Thoroughly British Rainforests

I have just been reading a book about rainforests. In Britain. Not the exotic tropical rainforests seen on television through which, drenched in sweat, you hack your way, attacked by insects and snakes as you wield your machete: but the gentler British version, temperate rainforest. These increasingly rare woods now occupy under 1% of the earth’s surface. No wonder they’re a best-kept secret.

Guy Shrubsole‘s The Lost Rainforests of Britain is an engaging and thoroughly absorbing account of a National Treasure of which most of us in Britain are completely unaware. Our temperate rainforests are spectacular woodlands with ancient, often stunted gnarled trees, draped and and bearded with mosses and lichens, and once marched across the British Isles from Dartmoor in the south to the north of Scotland – most particularly on the more sodden eastern seaboard. These days this unique habitat is increasingly under threat, and tiny pockets of such forest are now hard to find, and increasingly isolated and encroached upon.

Guy Shrubsole is the evangelist who seeks to protect and save them. To tell the story of this once widespread forest, he discusses geology, farming history, climate, Celtic Druids, the Romantic poets, JRR Tolkein – even Arthur Conan Doyle. He maps the eco-system in detail and calls for immediate political and public support: Shrubsole is a campaigner as well as a writer. This book may sound worthy, and therefore possibly dull. But it’s very readable, elegiac, amusing, entrancing and shocking by turn. It may turn out to be 2023’s Must Read.

None of these images is from a temperate rainforest: I haven’t – yet – visited one. But the picture shows somewhere I have been: the so-called Lud’s Church, a ferny gorge near Gradbach in Staffordshire, where the cool damp microclimate qualifies it as the very tiniest of rainforests.

I read this for the 2023 Gaia/Nature Reading Challenge

It fired my imagination, and reminded me that I may already have explored such a dim, green and shady place, crowded with trees clothed in soft green mosses, and draped with tangles of lichen, evocative of a spirit life with wraiths, witches and goblins. It wasn’t here in England, but in southern France, where even in the foothills of the Pyrenees it’s hot and often dry. I’ll post about that next …