I have spent the day working at the Herbert Art Gallery which has an excellent exhibition at the moment of the work of Michala Gyetvai. Michala is a local artist who works in thread, fabric and paint to represent nature trees and landscape and it is very good. Using this medium she had produced haunting, powerful images of trees. I must admit, being a man, it took me a bit to understand what seemed at first to be sewing but when it hit me it was like being hit with a slice of lemon wrapped around a gold brick.
I have had a few days off over winter and it has taken me a bit to find a topic to write a post about and it occurred to me, in conversation with Rob, in fact it was Robs idea that we do not think about the forests of ancient Britain enough. In fact it is rather difficult if not impossible for us to really get to grips with how dominated these islands were by these oak forests.
The farmlands of Britain, the patchwork quilt of fields seen from a plane, are an incredibly recent phenomena. An unforested Britain, familiar to us, and people all over the world, from Victorian pictures is unusual. Throughout our history we have been dominated by the deep dark woods.
The deep dark woods were not the exception, they were the rule. It was an isolated farmstead, a Celtic hill fort or emerging Roman city that was the exception, surrounded at all times by a sea of green foliage and if that foliage were gifted the power of the movement it could easily have shaken man from the island, into sea and reserved the island for themselves.
For the Romans this must have been… disconcerting. In the early years the famous Roman roads had not been completed and even where they had a cohort might march out of Colchester and vanish almost immediately into the forest.
Forests were not the friends of the Romans and since the terrible loss of three legions in the Teutoburg forests generals into the darkness. Varians humiliation cast a deep shadow over the minds of later generals who would prefer to use auxiliaries in the Britain rather than their heavy infantry. The invincible heavy infantry were disadvantaged in the woodland in contrast to the auxilaries who, recruited from Germany and Gaul were in their element.
To march out of the fort was to march into hostile territory where the Romans were usually at a disadvantage. The forests inhibited communication, speed of movement and combat efficiency. And after the Boadicea revolt with those forests haunted by dispossessed Celts it is no wonder that the “pacification” of the midlands took over a decade.