The embankment is reached from the Taymount Mains farm track, and you then head towards Kinclaven and Ballathie, across open country, under disused bridges and past a little railwaymen’s shed made of sleepers with a brick chimney still in place. Although today’s challenge for us was to find and walk the narrow path through the northern finger of the wood, the line itself offered a few challenges – a chilly wind and stretches of water where the rains of March hadn’t percolated the poorly-drained soil.
You turn north-west away from the line before you get to the grounds of Ballathie Hotel, crossing the road and continuing north up a rough track beside the Old Smiddy. The track goes past several houses and in the past, we’d stuck to it, until it vanished at a farmhouse. Then we’d scrambled witlessly through fields and fences and bits of scrub till we arrived, somehow, on a track in Taymount Wood. This time, we were determined to find the “proper” path. So, we left the comfy track when it turned the bend and continued up to the edge of the wood. People had been this way, but not many, and it wasn’t clear how far in we should go before we turned left. Google satellite was remarkably unhelpful.
Dogs have many uses. Everyone thinks of companionship, protection and exercise machine, but an intelligent dog is a wonder at Finding the Path. While we stood wondering and wafting around, Jed set off into the unruly herbage with a look of collie dog purpose, nose to the ground. Sure enough, when we followed, there were the vestiges of a footpath. It doesn’t take many human footprints – and barely one canine print – to inform Jed this is The Way to Go. We continued, scrambling after him, and he didn’t lead us into any blind alleys. At times, we were on the point of losing faith, but then the path would reappear, on the other side of a boggy stretch or a tangle of bramble and brushwood.
Windthrow had put up many of the barriers that challenged us. I discovered I’m at an age where I’m a bit stiff for limbo-dancing under fallen trees, and my sense of balance (never my strong point) for climbing over them was precarious to say the least. There were points when we even doubted the dog, but then to our great surprise we encountered someone going the other way – an ecologist doing a survey of small mammals for West Stormont Woodland Group no less – who assured us that a. we were on the path and b. it was passable, if a tad wet in places. Well, we certainly found the wet places and finally stumbled out onto the hard forestry track that would eventually take us through the main wood and back to the car park. The challenge wasn’t quite over – several metres of scratchy, mean-minded gorse had colonised the track to meet in the middle, and we suffered quite a few scratches and tears before we were through it – noting jealously how impervious the coat of a collie dog is just about anything.
And the gift from today’s walk? There were lots – newly unfurling larch leaves, frogspawn in a drowning bit of track, skeletons of last year’s ferns, the beautiful vertical grandeur of the trees that hadn’t blown down, some chestnut brown bracket fungi left from the autumn. But as soon as we entered the wood on our optimistically rediscovered path, we heard the chiff-chaff call nearby. The earliest of our summer warblers to arrive, this is a small brown job of a bird, indistinguishable from willow and wood warblers unless it keeps still and stays a metre away from you. This one didn’t – they never do – but the call, exactly like the bird’s name, sets it apart. We never saw our little warbler, but the mocking “chiff-chaff-chiff-chiff-chaff” was never far away. It was, I am sure, laughing its little head off, but we chose to find it encouraging. When we found ourselves safely “out of the woods” and into the wood, it went off to scoff at something else. It made us appreciate all over again the wide range of habitats the woods provide for many bird species, residents and summer or winter visitors. I look forward to more birdsong in Taymount Woods this spring.