Dalby Forest & The War
I love visiting places where nature and history meet - just like Sydenham Hill Wood, the ancient woodland I used to volunteer in in London where an abandoned railway line cuts through the forest like a rusty scar. Dalby Forest is one of those places. I spent the day there during my week in the north, accompanied by the brilliant Petra who gave me a tour of the site and bought me a delicious panini for lunch. Thanks Petra!
Dalby is heavily connected with the war - which was the main ignition for the creation of the Forestry Commission in 1919. The First World War used up a large portion of our national timber reserves, and the Commission was formed to grow new timber plantations and ensure a sustainable supply for any future conflicts.
After the First World War, work camps were created to provide an income for local people and former soldiers. A village was built in Dalby, and Forestry Commission workers lived here for decades, until it was finally privatised and the houses sold to new residents. Petra showed me the village and the surrounding area, including an overgrown patch of nettles where a swimming pool once stood for the workers to enjoy and bathe in!
On the side of the road at Dalby, a memorial statue of a felled tree and two ‘lumberjills’ stands as a celebration of the women who worked in the forest as part of the war effort. When male workers left for war, women picked up the slack all around the country to work the land and ensure our national industries continued to move forward. Most were, of course, forced to return to housework when the war ended and the men returned, but the war undoubtedly marked a turning point in women’s role in society.
The highlight of my visit was a trip to the Nissen Hut sculpture, created by Turner Prize winner Rachel Whiteread as part of the centenary project. It was a remarkable site in the heart of the forest, inspired by the Nissen hut building commonly used during wartime to create living and working spaces that were versatile and easy to construct and move without planning permission. It was opened in October 2018 and cast in concrete, but the shape is not the hut itself - instead, it is the shape of the air inside the hut, complete with bullet holes, dents and cracks in the windows. It was based on a real Nissen hut still remaining after the war, a tunnel-shaped hut made of corrugated iron with a cement floor, designed by Major Peter Norman Nissen in WWI.
The Nissen Hut sculpture’s simplicity and starkness against the forest backdrop made it a beautiful addition to the Dalby landscape, and as we watched, a speckled wood butterfly landed and sunbathed on the concrete corrugated iron roof, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this sculpture had not always been part of its forest home. For me, this symbolised the urgency of caring for our landscapes - to reflect on our heritage and admire the past, but more importantly, to accept change and move forward with the reality of modern conservation.