Thirty years ago a fierce storm swept across the South East of England that would change the way that we care for our woods and forests for ever. Millions of trees would be uprooted in a matter of hours and the landscape changed beyond recognition.
Ten years ago, when I was working in the National Trust press office, I spent months pulling together the story for the 20th anniversary of the Great Storm of what happened on that fateful night to places such as Churchill’s home at Chartwell and the wonderful Slindon in Sussex. As night became day on the 16 October 1987 the full extent of the devastation became apparent. Once familiar places were changed beyond recognition. Its estimated that 15 million trees came down that night.
At Toys Hill, the highest point in Kent, more than 90 per cent of its trees had fallen. Most of the trees that had survived were the ancient trees, their roots deep enough to survive the power of the winds. It now looked like a lunar landscape and slowly but surely over the years nature began to re-emerge. Toys Hill became the perfect site for an experiment in natural regeneration; something that we take for granted now, but more of a new way of managing the countryside back in the late 1980s.
Talking to the Trust’s rangers, gardeners and forestry experts you got a real sense of the transformational experience of this night for them. Their love of the places that they cared for and the trees that they looked after shone through. It was a night that would change the way that they work forever with the notion of deadwood, or fallen trees, becoming the currency of woodland management, and our relationship woods re-examined and re-imagined.
Mike Calnan, Head of Parks and Gardens in 2007 at the National Trust, had the vision, twenty years earlier, to get up in a helicopter to capture the devastation across the countryside of Kent, Sussex and Surrey. It was a bleak picture of trees that looked like dominoes that had tumbled over with ease. Twenty years on Mike took to the air again to see what had changed and it was fantastic to see the cover of trees back again showing the power of nature to overcome the odds.
It was amazing to listen to how an extreme weather event had changed the way that we think about the management of words so fundamentally. There was also a feeling that it revived our love, as a nation, for the trees that have played such an important part in our collective story, showing how much we really value them.
I love autumn. In fact I love all of the seasons. Seasonal change is a wonderful thing that I never really tire of and there is always something new to see or hear.
To me autumn means the changing of the guard as the crunchy and colour soaked leaves fall to the ground. It’s about spending many happy hours collecting conkers, throwing sticks up in to the tree and collecting the bounty as they land on the ground.
Autumn is also the season of harvesting apples and blackberries and that wonderful taste of a warm crumble with melting ice-cream.
The arrival of the darker mornings can be a challenge to the body clock but the richness of a warm afternoon autumn glow can compensate for those bleary eyed starts to the day. Mists will fill the landscape creating a mellowness and the smoky smell of bonfires create a real atmosphere.
Sometimes the seasons seem to blur into one but if you do get a year of distinctness between spring, summer, autumn and winter you really notice it. Tuning into the seasons is such an important way of keeping connected to nature: something that I think really matters and is such an essential part of our lives.
I love the fact that the architecture of our landscapes and cityscapes change so dramatically in a matter of weeks. Nature is getting ready for the long dark winter months. Butterflies might still be on the wing, birds start to migrate south and fungi can be found dotted through the nation’s woodland. You also get the cranking up of the dusk chorus, a musical treat as the evenings draw in.
In my home city of Bath the buildings are lit by the richness of the autumnal sunshine. The cityscape changes colour as the leaves turn gold, red, orange and yellow and then tumble to the ground. And in the meadows outside of the city the mist hangs poetically in the morning light.
Watching the seasons change keeps us rooted in the world around us. Every season has something to offer.
At the back of my house there is a tree. I can see it from our kitchen window. Every day it’s a reassuring sight as the seasons come and go. Looking out of the window it’s bare branched architecture frames the skyline. As spring arrives and the foliage starts to burst into life the birds arrive and will take up residency. The sweetness of birdsong will pour forth from its branches during the early arrival of daylight hours. Then its leaves will slowly begin to fall as the days shorten and we head into darker nights.
For me this very familiar tree symbolises how trees are part of all of our stories. They provide the backdrop to our lives but are so much more than that.
Trees surround us and they are an important part of our lives
In our technology saturated lives as we charge from A to B there is a risk that we forget about the wonderful trees that fill our landscapes and cityscapes. Just take a moment to think about the trees that touch your life every day, maybe on the route that you take to work, in a local park or your back garden. They help to enrich our lives and they’re such an important part of the ecology of the U.K.
The launch of the charter for trees is a timely intervention. Forty plus organisations have come together to collate our stories of trees to remind us all of their importance and create a nationwide storybook that reflects there central role in the fabric of the nation.
The risk that we take trees for granted is a real one. Organisations such as the Woodland Trust and Tree Council do fantastic work in promoting these gentle giants of the natural world. Trees are firmly part of our history: think of the English oak, Newton’s apple tree and the yew in Wordsworth’s poetry.
One of the wise old wonders dotted around Charlcombe just outside Bath; sustaining an entire community of wildlife
Creating a charter for tree would enshrine in the national mindset the importance of trees. What is also needed is greater and more robust protection for our trees, in the same way as historic buildings and the listings status that they have. This is a very practical measure that can make a huge difference.
So, think trees, tell the story of trees in your lives and make trees part of your everyday life. Our trees need us and we need our trees.
On face value catching leaves as they tumble out of the trees should be pretty easy. Just stand near a tree, wait for a gust of wind and you’ll be able to pluck a leaf or two out of the air before they hit the ground. Job done.
Surely nothing could be simpler. If only. I remember a few years back visiting Lanhydrock in Cornwall and watching closely as family took on the leaf-catching challenge. The Mum and Dad stood rooted to the spot waiting for the leaves to come to them, remaining cool and calm. While the two boys jumped about and leaped from side to side, a bit like goal-keepers. Its an image that will stay in mind for a long time. A simple pleasure and a family having fun.
With so many distractions in life leaf catching might not appear to be the most exciting activity on the planet. But once you start you become addicted; determined to rule the roost and not be beaten by leaves as they gently float out of the sky avoiding your clutches. This is one addiction that is definitely good for you.
There I was with my son and daughter in a local park. Just waiting for the leaves of all shapes and sizes to descend. A strong gust of wind rattled the tree and down they came like a short sharp shower. Our hands cupped and ready resulted in zero leaves. Our tactics were found wanting. The leaves just weren’t playing ball. Then we changed our game-plan: charging at leaves scooping them up before they settled on the grass. This worked to some extent. Next we identified target leaves from high up as they descended and worked together to get the job done.
The family leaf-catching tally was slowly starting to mount up. We were rosy cheeked from leaping about and had that nice feeling of satisfaction of building up a steady bank of leaves. Still they came down and just when you thought that you’d got your leaf bounty they would take a sharp turn and you were left clutching at thin air.
Like collecting conkers, leaf-catching is a very seasonal wild time activity. It can be a team game or more of a solo pursuit. For me its something that brings out our personality and above all its free and fun.
Posted in 50 things, autumn, kids and nature, leaves, Nature, trees, wild time
Tagged autumn, childhood, children, national parks, trees, Wild Time
Suddenly it was gone. The tree where, with a helping hand from school friends, my daughter had learnt to climb a tree had been chopped down.
At the end of the school day, after bags were dumped and coats stripped off, it was the place kids gathered to take it in turns to climb. It was the tree where they’d take the first tentative steps gradually gaining the confidence to climb higher.
All that is left of this tree is a stump. This unremarkable tree in many ways was truly remarkable for getting kids into tree climbing – something that we’re programmed to do thanks to evolution. Admittedly the tree wasn’t in great shape but it played a seminal moment in the childhood memories of lots of kids. It was THE place where they learnt to climb and feel that massive sense of achievement as they make it to the first rung of branches and then gradually they’re starting to climb higher.
The loss of this tree leaves a big gap in the green where the kids play. Older more mature trees survive helpfully set up with rope swings but they aren’t conducive to climbing; the branches start too high up the trunk and it feels a little bit too intimidating for that first climb.
I asked my daughter about this loss and she was sad – she wanted to climb higher and explore more of the tree – eventually graduating on to bigger and more challenging trees.
It came as a shock when I found out the tree had gone: one minute is was there, the next it was gone, with no obvious explanation. There might be some logical reason for it being felled but it doesn’t ease that sense of loss for a place where kids gathered to learn the art of climbing trees.
I was never a great tree climber as a kid. I always had a go but couldn’t say I went out looking for trees to climb. And now for the first time in a long time the urge to climb has come back from nowhere – my first conquest a beautiful old apple tree laiden with apples.
Some people have a natural gift for scampering up trunks and high up in to the branches. My six-year old daughter has just got the bug, always looking for the next challenge and gaining in confidence with each tree climbed.
Its kind of a natural instinct to want to climb and explore knarled old trees or trees with tempting branches at a low level. For generations its been a rite of passage: a way to express a sense of independence and tap into that deep human need for adventure.
The thrill of the climb and a sense of danger as you ascend is something that stays with you for a life time. Its one of those rich experiences which become engrained on your memory.
As you climb upwards, feeling your way and testing the strength of the branches, you enter the hidden and beautiful world of trees. The structures of trees amaze and captivate, a world of communities of nature with insects, moss and lichen among very complex branch structures.
Its the place that birds call home: a base for these wonders of nature that create such intense soundscapes for the anthems of our lives.
I tentatively put one foot on to the tree as the trunk split in two near to ground level. Slowly I found my footing and climbed into the centre of the tree. Suddenly the world became very small: focused on this sturdy and majestic apple tree, with me at its heart. Its branches were heavy with cooking apples. Dried out and crumbly moss clung to the branches full of lichens.
I was hidden from the world’s gaze, in my own private universe. All of a sudden I knew why trees mean so much to us. It felt good to have taken the unplanned plunge and climbed my first tree since I was a kid. Will I keep climbing? Who knows, being spontaneous is part of the thrill of being in nature, doing things on instinct.
It didn’t take long till we were on our knees. Out came the atomiser (a small plastic bottle that sprays water) and a lovely compact magnifying glass that would open a wonderful window on the world beneath our feet which clings to walls, pavements and trees.
I was walking around Fairfield Park with Alan Rayner, president of the Bath Natural history Society, to begin a project to reveal and understand the nature that calls this area of the city home. Alan’s infectious enthusiasm, burning passion and wonderful chuckle had me hooked. He gets our connection with the natural world and showed another side to the place that I call home; opening my eyes and encouraging me to look more closely at the communities of plants and animals that co-exist with people.
If only I’d had a biology teacher like Alan I would have cracked science at school and the joy of the natural world and understanding its dynamism and sheer beauty would have come to me sooner. Learning has to be more than what is taught in the classroom; what you find out in the outdoors is so important to building links and connections that can last a lifetime.
Back to the atomiser and magnifying glass. We were looking at the mosses and lichens that could be found on the pavement at the entrance to a local allotment. The spray of the water instantly revived the moss and looking through the magnifying glass gave me a glimpse of a magical kingdom. It reminded me of a coral reef – it was so wonderful to see – and this on an ordinary street in Bath. And the lichens and mosses just kept coming. I walk past them everyday, and there is amazing lichen just outside my back door: its made me want to take the time to stop and look.
A short distance from our journey’s end we walked around a square of green; a mixture of grassland and woodland. Its where I’m hoping to set up a community orchard. Alan then talked about how a wildlife survey would bring this place alive looking at the flora and fauna that calls it home.
Walking anywhere with a naturalist can take time as they dive suddenly to the ground to get closer to a plant. It showed me clearly that the ordinary and mundane can be as beautiful as the rare and celebrated. We spend so much time watching amazing wildlife on the telly that we sometimes forget what is on our doorstep. Where ever you live nature thrives in cracks, on trees and scrub land. Wild places are all around us and we just have to open our eyes and get down on our knees to see the places that we live in a different light.
National Tree Week, which started yesterday, is a good time to take stock of a pretty turbulent time for trees in the UK.
The rise and spread of ash dieback has thrust the future of woods in to the public consciousness
for the second time in as many years.
Last year it was the public outcry over the future of the publically owned forestry estate in England. It only became clear how much we cared for our forests and woods when they were under threat.
Now its the threat to our beloved trees from disease. Ash dieback has joined bleeding canker disease, threatening the future of horse chestnuts, as a live challenge to our woods and landscape.
Trees and woods are an integral part of our national story. They provided shelter, fuel and fired the beginnings of the industrial revolution and our rise as a maritime super power. Ancient trees have witnessed revolutionary events from the signing of the magna carta to Newton discovering the laws of gravity and the first trade union meeting under one.
Yet the next twenty or thirty years could shape our treescapes and woods. The rise of diseases is putting into question the survival of some of our iconic species.
And the elephant in the room is a changing climate. Trees like humans tend to prefer predictable weather. But we’re in the realm of extreme weather patterns: from flooding to drought. All causing stress and strain for our woods and forests.
National Tree Week is a chance to take a step back and think about why trees matter so much to us. But also to think how we manage change rather than burying our heads in the sand.
Take a look out of a window and it’s likely that you’ll see a tree. They have a very reassuring presence across our urban and rural landscapes.
Trees have supplied shelter, energy, food and powered the development towards industrialisation.
We are fortunate in these Island to have such a wonderful array of trees. From a thousand year old Oak that has witnessed our evolution as a nation to the beautiful apple trees and the bountiful harvest they produce each autumn.
There is always a risk that we take trees from granted. But without our affection and care we can lose an important part of our cultural and natural history.
Many ancient trees have witnesses some of our most important national moments. From the Yew tree at Runnymeade where the Magna Carta was signed, beginning the long road to full democracy. Or the apple tree at Woolsthorpe Manor where Isaac Newton lived.
Trees reflect the changing of the seasons so perfectly: the wonder that is autumn colour, the starkness of winter, the hope of spring and the lushness of summer.
As kids we climb trees, catch the leaves as they fall or collect conkers. As adults we need to re-establish this special relationship and see them as more than just figures in the landscape.
We need to celebrate their wisdom, their beauty and their heritage.
Take time to sit under a tree and see the wind gently blowing through the leaves or the sunlight illuminating the different shades of green. Or enjoy the coolness of a wood on a hot summers day.
Trees provide a link with the generations that have come before us and those yet to inhabit the earth. They deserve our affection and we must celebrate them as true heroes of the natural world.