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chapter twenty-four

The Grantor leaves the guardianship of the Woodlands to the kindly sympathy of the University The University will take all reasonable steps to preserve and maintain the woodlands and will use them for the instruction of suitable students and will provide facilities for research

(Extract from the deed under which Wytham Wood was acquired by the University of Oxford on 4 August 1942 as a gift from Col. ffennell)

many Oxonians know 'Wytham' as the village on the way to the wood. But Morse knew the spot as the village, situated on the edge of the wood, which housed the White Hart Inn; and he pointed lovingly to the hostelry the next morning as Lewis drove the pair of them to their meeting with the head forester.

'Did you know,' asked Morse (consulting his leaflet) 'that in the parish of Wytham, a large part of it covered with woods, the rround rises from the banks of the Thames or "Isis" to a height of 539 feet at Wytham Hill, the central point of the ancient parish?'

'No, sir,' replied Lewis, turning right just after the pub into a stretch of progressively narrowing roadway that was very soon marked by the sign 'Private Property: University of Oxford'.

'You don't sound very interested -'

'Look!' shouted Lewis. 'See that?'

'No!' In his youth Morse had almost invariably been the boy in:he group who missed out; whilst his schoolmates were perpetually-spotting birds' eggs, the blue flash of kingfishers, or gingery foxes momentarily motionless at the edge of cornfields, the young Morse had seldom seen anything; the old Morse had seen nothing now.

'What exactly was the cause of all the excitement, Lewis?'

'Deer, sir. Roe-deer, I think. Two of them, just behind '

'Are they different from normal deer?'

'I don't reckon you're going to be too much help in this neck of the woods, sir.'

Morse made no comment on such a nicely turned phrase, Lewis drove half a mile or so further, with an area of fairly dense woodland on his left, until he reached a semi-circular parking lot also on his left. 'Cars must be left at one of the two car parks shown on the plan', the map said; and in any case a locked barrier across the road effectively blocked further progress to motor vehicles. Lewis pulled the police car in beside an ancient, rusting Ford.

'Good to see some people care, sir,' ventured Lewis, pointing to an RSPB sticker on one side window and a larger 'Save the Whale plea on the other.

'Probably here for a snog under the sycamores,' Morse replied cheerfully.

A low, stone-built cottage stood thirty yards or so back on the further side of the track. 'That must be where Mr Michaels lives, sir. Nice view looking right across there to Eynsham.'

'C'mon,' said Morse.

It was just past the barrier, which they negotiated via a kissing gate, set in its V-shaped frame, that the two detectives came, on their left, to a large clearing, some 100 yards square, with fir saplings planted around the fenced perimeter, in which was set, whole complex of sheds and barns, built in horizontally slatted wood, with piles of spruce- and fir-logs stacked nearby, and with several tractors and pieces of tree-felling machinery standing beside or beneath the open-fronted barns.

From the furthest shed a figure walked down the slope to great them a man of about fifty or so, blue-eyed, closely bearded, little short of six foot introducing himself as David Michaels, the head forester. They shook hands with the man, Morse being careful to keep slightly behind Lewis as a black and white dog, bounding energetically after his master, sought to introduce himself too.

In the forester's hut, Michaels briefly described the lay-out the woods (plural!), referring repeatedly to the four Ordnance Survey maps on the inner wall, themselves pinned together in large oblong to give a synoptic view of the whole area under forester's charge. There was a University Committee, the policemen learnt, administering Wytham Woods, to whom he (Michael was personally responsible, with a University Land Agent acting as Executive Officer; and it was to the latter that the police would need to apply formally. Permits to walk in the woods (this in answer to Lewis) were issued, on request, to any resident teachers or administrators in the University, and of course to any other citizen, Town or Gown, who was able to provide adequate cause, and no criminal impediment, for wishing to visit the area.

Morse himself became more interested when Michaels moved closer to the maps and expanded on the woods' main attractions, his right forefinger tracing its way through what (to Morse) was ~- wonderfully attractive-sounding catalogue: Duck Pond; The Follies; Bowling Alley; Cowleaze Copse; Froghole Cottage; Hatch-, tit Lane; Marley Wood; Pasticks; Singing Way; Sparrow Lane almost like the music of the woods and birds themselves.

But as he watched and listened, Morse's heart was sinking -lightly lower. The woodlands were vast; and Michaels himself, now in his fifteenth year there, admitted that there were several areas where he had never probably would never set foot; parts known only to the badgers and the foxes and the deer and the families of woodpeckers. Yet somehow the mention of the woodpeckers appeared to restore Morse's confidence, and he gratefully accepted the forester's offer of a guided tour.

Lewis sat on the floor in the back of the rugged, powerful, ineffably uncomfortable and bouncy Land-rover, with Bobbie, the only dog allowed in the woods. Morse sat in the front with Michaels, who spent the next ninety minutes driving across the tracks and rides and narrow paths which linked the names of his earlier litany.

For a while Morse toyed with the idea of bringing in the military perhaps a couple of thousand men from local units, under the command of some finicky brigadier sitting in Caesar's tent and ticking off the square yards one by one. Then he put his thoughts into words:

You know I'm beginning to think it'd take an army a couple c months to cover all this.'

"Oh, I don't know,' replied Michaels. Surprisingly?


Patiently the forester explained how during the summer months there were dozens of devotees who regularly checked the numbers of eggs and weights of fledglings in the hundreds of bird-boxes there; who laid nocturnal wait to observe the doings of the badgers who clipped tags and bugging devices to fox-cubs; and so many others who throughout the year monitored the ecological pattern that Nature had imposed on Wytham Woods. Then there were the members of the public who were forever wandering around with their birdwatchers' guides and their binoculars, or looking for woodland orchids, or just enjoying the peace and beauty of it all

Morse was nodding automatically through much of the recital and he fully took the point that Michaels was making; he'd guessed as much anyway, but things were clearer in his mind now.

'You mean there's a good deal of ground we can probably forget'

'That's it. And a good deal you can't.'

'So we need to establish some priorities,' Lewis chirped up from the rear.

'That was the, er, general conclusion that Mr Michaels myself had just reached, Lewis.'

'Eighteen months ago, all this was, you say?' asked Michaels.

'Twelve, actually.'

'So if if she'd been just left there, you know, without trying to hide her or anything?'

'Oh yes, there probably wouldn't be all that much of her still around you'll know that better than most. But it's more often found in a shallow grave", isn't it? That's the jargon. Not surprising though that murderers should want to cover up their crimes: they often dig a bit and put twigs and leaves and things over.. over the top. But you need a spade for that. In the summer you'd need a sharp spade and plenty of time, and a bit of daylight, and a bit of nerve They tell me it takes a couple of sextons abouij eight hours to dig a decent grave.'

Perhaps it was the crudity and cruelty of the scene just conjured up which cast a gloom upon them now and they spoke no more of the murder for the rest of the bumpy journey. Just about birds. Morse asked about woodpeckers, and Michaels knew a great deal about woodpeckers: the green, the great-spotted, the lesser-spotted, all had their habitats within the woods and all were of especial interest to birdwatchers.

'You interested in woodpeckers, Inspector?'

'Splendid birds,' muttered Morse vaguely.

Back in the hut, Morse explained the limitation of his likely resources and the obvious need therefore for some selective approach. 'What I'd really like to know is this please don't feel offended, Mr Michaels. But if you wanted to hide a body in these woods, which places would come to mind first?'

So Michaels told them; and Lewis made his notes, feeling a little uneasy about his spelling of some of the names which Morse had I earlier found so memorable.

When twenty minutes later the trio walked down towards the police car, they heard a sharp crack of a gun.

'One of the farmers,' explained Michaels. 'Taking a pot at some pigeons, like as not.'

'I didn't see any guns in your office,' commented Lewis.

'Oh, I couldn't keep 'em there! Against the law, that is, Sergeant.'

'But I suppose you must have one in your job, sir?'

'Oh yeah! Couldn't do without. In a steel cabinet in there' Michaels pointed to the low cottage 'well and truly locked away, I believe me! In fact, I'm off to do a bit of shooting now.'

'Off to preserve and maintain some of the local species, Mr L Michaels?'

But the degree of sarcasm behind Morse's question was clearly ill-appreciated by the bearded woodsman, who replied with a decided coolness: 'Sometimes quite often it's essential to keep some sort of stability within any eco-system, and if you like I'll tell you a few things about the multiplication-factor of one or two of the randier species of deer. If I had my way, Inspector, I'd issue them all with free condoms from that white machine in the gents at the White Hart. But they wouldn't take much notice of me, would they?' For a few seconds Michaels' eyes glinted with the repressed anger of a professional man being told his job by some ignorant amateur.

Morse jumped in quickly. 'Sorry! I really am. It's just that as Li get older I can't really think of killing things. Few years ago have trodden on a spider without a thought, but these days -I don't know why I almost feel guilty about swatting a daddy-long-legs.'

'You wouldn't find me killing a daddy-long-legs!' said Michaels his eyes still hard as they stared unblinkingly back at Morse's. Blue versus blue; and for a few seconds Morse wondered what exactly Michaels would kill and would be killing now.

| The Way Through The Woods | chapter twenty-five