Review: The Great North Wood (Avery Hill Publishing)

Thanks to books like Our Town and From The City To The Sea, Tim Bird has created a unique voice for himself in the UK small press scene, thanks to his thoughtful musings on the modern world told via an almost analytical look at the geography of the world around us. After a brief sojourn into snooker with The Rocket, Tim has headed back into the woods to tell a story of urban growth and decay, via the nocturnal habits of a fox and a late night chicken shop in The Great North Wood.  

Publisher: Avery Hill Publishing
Writer: Tim Bird
Artist: Tim Bird
Price: Pre-order for £9.99 from the Avery Hill Store

The Great North Wood in question, is actually in south London, and historically stretches from Lambeth in the west, to Lewisham in the East, Deptford in the north and Croydon in the south. Bird’s book looks at the history of this once great wooded area and it’s influence on the local area (from names to folklore), as well as the impact that deforestation and urbanisation has had on society in general during that period. The 10 or so chapters and stories are threaded together by the presence of a fox, who we first see routing through the boxes from a late night chicken shop and we follow his journey and that of the wood, from the moment the trees began to grow through to the modern world and their subsequent take over of a decaying city in a non-specific rural future.

Although the story is not about the fox, it gives the book a central focus, as well as evoking that perfect mix of rural idyll and urban nature and allows the story to be about more than a collection of anecdotes or essays on the state of the world. As Bird moves his story through the ages, the fox meanders from dream like flights of fancy that see white stags and tree-bearded forest folk hark back to a bygone age, through to more recognisable stories – such as The Story of Ned Righteous, a folk tale about a Victorian doctor who has an encounter with a well known traveller tough guy, or the Honor Oak about the history of one specific tree in the forest. As the stories meander in and out of the overall narrative he mixes in pages of analysis about the history of the area, diagrams of tree trunks, musings on the history of certain London borough names as well as some extraordinarily beautiful images of trees themselves.

As you might expect given it’s subject matter, The Great North Wood reads like a slow Sunday walk through a forest and it almost feels as if you comes across these moments of narrative clarity in the way that you would find a clearing in the wood or an interesting piece of plant life. This makes for a very tranquil and calming read, as well as one that informs and inspires as well as encourages you to think about the world around you and it’s history.

Bird’s artwork has a glorious simplicity to is, with very few wasted lines. However he manages to perfectly capture the rural scenes in a way that is truly something special. His landscapes feel like you inhabit them, but without the need for photographic detail. Meanwhile the fox is a delightful study in simplicity, whose orange hue brings colour to the otherwise very muted colours of the book as a whole and works as a fascinating central character. (Despite his lack of dialogue).

However, it is not all airy fairy pictures of foxes and trees, as Bird also has a keen sense of design with some beautiful hand drawn maps and infographics, that along with some tightly structured pages, give the book a density that juxtapose so well with the calm openness of the more rural shots. Recurring motives like the fox, the chicken from the chicken shop also find themselves interwoven into scenes, referring back and forth to previous chapters and having multiple purposes, making the whole thing feel very considered and very carefully planned out.

While Bird’s previous works had a uniqueness and originality to them, we’ll be honest, we struggled a bit to get into them and found them to be interesting curios, rather than essential reads. However with The Great North Wood Bird has managed to balance thoughtful story telling and sublime imagery to create something very special. With Avery Hill set to have a landmark year in terms of quality, The Great North Wood has the set the bar extremely high for the other titles to follow. It is a really remarkable book that warrants reading and re-reading to truly get the measure of everything that bird has to say. Whether you are an urbanite, a country soul or aspiring to either then it is a truly magical read and a bit like Avery Hill’s other recent release, Permanent Press, is a book that you find yourself returning to and thinking over just what it is you have read.