon distracted me.
Smithills Estate has a rich history of local use. In 1896 Colonel Richard Ainsworth, the owner, closed Smithills Moor to enable grouse shooting. But the people of Bolton were furious. Generations of Bolton residents had enjoyed the freedom to roam up the glen and onto the moor, and with the assistance of local journalist Solomon Partington, a mass trespass was organized. Ten thousand Bolton residents marched up Smithills Dean Road and onto Coal Pit Road to demand the moor remain publicly accessible, but it was forty years before the moorland was reopened fully to the public.
The Woodland Trust will celebrate this historic movement over the next few months, working with local schools to design artwork, and explore the woodland and its rich social and natural history.
In my few days at Smithills I met a rich miscellany of dog walkers, ramblers, birdwatchers, cyclists, joggers, wild campers, mums and toddlers, dads and sons, whole families, horse-riders, and many others, each reveling in the experience of being in this surprisingly wild place. And all of them were smiling.
Woodlands matter. And woodlands near cities matter even more. If you have one near you, cherish it, look after it and use it. And if you’re able to, support The Woodland Trust, to enable them to maintain such woodlands for others.
Here’s a few images from the shoot. If you’re near Bolton I can heartily recommend a walk in these surprisingly wild woods.