Stories from the Barn

A hive of activity in the Hampshire downlands

Slow Down For Trees

Trees can inform us about the geology beneath our feet

Slow Down for Trees.

Most of us love a walk in woodlands. The swell of woodland birdsong in Spring, the smell of woodland decay in the Autumn, the noise of wind rushing through branches in Winter, a woodland provides a rich broth for the senses but it’s time to slow down and observe individual trees and really get to know the trees in our immediate locality. Everyone has a favourite tree and some trees become so special to communities that when they die, their loss is mourned. It is time for us to slow down for trees and nurture them.

Planted trees create beautiful scenes

Trees that create a memorable vista

Notable Trees

On the 1st August 1790, the naturalist Gilbert White entered into his journal a list of the notable trees that lay within the bounds of his house in Selborne Hampshire.

White was the ultimate observer and it is his patient and astute records of the natural world in Selborne that resulted in his only book, ‘The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne’. Issued in over two hundred editions it has become the best loved book on natural history in the world.

White was born in 1720 and died in 1793, a period in which timber was one of our most important commodities, essential for the construction of houses, bridges, transport, furniture, for heating and fences, in fact for just about every aspect of daily life.

Historically, trees have been notable features in a community, a meeting point, a place of worship, a place of judgement and sentencing. They still mark out boundaries long forgotten, vestiges of old field patterns and parish lines.

Trees that mark boundaries

Trees that mark a boundary in the landscape

When Gilbert White decides to give prominence in his writing to trees he reflects not just the majesty of the tree but its importance in wider society. In his first letter to Thomas Pennant, right at the start of the book, he writes about the ‘high wood’ and the ‘long hanging wood’ and that the ‘covert of this eminence’ ie the thicket of trees that makes up the wood, is beech and he describes it thus:

‘the most lovely of all forest trees, whether we consider its smooth rind or bark, its glossy foliage, or graceful pendulous boughs’

In letter number two to Thomas Pennant, he devotes the whole of it to the trees in his neighbourhood where he mentions notable trees lost to communities even before he was born. Trees that local people have venerated. He tells the story of the great oak that stood in Selborne on a piece of land called ‘The Pleistor’.

‘a short squat body and huge horizontal arms…..was a delight of old and young and a place of much resort in summer evenings’

In 1703 this great oak was felled in a storm, the villagers were deeply dismayed by the loss of the tree and White’s paternal grandfather, who was vicar of Selborne at the time, spent a considerable amount of money and effort to reset it, alas to no avail as the tree, after putting in a gallant little effort died.

The loss of a tree

Losing an old tree can be like losing an old friend

The Naming of trees.

Although it doesn’t seem to be a common practice now, in the past, important trees were named. Most of them named for local significance. White describes the loss of an ancient oak called the Raven Tree. It was called this because the trunk had a massive bulge at its centre. This afllowed a pair of ravens to take up residence there. They were protected by the bulge from attempts by local children to disturb the nest. Sadly the tree was felled on a February day when the birds were sitting on the nest. White’s description of the felling of the Raven Tree is tragic:

‘the saw was applied to the butt….the woods echoed to the heavy blow….and the tree nodded to its fall; but still the Dam (the female bird) sat on. At last when it gave way, the bird was flung from her nest and though her parental affection deserved a better fate, was whipped down by twigs, which brought her dead to the ground’

There is a sycamore tree in Dorset which is of significant historical importance, the Tolpuddle Martyrs Tree. Under this tree in 1834, six brave agricultural labourers arranged to meet.  Their lives had been brought to the lowest point of starvation and misery imaginable. The result of this meeting was the formation of the first trade union in Britain. They were arrested and sentenced to seven years and transportation to Botany Bay. Huge protests swept Britain and pictures appeared showing the men sitting under the tree. Eventually after three years the sentence was shortened and the men returned to Tollpuddle. The tree still stands.

How many Royal Oaks are there so called in Britain? There are many pubs called the Royal Oak and the connection between royalty and the oak tree goes back a long way. One such oak can be found, sadly lying on its side now in Greenwich Park. This tree called the Queen Elizabeth Oak is thought to date back to the 12th century. The legend it that King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn dances beneath its boughs and that Queen Elizabeth picnicked under it.

The fact of there being so many pubs called The Royal Oak has its origins in the account given by King Charles II. Following the Battle of Worcester in 1651, Charles not yet crowned King of England, hid in an oak tree. In respect of this King Charles inaugurated 29th May as Royal Oak Day to celebrate his escape.

Our own notable trees.

However it is not the named notable trees that most of us encounter. The trees that we walk past each day are the trees that become notable to us. These are the trees that we notice on our way to work or school. We notice when the first leaves of Spring emerge or as they chase the Autumn months with flares of glorious colour. We kick through the leaves they discard and witness the fall of twigs and boughs after Winter storms. These are our notable trees and like Gilbert White we could be recording them. Trees that stand in our own space.

Recognizing old trees

Old trees take on a different form

Slow down for trees.

In this strange year there has been a time for many of us when we found ourselves slowing down. Walking instead of driving, looking instead of passing by and then maybe we can learn to be more observant. By observing the trees in our own space and recording what we find we can build a relationship with them. In this way we can be ready when they need a helping hand. Slow down for trees, take time to observe them and the rewards for all will be enormous. A good guide to ageing trees can be found on the National Parks site, once you start it becomes addictive and leads you into all sorts of thoughts about history and landscape.

Woodland Trust Tree Inventory.

We are lucky to have some outstanding charities that look out for our trees but they need our help. One of our favourites is the Woodland Trust, they have an Ancient Tree Inventory which we can all add to. The information on the site is incredibly informative and succinct. It’s easy to take part Woodland Trust Ancient Tree Inventory. However it is not just ancient trees they are recording but veteran and notable trees as well. It is not just the trees we need to observe but the ecosystem of the tree as well. We can be looking for fungi, insects or mammals that co-exist with it. So slow down for trees and help record the arboreal collection of the UK.