Squeezed into an improbably small space in the very heart of England between Leicester (pronounced ‘Lester’) and Loughborough (pronounced ‘Chicago’) is a magical region called Charnwood Forest. Given the proximity of the amenities of modern life and two fairly large conurbations, Charnwood Forest is the Land that Time Forgot. In the middle of Charnwood Forest is a small village called Woodhouse Eaves. In the middle of Woodhouse Eaves is a small cottage. And, for the past ten days, in the middle of the small cottage was Yours Truly, sent by Mrs Gee who knows the signs when I am just about to lose all connection with reality and go completely Harpic*.
The worries of COVID; the exigencies of working at the Submerged Log Company; and the seemingly relentless round of publicity surrounding my recent tome A (Very) Short History of Sex and Chocolate – all had taken their toll. Now, these are all nice problems to have, but it seems that I have no ‘off’ switch and occasionally need a retreat — by way of a circuit breaker — where I can be quiet and peaceful, on my own, just me, tout seul, and unaccompanied except for my walking boots and a pile of light reading of the kind that Mrs Gee won’t look at and say pityingly ‘Oh, your Poor Brain’.
You could hardly imagine anywhere more quintessentially English than Charnwood Forest. Grand houses and deer parks;
villages with quaint chocolate-box cottages;
water meadows; glittering streams;
deep forests with the occasional folly straight out of a fairy tale;
romantically craggy outcrops;
horses, cows, sheep and albino emus.
I do love to go for a ramble, though being of a large and expansive frame seven miles is usually my limit notwithstanding inasmuch as which I walk dogs every day while at home. Happily Woodhouse Eaves is very close to some amazing walks. It lies close to not one but two yes two count ’em two trails — the National Forest Way and the Leicestershire Round, each of which takes you through landscape ranging from the bucolic to the breathtaking, yet without one ever needing to scramble down vertical scree or having to rope oneself together while bridging a dangerous crevasse. Of course, one can mix’n’match pieces of these trails and also incorporate the many public footpaths, and all of them have been carefully signposted so you can’t get lost. I did, however, use the Ordnance Survey app on my smartphone, which enhanced the experience.
Being as I am a recovering palaeontologist, Charnwood Forest offered me the opportunity to slip off the wagon. Here’s why — this part of Leicestershire yields among the oldest fossils in the world that can be seen without a microscope. These fossils belong to Ediacaran Biota, strange frondlike creatures of uncertain affinity that wafted in an eldritch manner on the ocean floor around 600 million years ago, and which were wiped out in the Cambrian Explosion some 541 million years ago. With fronds like that, who needs anemone’s? Now, one usually imagines that one has to go an awfully long way to find fossils of such preternatural antiquity. Fossils of this age are known from places as far-flung as the Deserts
of Sudan, and the Gardens of Japan of Namibia; the time-worn hills of South Australia; and the frozen wastes of Arctic Russia. But no, you can find them around Charnwood Forest, if you know where to look. For they are not easy to spot. I only found them at all thanks to the guidance of my friend Professor E. M. of Cambridge, who is an expert on the Ediacaran Biota.
The fossils are no more than crinkles in the rock, the life-forms having been buried, Pompeii-like, in layers of volcanic ash that settled on the floor of the tropical ocean where they once thrived, the rock setting hard, and, after jostling around on the Earth’s surface came to rest in a quiet corner of Leicestershire, of all places, such that I might come upon them half a billion years later.
*Clean Round The Bend