2017 in Trees

The darkness of the winter is always a good time to reflect on a year passed, not only to appreciate what you’ve seen and experienced but to look forward to the treasures which await the eager explorer in the year ahead.

As always,  I find trees feature strongly when I look back at the photos I’ve taken. There is much to appreciate in the natural world and each element has its own pleasure and essence. Trees feel like communing with the elders (no pun intended!) – even a stand of spindly silver birch will have been alive almost as long as I have and some of the trees you meet allow you to reach back through the generations, to the limits of living memory and far beyond. Here are a just a few such encounters from this year.

Clumber Park

Clumber has much to offer at any time of year – the double lime avenue on the entrance just keeps rolling the trees before you like an unfurling scroll as you drive in, and the old parkland has many veterans to tell you their tales. This photo was taken across the lake, as the sun sunk low on a Sunday afternoon in January, lighting the trunks and stretching the reflections out across the water.

Grantham

This tree sits proudly on top of the hillside overlooking Grantham and I pass it most days on my lunchtime walk. It is a sycamore and sits at the end of an incongruous line of old oaks, beeches and other sycamores which speak of an older time. A friend refereed to it as ‘that amazing oak’, assuming the species from its stature and prowess. I wonder if she’ll read this… Stretching out below is the course grassland and gorse of Harrowby Hill and above it lies the Hills and Hollows where barn owls and short-eared owls hunt through the winter months and marsh orchids nestle in the summertime.

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Hatfield Forest

We went with some friends to listen to Sam Lee’s ‘Singing with Nightingales‘ at Fingringhoe Wick in spring, and took the opportunity for a walk around Hatfield Forest. Hornbeam was growing in the woodlands with a frequency and regularity I never see here in the Midlands, but this particular specimen was exceptional. This is an old hornbeam pollard where the heartwood had rotted away and the tree split into two live, healthy halves which were easily large enough to walk through.

Treswell Wood

Treswell Wood is a very special place – Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust’s first reserve, it is an ash dominated ancient woodland in the north of the county which now plays host to the successfully reintroduced dormouse populations as well as supporting a whole range of other species. Springtime sees the trees burst into an abundance of fresh green leaves and creamy white blossom and this photograph of the mixed canopy captures this exuberance for me.

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Muston Meadows

Muston Meadows is an ancient haymeadow in Leicestershire – it’s deep ridge and furrow grassland supports an exceptional population of green-winged orchid as well as a burnet, pignut, cowslip, quaking oat grass and meadowsweet. This photograph of the oak and ash within the boundary hedgerow was taken as a starlapse at midnight under moonlight in the springtime. I love to be somewhere that allows you to feel such a strong connection to the past, I imagine scenes from D. H. Lawrence’s works where the haymaking in these meadows was a time of great importance for sustenance and survival, as well as opportunities for intrigue and romance.

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Bedford Purleius

The light filtered through a thousand leaves has subtleties of which vary from species to species, from place to place and from month to month. There can be few however to match the soft light of sunshine through newly unfurled beech leaves, as this stand in Bedford Purleius. Later in the season, the ground beneath these trunks will support helleborines which flower in mid-summer.

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Millstone Edge, Derbyshire

Leaving the twisted, gnarled oak woodland of the valley beside the Burbage Brook, you turn onto an entirely different scene – one of light and green and air. This edge is populated almost entirely by silver birch with sketch a monchrome array between the greens of foliage above and grassland below.

Robin Hood’s Bay

This was an opportunistic photograph of the sunlight playing through woodsmoke from a bonfire in the clearing below. It’s not often that mist and fog will persist long enough through the day to allow such vertical shafts of light in a woodland scene, so I took advantage of serendipity to catch a shot which reminds me more of rainforest than an English woodland.

Quantocks

The Quantocks has become one of my favourite places to visit – the different characters of the trees and woodland set within an ancient landscape are irresistible. You can read more in this blog post from the autumn, but below are a couple of my favourites.

First is the gnarled oak woodland crowding the road which ventures up over the wooded hillside from Nether Stowey towards Crowcombe.

Next is the massed boughs of the coppiced beeches which line the Drove Road – a prehistoric track which runs across the ridge of the hillside above Crowcombe.

This photograph is perhaps my favourite of this year – it shows the woodland closing over the road with Tolkinesque grandeaur. If these were ents which came to life, I wouldn’t be so very surprised…

Cambridge Botanic Garden

This shows the beautiful soft browns of the autumn needles of swamp cypress – an evergreen conifer – against the backdrop of yellow maple leaves. I was in Cambridge for a meeting and had an hour before catching my train which gave a perfect opportunity to explore the botanic gardens which were conveniently close to the station. As well as the stunning floral displays and specimens, they have some beautiful trees and it’s a great spot for autumn colour!

Wappenbury Wood

Small-leaved lime used to be the key component of the woodlands around the midlands, before the clearance of the wildwood and the generation of the stands we see today. They still occur if you know where to look – Steve Falk‘s guides can help if you’re lucky enough to be in Warwickshire – and these old coppice stools within Wappenbury Wood are a fine example of a tree with which we should all be more familiar. Coppicing was the ancient practice of cutting the tree down to a bole, from which new growth would appear and could be substantially harvested without ever killing the tree. On the contrary, some of the oldest trees you can find are coppices and pollards, including small-leaved lime coppices in Westonbirt Arboretum thought to be over 2000 years old. This photo shows the tall, straight trunks of the regrowth many years after their last cut.

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Bottesford Church

This photograph was taken at a local churchyard one frosty morning on Novembe. The night had turned the grass and gravestones to white whilst the sunrise caught the embers of autumn leaves on this beech and ignited them into a celebration of orange, umber and yellow. It was only a few more days before the leaves fell, but this was a moment when autumn had not yet given way to winter and the right morning can provide you with the best of both.

Staverton Park

I was very pleased to find myself within a few miles of this woodland in November, and took the opportunity to explore one of the most impressive assemblages of ancient trees in the country. You can read more in my blog post, but here area couple of my favourites.

The path through The Thicks wound its way between trees and shrubs, but split around this majestic old oak which stood in the centre of the path and demanded all that pass must pass around it.

This photograph was taken at sunrise, of one of the idiosyncratic old oaks on the edge of the parkland. The ground layer beneath is dominated by bracken, and I thought the frond and the tree made a nice contrast against the morning sky.

Whatton-in-the-Vale

Grantham Road is a bypass to the old road, which was subsequently bypassed again by the new A52 which avoids the village altogether. The road now links the two parts of the village and, though less than 100 years old, is bestowed an authority and antiquity by the double-line of planes which enclose it. The houses at the end are where the Griffin’s Head pub once stood. I liked the way the glow of life and civilisation lay at the end of the imposing avenue against a starry sky, like coming out of the woods into the safety of a home.

Millstone Edge

Back once more amongst the silver birches of Millstone Edge – their black and white stems through the snow transports you to another country, to Russia or else eastern Europe.

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Bedford Purleius

With the seedheads of the helleborines still standing, this was the last view I had of these beech trees in 2017. I love the softness of the light which seems to remain as a memory of those leaves from early springtime.

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Beech Droves and Gnarled Oaks

I’ve developed a bit of a thing for the Quantock Hills… ever since visiting for the first time last year, I’ve taken every opportunity I can to explore this ancient landscape – usually this means a very early start on a survey in the south-west to factor in some free time when I get there!

One of my favourite places is the Drove Road which is a prehistoric track running across the higher ground, presumed to be an ancient trading route which avoided the wetter lowlands. At one end is the Triscombe Stone accompanied by an information board which has the following to say:

‘[the drove road] is also on a ‘Harepath’ (a Saxon army route) recorded in the 14th century as the “Alferode”. In the year 878 King Alfred may have been familiar with the route during his stay nearby at Athelny, on the Somerset Levels.’

The track is lined with ancient beeches which have been coppiced – their boles much older than their branches – but they encompass the road as though the two have always been together, the arches echoing the holloway which runs beneath.

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If you continue beyond the Drove Road, leaving Crowcombe behind and taking a left along the winding lane towards Nether Stowey, you pass through stunning oak woodland. The gnarled contorted oaks are much older than you might guess from their dwarf stature – the exposed aspect and low nutrients of their habitat slows growth and the result is an eerie, exhilarating woodland – made all the more spectacular by the mist which eddied through the trunks on my last visit.

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This is an ancient landscape, one which is far from intact yet which retains remnants and features which have been lost in much of our modern countryside. The sessile oaks which twist and spiral were coppied for centuries for use for charcoal and in tanning leather. This practise of cutting to the base stimulated fresh growth and allowed the trees to be sustainably harvested by generation after generation – a far cry from the clearfell destruction which you can see at work in the Forestry Commission plantations which have appropriated parts of the nearby Great Wood.

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The ongoing ecological value of these woodlands is incredible – I know from experience that the trees beside the road are packed with bats – and the continuity and history make it culturally important. But you need know little of either to be awed by the impression of entering these spaces. The photograph below is perhaps my favorite – it taps into something primeval which is captured in some of the best literature and still to be appreciated in light and bark and leaf. This is the kind of lane which brings to mind Tolkien’s words:

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

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2016 in trees

Looking back through the photographs I’ve taken in 2016, it’s striking how many trees there are! As with the small things such as wildflower ‘weeds’, it’s easy to take for granted these enormous beings which grow amongst us. The sheer scale of a mature oak or beech is far beyond our magnitude of experience, as is the timescale they can span which numbers many of our lifetimes combined.

Here are just a few of my favourite encounters from 2016.

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These snow-lined branches were in the mountains above Freiburg at the beginning of the year – we took the cablecar from the grey countryside below up into a winter wonderland of freshly fallen snow. I liked the way that the snow outlines the curved architecture of the branches.
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Part of my job involes climbing trees to inspect them for roosting bat potential. On my way up this field-edge tree, the sun came out and I couldn’t resist a quick shadow-selfie!
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This photograph was taken for the Woodland Trust – this is one of the Verdun Oaks which grew from acorns brought back from Verdun after the First World War and planted in towns and cities as a commemoration to the fallen. In the background is Lichfield Cathedral. The Woodland Trust are tracing these trees as part of the commemoration of the First World War – you can read more about these pieces of living history on their website here.
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I spotted this tree sillouetted against the sunrise on a drive across to Norfolk one morning and had to stop off to get a photograph. The tree was in the middle of a field which was not publically accessible, so I only have the shape to go off but this looks like a poplar tree to me – perhaps a black poplar?
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This is the view up to the canopy at Treswell Wood in North Nottinghamshire. This is a Notts Wildlife Trust site which has a precominantly ash canopy. Unfortunately, Ash Dieback was confirmed in one corner of the woodland and targetted trees were felled in an effort to stop the disease spreading. Ash trees are a characteristic part of the British Countryside and one of the most common species in our landscape – it would be a tragedy if they were to go the way of the English Elm.
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I love being out in the countryside at night – we spent much of the summer watching trees to survey for emerging bats so this scene feels very familiar to me. I took a walk out past this tree near Harlaxton one night when the skies were very clear to capture a starlapse with the North Star centred above the dead crown of this oak.
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This is a slightly boosted photograph in terms of colour saturation, but is otherwise untouched. This was a starlapse of a meadow oak but the quirks of lighting led to this rather psycadelic image. The tree and the hillside to the left were occasionally lit by car headlights from the road behind me, and the background cloud was illuminated by the light pollution of Nottingham in the distance. Not your typical tree image but I rather liked the effect!
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These beautiful old beech trees line a trackway which forms part of the Laurie Lee Wildlife Way in Slad. I love trackways which are overarched by tree canopies, and I especially like the idea that Laurie would have walked these tracks. The book Cider with Rosie is a favourite of mine, especially the descriptions of the Gloucestershire vally in which he grew up, so there is a real feeling of walking somewhere familiar, even when exploring this landscape for the first time.
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This is a photograph taken in Wyndham Park in Grantham. The autumn leaves of a beech provide a frame for the Hand and Apple sculpture which commemorates Isaac Newton’s connection with the town of Grantham – he went to school at King’s Grammar which is just beside Wyndham Park, and lived at Woolesthorpe Manor just down the A1 from the town, where the famous apple tree can still be seen today.
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These two majestic field trees stood like sentries on either side of the gateway. This was on a walk in Somerset which explored an ancient landscape full of both recent history – including an old lead working now rewilded as a nature reserve – and ancient history including a number of monuments, burial mounds and barrows.
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This photograph was taken on a farm track footpath which leads to Muston Meadows, an old haymeadow now designated as an NNR. I wanted to try to capture the essence of mid-December in the Midlands – to me that is muddy walks, early sunsets and skeletal trees.
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This photograph was one of several I took of bark patterns in a veteran oak we were climbing to look for potential evidence of bats. This deadwood can be very stable, remaining as a component of the tree for decades after the wood has died, and the patterns etched into the wood represent to the various conditions and experiences which the tree has gone through.
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This photograph neatly finishes where this summary started – back in the mountains above Freiburg. This was taken just before Christmas where we had the magical opportunity to rise up above the clouds and see the sun setting. The fog and cloud was rolling up the valleys, obscuring and revealing treelines, and the sunset coloured the fog in pinks and oranges.

A November Walk in the Quantocks

Sometimes surveys take me further from home, and a Monday morning survey in Somerset invited an early start to take advantage of the opportunity to explore somewhere new. A chance leaf through the Guardian Travel’s Best Autumn Walks section on Sunday night obliged me with an excellent suggestion – a walk from Adscombe across the Quantock hills to Crowcombe and back.

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The drive on the approach to Crowcombe presented this autumnal treat – it’s difficult to get over how beautiful beech trees look in their yellows and golds. The beech is generally considered native only towards the south of Englan, and whilst there are plenty of specimens tp be seen around the Midlands, it’s only really on a trip south that you can really enjoy their autumn exhuberance en masse.

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There must be a name for when something inanimate catches your eye and morphs into something alien. When I was on a field site at uni, I remember we watched a hare stock-still in the woods for a good 5 minutes before realising it was an apt arrangement of log and stick. This piece of branch and moss caught through the wire fence at the beginning of the walk put me in mind of a tiny maurauder breaking through the defences, strangely sinister!

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The walk took me up through Great Wood, managed by the Forestry Commission. The woodland is varied – from dull conifer plantation to glorious semi-natural oak woodland, all punctuated by beech boundaries where the roots pour over the tops of the banks as the trees cling to their precarious looking anchor points. This smartly-spaced plantation of conifers caught my eye, especially the way the light increases as the beech re-asserts itself on the banks which rise up behind.

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There were plenty of mushrooms and fungi to be seen in the woods – this was a particuarly impressive ring around a conifer. I’m not sure on the species but would welcome enlightenment!

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The route I took went close to Dead Woman’s Ditch, and passed through this spectacuarly gnarled sessile oak woodland. These trees are of a considerable age, but the poor quality of the soils and the exposure results in them being relativly small and encourages these gnarled, twisted growth forms. These are ancient woodland sites, many of which had uses for charcoal and tanning in the past. These days, they provide excellent roosts for a range of bat species including rare barbastelle and Bechstein bats.

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The walk back up from Adescombe took me up Quantock Combe – this is the name given to a steep narrow vally which cuts down the hillsides. The stream running through this combe was gentle and shallow, crossable at almost all points, and overshadowed by ferns and bracken.

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Back up to the top once more, I crossed a cow-grazed pasture to reach the Drove Road which took me back towards Crowcombe. This beech-lined trackway has the gnarled roots replacing the rocks in the walls in places, and provides a sheltered passage across the open fields. Sadly, the exposure meant most of the autumn leaves had already been consigned to the wind, but it must be glorious in its peak. This track is probably pre-historic and was once an important trading route. The sunken track bears testimony to centuries of footfalls, which is a truly humbling thought.

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Before the descent back into Crowcombe, I walked up to Beacon Hill to take in the view from the trig point. Here, the scenery changes from the lushious woodlands to a blasted heath with gorse, heather and Deschampsia with the flar agricultural plains stretching out below.

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Despite being well into the middle of November, there were plenty of flowers to be seen along the route including red campion, bramble, gorse, dandelion, herb robert, wood sage, hedge woundwort and heather.

There are many tracks between Crowcombe and Adscombe, meaning there is no need to retrace your steps on a circular walk between the two. The route I took was a pleasant 8 1/2 miles with some good ascents and descents (certainly compared with my neck of the Midlands!). Allow a few hours to meander and explore, there’s plenty to distract you along the way!