This tale is inspired by a trip I made to the Undercliff; along the Devon and Dorset coast, which is an area of landslides that has become overgrown with woodland.
A fog hung heavily over the gentle undulations of the ocean waves; smothering the water like a thick woollen rug and absorbing every trace of sound. The man in the boat could barely see or hear his own oars plashing in and out of the treacle-black water, he did not know where he was going and even if he could have seen the coastline he doubted if even then he would be able to identify where he was. He was lost and had been since this formless cloud had descended upon the sea and enveloped him and his boat. The one place that a human being should never lose themselves, the one place on all the Earth that you never want to become disorientated in, is the constant and vast expanse of the sea.
Time itself becomes lost and useless within this lowly cloud, all that the man has left is a morsel of hope and he fears how long that will last. He stopped rowing and turned his head for the umpteenth time, his dreary eyes took some seconds to register that they were actually seeing a form, a shape and colour that was not fog or boat. With a jolt he realised that he was seeing a coastline; the scrap of hope lurched and swelled within him and he took to the oars with renewed energy.
The boat hit the shingle and grinded as the man wrenched it out of the sea and up onto the beach, he stopped for breath and relished the sensation of standing upon solid, dry land. The fog thinned as it came into contact with the coast and it was through the now clear air that the man saw it – the forest, the dark and thick mass of twisted sea-green leaves that rose above him forming a dense barrier between the beach and the high cliff-face beyond. The closeness of the trees and density of the foliage astonished him; it was as though he were looking at a solid entity, the trees themselves were draped and encrusted with lichens, ferns, ivy, brambles and other creepers that gave the outward appearance of a tropical jungle.
As he stepped inside the world changed, within a few stumbles of his feet the sound of the waves lapping at the pebbles was gone and the suffused whiteness of the fog was replaced by a shaded, dark light pierced by the odd weak ray of sunshine and an overwhelming dominance of green. He attempted to make his way speedily towards the cliff, in the hope of a way up and out, but he did not know this place and in his haste he became entangled in hanging vines, his feet snared in masses of brambles and he received a mildly twisted ankle when his scrambling legs slipped into an unseen rent in the ground. As he sat upon the ground nursing his throbbing bones he looked around him and reconsidered his position, the landscape was unlike any that he had seen before; the ground heaved upwards in huge clumps of earth, studded with boulders only to fall away at the next turn into a cavernous and vegetation smothered crack or ravine. It was as though some vast creature from the depths of the Earth had attempted to split the heavy crust above it and escape, only to give up halfway and let the ruptured soil on the surface subside into the unpredictable mess of chasms and islands that the man now saw before him.
The man got up and continued on his way at a much slower and careful pace, checking the placing of each step to avoid further mishap. It was now that, as he ambled along, he noticed the wildlife – the plants were many and varied and they coated every last inch of the soil and rocks, they crept up the tree trunks and slithered over the edges of great boulders. The ivy and old-man’s beard was suffocating in its abundance and the way the plants hung in the air and grasped at his feet, slender and spiralling saplings grew with fervour out of every nook and cranny, forced into convoluted forms by the closeness of other trees and their own craning for the light. But the main body of the forest was made up of large and ancient veteran trees; Oaks, Ash, Beech, Chestnuts, Hawthorns, Blackthorns and evergreen Ilex. Their swollen boles and curved, zig-zag branches closed the canopy with a sinister tightness, their great bodies – cracked and fissured with age and deformed by the plant-saturated shadows of the forest that they were an inextricable part of – unnerved the man for reasons he could not explain.
But the man’s eye was distracted from the miasmic plant growth by the animals that inhabited this weird place; the birds were profuse and sung heartily, they fluttered and hopped amongst the thick shrubs in their search for food and places to nest. A smile was brought to the man’s lips as he observed the colours and patterns of the woodpeckers, thrushes, tree-creepers, nuthatches and multi-coloured titmice that thrived around him in this undisturbed wilderness. As he mounted a cube-shaped slice of cliff that lay askance where it had fallen, the man saw below him a lithe, swift moving, sausage-shaped creature popping in and out of the sea of vegetation; it was a nut-brown stoat hunting for rabbits or mice that must use the ground flora to hide from such predators – but in vain for the man saw the stoat suddenly twitch with lightning speed and appear atop a rock with a young rabbit clutched in its jaws.
It was never bright in this forest but despite this the man had noticed that the shadows were deepening and his vision rapidly losing its ability to see colour as everything blurred black and grey. Night approached and the man was just as lost as he had been at sea, the cliffs that rose out of the forest to his left were sheer and showed no way out, he realised that he would have to continue his journey tomorrow and made it his priority to find a suitable sleeping place. His feet were weary with walking on the uneven ground and he could barely see by the time that he came across the ruins; as he had climbed out of a small ravine he had seen before him the recognisable straight edges and symmetry of a man-made building. He peered around the crumbled remains of the walls in the hope of some shelter, the ruins looked ancient and he could just make out a roughly carved fire-place set into one wall – it was deep and not wanting to walk further he curled up his thin, hunger-panged body into the alcove and shivered himself into a fitful sleep.
Upon waking his stomach twisted with hunger and he unfurled himself from the fire-place and stretched his aching bones in the damp morning air, a robin whistled from a thorn-bush and dozy ladybirds wandered up his legs. He managed to scavenge some berries and quenched his thirst from a trickling brook that he found next to the nature-claimed ruins he had slept in. The man carried on through the wild-wood, just glimpsing the sea through the tangle of twigs – though it did not comfort him to see it – he squeezed between the tumbled rocks and hitched himself over the bent trunks of trees, he slid down moss coated gullies and hauled his weakened form up undulating slopes. All the while the insects, birds and mammals scurried about their daily lives unconcerned by this noisy human intrusion into their near-impenetrable home.
The man was now following a well-worn animal trail that wound its way up a hill between the imposing Ilex trees that grew in a huddled grove of their own. The plants were less dense here and the trees seemed to grow straighter and farther apart than what the man had grown used to, as the man reached the crest of the hill his eyes widened in astonishment and that nugget of hope nestled in his heart burst into full satisfaction as he saw before him a tarmac road. The familiar hum of a car approached him, he stuck out his thumb and then waved his arms as it came around the corner, the car stopped and the woman who was driving leaned out the window and asked where he was headed. “The nearest pub please!” the man replied as he climbed eagerly into the back of the car.