Today’s challenge combines travel writing with historical fiction. Whereas yesterday’s story incorporated real places and factual information about my chosen location, today’s invents a tourist attraction and gives the fictional backstory to it.
Several years ago, I was out walking my dog when I stumbled across a hidden wood only a couple of miles from the centre of Birmingham. How I’d managed to miss this before, I didn’t know, but the place was beautiful: a carpet of bluebells stretched as far as the eye could see and there was a general feeling of tranquility and wellbeing as soon as I set foot amongst the trees. Walking past elm and birch, poplar and oak, it felt as if I’d been transported into a Tolkienesque world: I almost expected to see elves and hobbits peeping at me from behind leafy branches. Wanting to visit this magical world again, I made a note on my phone of where it was. I’m not famed for my sense of direction, but Google Maps has proved pretty infallible so far. Only, it turned out it wasn’t as infallible as I’d thought. The following weekend, dog in tow, I checked my map app and headed for Cotteridge’s answer to Lothlorien. It wasn’t there. At first, I thought it was just the app playing up, but after searching for over an hour, I had to admit defeat. The dog thought his extended walk was wonderful whereas I just wanted to find the spot that had induced such a feeling of calm and rightness. I asked around, but none of my friends seemed to know what I was talking about. That, I thought, was the end of it – until a random Instagram post by a friend in Cornwall caused me to think again. Amidst photos of clifftop scenery and crowded beaches, a familiar scene caught my eye. That was my hidden wood – but how had Jen found it, and what had she been doing in Birmingham? I left a comment on her post to the effect of she should have let me know she’d been in my neck of the woods (I was proud of the pun) and could she remind me exactly where this spot was located. Her answer appeared an hour or two later, claiming confusion as this was a wood she and a friend had discovered whilst walking near Bodmin. “I’m not exactly sure where it was,” she wrote. “I’ve been back to look for it since but couldn’t find it. Even then, I might have chalked the whole thing up to coincidence – after all, one bluebell wood looks much like another – had it not been for a third photo, identical to the ones Jen and I had taken, which popped up on a Facebook feed from someone holidaying in Yorkshire. Despite their diverse locations, all three had something in common: the person who’d taken the photo had never been able to find the spot again. It was at this point that something tugged at my memory. Hadn’t there been a documentary on TV a while ago about a wood that seemed to vanish and reappear at will? A Google search uncovered at least a hundred YouTube links – some relating to the programme I vaguely remembered watching and others that showed people talking to the camera about their own experiences of ‘Elf Wood’ as some of them had named it. Most of the personal vlogs were pretty standard: people who were so desperate to be famous that they would have claimed anything if they thought it would get them more likes. I discounted anything supernatural or downright weird, thinking that you were always bound to get a few nut jobs with something like this, and then turned my attention to the clips from the TV programme, trying to sift through them to find the ones with the best quality. I hadn’t been far off the mark when I called the wood ‘Tolkienesque’: it turns out old JRR himself had discovered Elf Wood as a boy, shortly after moving to Sarehole in 1896. Part of the documentary featured the narrator reading out bits from Tolkien’s personal diaries where he described his memories of being taken on a walk at the age of 5 or 6 and finding himself in a magical fairyland. “At the time, I thought I had stumbled into a less disturbing version of Alice’s Wonderland,” he wrote, “and although I went back time and time again to recapture the delight I felt, somehow the precise location of the wood eluded me, so that after a few years, I began to wonder whether it had actually existed or been just a figment of my childish imagination.” Another clip suggested that when Tolkien came to write The Lord of the Rings many years later, he had had modelled the elves’ woodland realm on this unknown location. There was also a strong possibility that it might have been the inspiration for Alan Lee’s paintings in illustrated copies of the book – paintings which had then been used as a guide for the sets in Peter Jackson’s well known film trilogy. Since then, I’ve found myself obsessively researching bluebell woods, fairy woods, vanishing woods and just about anything else that might possibly be something to do with the place I discovered by chance and haven’t seen again. Familiar-looking photos pop up on social media with great regularity, and the given location is different every time. From what I can tell, it’s mentioned in countless local records as far back as the 1530s, so it’s been casting its spell on those who find it for centuries. I’ve resigned myself now to the knowledge that I’ll probably never find it again. ‘Elf Wood’, as I’ve come to think of it, isn’t the sort of place you can visit twice. What’s more, I think I always knew there was something otherworldly about the experience because the ground was carpeted with bluebells and yet I discovered it in the middle of winter.