September 2014

This article first published in

  • BBC Wildlife Magazine
  • In one of the out-of-nowhere gales of mid-June, the best-known tree on the planet was blown down. I hasten to add I don’t mean the oldest, or biggest, or most mythologically rich, simply the tree whose image has been seen by probably more people than any other in history, thanks to its appearance as the Whomping Willow in the Harry Potter films. The famously twitchy willow, whose snaky branches hit back when attacked, was a slightly computer-tweaked version of a real beech, which, for more than half my life time, was the tree I knew best.

    It is (‘was’ is the wrong tense for a horizontal tree) a pollard, growing in the National Trust’s Ashridge Estate in the Chilterns, and surrounded by a gothic assembly of only slightly less regal lopped beeches. I’ve known it since the 1950s, and it is the hero (or perhaps heroine : beeches are traditionally female) of my book Beechcombings. So perhaps I may be excused a small and probably over-lyrical quote (it was easy to lose one’s head under its arching cranium) by way of a tribute: “It seems elephantine, an impossible mass for a living thing. It is, I guess, about 350 to 400 years old… its long low branches trail out like the arms of a giant squid. The trunk is like vegetable hide, a mass of burrs, bosses, wounds, flutings, folds of scar tissue congealed around the points where the branches were lopped…”

    What’s surprised me about its fall is how remarkably sensible and positive the response has been. No wailings or funeral rites. No declarations of disaster. Not even a backlash (yet) from Health and Safety, as there was after the 1987 hurricane, with demands that the whole company of unstable freaks should be summarily destroyed. Instead, the local National Trust forester has said “it is a shame, but now it can start a new part of its life in its decay as a different habitat for Ashridges wildlife.”

    Such an ecologically and culturally mature public statement would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. The fading of our everyday intimacy with trees, of our understanding of their workings, encourages us to anthropomorphise them in a directly corporeal way, seeing the trunk, the body of the tree, as analogous to a human body, and therefore killed when severed from its earthly roots. But “a new part of its life” is exactly right. The trunk will take 50 to 100 years to rot down, and during that time successions of fungi – coral spots, brain fungi, dead-man’s fingers, beech tufts – will embroider the trunk. Drapes of wild rose and beechwood flowers will colonise the cliffs of the broken trunk Deadwood insects will hunker down in the extending labyrinth of cracks and hollows. And I will get the chance, at long last, to read the graffiti high up in the tree, some of which are the work of homesick US serviceman stationed nearby in WW2, some of Victorian sweethearts.

    And the Queen, as I liked to call her, may not even be dead in the literal sense. Several of the Ashridge pollards blown down in the gales of the 70s and 80s have sprouted new vertical poles from the underside of their rootplates. At this moment, an heir apparent may be budding in the tangled roots among the flints.