People in Britain were once frightened of forests. The Wildwood, or Milk Wood, once covered the British Isles, and cultural echoes of that vast forest lingered for a long time. For example, there are echoes of fearful forests in the language. The word glad comes from the word glade, a clearing in a forest. And glade comes from the word light, which is what you see when you reach a clearing in a dark forest. The Wild Wood was cleared over thousands of years, and attitudes to nature changed. During Elizabethan times we see Shakespeare fascinated by the idea of nature. The Forest of Arden, in Warwickshire, is the landscape which Shakespeare may have had in mind for the setting of his play As You Like It. These were the woods which lay near his boyhood home of Stratford-upon-Avon. In As You Like It Duke Senior found relief in the hardship and beauty of the forest, escaping the peril of the "envious court":
And this our life, exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything
I would not change it
As You Like It is a reflection on man's relationship with nature, and has many resonances for readers today. The play describes the beauty of nature, but also portrays characters seeking to escape the limits of "rustic" life and find the benefits of civilisation. At times man and nature seem set against each other: the forest can be a harsh place, and the only way to enjoy it is from a man made path. At other times nature and man seem to be one and the same. The envious court might callously ignore the unfortunate members of society, just as a herd of deer ignore an injured member of their herd. Our relationship with nature is a very contemporary issue, and the Forest of Arden is the place where Britain's greatest playwright set his own meditation on the subject.
The Forest of Arden once lay to the north of Stratford-upon-Avon, and although much of it has now been cleared the area still retains a wooded character. To visit the area you can simply drive up the A34 from Stratford to Birmingham, visiting villages of the former forest on the way. The first village you come to will be Wilmcote, where the cottage of Mary Arden, Shakespeare's mother, can be seen. Further down the road you will find the Arden region's former capital, the charming town of Henley-in-Arden.
Henley-in-Arden is the starting point for the Arden Way, a twenty six mile circular walk taking you through the countryside of the Forest of Arden. There is a free car park in the centre of the town. Click here for an interactive map centred on Henley in Arden.
The Stratford to Birmingham railway is also a good way to enjoy this area. Trains run in each direction once an hour, so it is easy to jump on a train, spend an hour or two in one of the villages, and then move on to the next one. On Sundays during the summer there is also an additional express service between Stratford and Birmingham hauled by steam locomotives.
Contact: The Heart of England Way Association: http://www.heartofenglandway.org/index2.html