I don’t spook easily, these days. I do most of my explorations around MK alone, and have pretty much got used to the tickles at the back of my neck that mean I’m being watched, and usually it’s a magpie about to tell me off, or a neighbourhood cat watching me go by. But on Christmas Eve, when I went for a wander up to Shenley Wood and stepped off the beaten track for a moment, I had a distinct sense that I wasn’t on my own, even though there was no-one else to be seen.
The paths through Shenley Wood are always a bit of an adventure. They’re bark-chipped, for the most part, but often so boggy that in places, I’ve come close to sacrificing a shoe to the ooze. I was squelching uphill through one of these bits when I spotted a strange structure hidden in the trees just off to my left. Any other time of year it would have been hidden in the foliage but winter lays everything bare. It looked like a metal chute chained to one of the thicker trees and I was intrigued to work out what it might be. There was a small track leading off the main path into the clearing, so I hopped and wobbled my way in. However, the odd contraption wasn’t the only thing I found in the clearing.
The clearing was a jumble of stumps and felled trees, one of standing stumps displaying an alarming collection of deep cuts and slash marks, with some rudimentary words etched into the bark. It looked like some of the felling work had been recent, as sawdust was still piled up in places, the air sweet and sharp with its woody scent. However, the slashes and gouges looked old, healed over. My expert knowledge is in psychology, not dendrology, but I couldn’t see any obvious reason why the bark would have been cut like this – the cuts didn’t make patterns near any branch junctions or joints, and then there were those deeply carved letters. The random nature of the cuts and the depth with which they had been incised made me uncomfortable. Someone – or several people – had to have been here at some point, knives out and cutting away.
The long-healed nature of the cuts probably meant the perpetrators were long gone. However, I walked around the central cluster of trunks a couple of times, and it was on my second circuit that I had a definite sense that someone was watching through the trees, just out of sight. Further into the wood, the trees do grow closely together so it would be perfectly possible for someone to be hiding in the shadows on the deep side. In a green jacket with a fetching embroidered rucksack, I’m pretty easy to see and I certainly wasn’t being quiet. There weren’t many people up in the woods that morning, and I suddenly felt very conscious of being visible, in the middle of a space away from any of the main paths and certainly out of yelling range for any help, should anything happen. I refused to let the creepiness get to me, so made a final circuit round before heading back for the path.
I just couldn’t shake off that sense of eeriness though, so cut my walk short, heading out of the wood as soon as I could.
I tweeted @TheParksTrust the next day to ask about the contraption, and they very kindly came back and explained it’s a squirrel feeder. So, no mystery there, and good to know that something that looked more like a trap is actually there for a good purpose! As for the carvings – I still don’t know.
Update, January 23rd: Found on the North Loughton Valley path, between Great Holm and Bradwell Abbey: another carved stump. Why?!