Stories from the Barn
A hive of activity in the Hampshire downlands
A walk through a British woodland is one of the most relaxing things to do.
Our British woodland is a key part of the landscape that we all love and treasure. Just by standing in amongst the trees and being still can bring about a great sense of calm. All around us an unknown world is going on. From the hidden fungi beneath our feet to the fruiting bodies that emerge without fanfare. Thousands of insects we cannot name and birdsong we do not recognize, it all goes on around us. Time for us all to slow down for trees.
Trees are an integral part of the British landscape. At the end of the last Ice Age some 10,000 years ago the land began to rise. Released from it’s burden of carrying great ice sheets some hundreds of meters thick, the land could breathe again. As the climate warmed so the earth was ready to accept the seeds of pioneer trees. Trees such as Aspen, willow and birch, which opened the doors to species such as pine, elm, oak and hazel. These trees still part of the landscape that we take for granted in our natural woodlands.
These woodlands created the habitats necessary for mammals to flourish. Herds of deer established themselves, hogs were plentiful and our prehistoric ancestors were able to make full use of the bountiful forests. With an abundant food source and materials for shelter, populations of early man grew. From the earliest times man began to clear the woodland, wood was the most important resource available. No wonder trees, with all their different characteristics and uses, became part of our cultural heritage.
The British woodland was key to the survival of the human population and they learnt to exploit what each tree had to offer. The woodlands eventually became managed by man. The Ancient Woodlands of Britain are the remnants of woodlands that have been regenerated over thousands of years. They are complex and extremely important, supporting a unique array of ecosystems. The fantastic work by the Woodland Trust is essential to ensuring these environments are retained and there is no better place to go and read about them than the Woodland Trust Ancient Woodland site.
So what can we learn from a walk through a British Woodland?
First we can learn to identify the trees we are walking past. The tree doesn’t have to be in leaf in order to identify it. It’s shape and bark can be used to identify it as can the leaf litter below its boughs. It is surprising how quickly the list grows. Then we can learn about the uses different woods are put to and finally immerse ourselves in the tradition and folklore of our trees. There are clues to be found as to the previous use of British woodlands. Look out for signs of coppicing and pollarding and for boundary verges or ditches. A managed woodland allows all species of plant and animal to flourish, the arms of our tree boughs folding around them. The writer H.E Bates in his book ‘Through the Woods’, painted a picture of the most perfect woods, remembered from his childhood. A magical book.
Naming trees in a British Woodland.
A short walk, no more than 100m, along the edge of a piece of local woodland, reveals a surprising number of tree species.
This once well managed small woodland comprises a number of trees that would have been commercially significant in times past including, Holly, Oak, Beech, Whitebeam, Hazel, Box, Field Maple, Yew and Hawthorn.
Beam is an old English word for a living tree so Whitebeam could also be called White tree. The name describes the white down on the underside of the leaf that makes it stand out in the woodland. When the leaves first unfurl though they are held aloft like the flame on a candle. Where there are a number coming into flower the air is filled with a delightful sweet scent. These then yield a red fruit which can be picked and eaten. I have never beaten the squirrels and others to the fruit though.
The wood is also pale in colour and has a tight even grain and has been used to make gun stocks.
The ‘Tree of Knowledge’ as the Irish used to call the Hazel was one of the first colonisers of the British Isles. Early man prized the nuts from the Hazel tree. They had many uses for Hazel. Bundles of Hazel twigs were used to form pathways across boggy marshlands. The flexible branches have been used for all sorts of things. Our old cottage had Hazel wattle onto which a daub had been fixed. Low Hazel fences were placed around the vegetable beds to keep the rabbits off and arches of Hazel were made for scrambling legumes. Hazel rods made fine ‘wands’ beloved of dowsers, Morris Men and my old gran who liked to stir brews with a Hazel stick.
A village nearby to us in Hampshire, Abbots Ann, has a collection of ‘Virgins Crowns’, made of Hazel and produced for the funeral of an unmarried maiden of the parish.
It is a tree that is taken for granted, that we pass each day with little if any thought and yet had great significance for our ancestors.
For as long as there have been humans living on the British Isles there have been Oak trees and the two have been forever bound together. The Druids revered the Oak tree and sanctified it with sacred oak groves, serving all number of rituals. Two types of oak trees grow in the British woodland, the pedunculate oak (Quercus robur) and the sessile oak (Quercus petraea). The former being the English Oak. The two oak species differ in requirements, particularly in terms of water.
Generally, the English Oak needs more moisture and nutrients. This is usually the oak we encounter in the woodlands and hedgerows of our valleys and lowlands, where the soils are richer and more moist. The sessile oak prefers drier, warmer locations. and can often be found on hill slopes. You can tell one from the other by the way they hold their acorns and by their leaf structure. The sessile oak holds its leaves on longer stalks and the leaves are less indented and lobed. Also if you turn the leaf over the underside is a chocolate colour with hairs. The sessile acorns are held to the tree without any stalk. So once you start to look at the oak tree it is quite easy to distinguish between the two.
Importance of the oak tree in our heritage.
The value of the oak to British ship and property building is enormous and vast numbers of oak trees were felled in the middle ages. This led to a great decline in the number of trees and steps were put in place to manage the country’s stock of oak trees. The oak bark was used to tan leather and bark tanning vats were handed down through families. Oak also produced the best charcoal for smelting iron and oak galls produced the finest inks. Acorns sustained herds of boar and as such were prized in the monarchs hunting parks. Hundreds of oak trees in Britain are named and many carry stories of extraordinary events. From the royal oak that King Charles II hid in after the Battle of Worcester to the gospel oak trees that heard sermons from the earliest times.
The oak tree is a part of our heritage that we need to protect. It is so steeped in the culture of our land that it is Britain’s most recognizable and best loved tree. It’s name hangs over the door of hundred of pubs, just how many Royal Oaks are there? It’s boughs support our oldest and most beautiful houses. Hearts of oak sustained our Royal Navy and the trees are some of the oldest standing in our woodlands.
Any of us can grow an oak tree from an acorn and plant it to create British woodlands of the future.