Monthly Archives: October 2011

A Skeleton in the Cherry Tree

My daughter gets excited about Halloween, and has been decorating.

Thus far we have:

1. Cobweb design plastic table cloth

2. Several chains of pumpkin and skull decorations on the mantlepiece and bookshelves. Also in the hall.

3. Carved pumpkin with scary lipstick design.

4. Cobwebs and more skeletons hanging in the window.

5. A witch sitting in a chair outside (for the trick or treaters).

6. Spider’s web with big black spider in the cherry tree in the front yard.

7. Skeleton in the cherry tree.

8. A rubber bat hanging out of her bedroom window.

She is currently dressed up as a black cat and chasing her tail while she waits for her friends (another black cat and a witch, apparently). Then I will be accompanying while they go round and try to extort sweets out of the neighbours.

I’m sure it was simpler than this when I was a kid.

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Captain Leyland’s Monster Hedge

Leylandii, also known as the Leyland Cypress, has steadily grown in notoriety through the twentieth century. Planted as a screen, it will grow at an extraordinary speed to create hedges as high as a hundred feet tall. For those who wish to create total privacy this has been an enticing prospect. However, most people don’t want vast hedges overshadowing their garden, and the species has been responsible for some bitter disputes between neighbours, including some which have spilled over into violence and even murder.

Extraordinarily, Collins Tree Guide defines leylandii as ‘the most planted and the most hated garden tree’ in the UK. This is because it has too often been grown without due care and attention, and even for those owners who do wish to keep them under control, the cost of trimming a fully grown leylandii hedge can be an obstacle. Leylandii are greedy drinkers, taking the moisture from surrounding soil, and as a foreign import, they don’t even harbour much of our indigenous wildlife. In many respects they are the anti-hedge, a pariah in our ‘green and pleasant land’.[1]

The bastard offspring of two types of cypress native to North West America, leylandii was first cultivated by C. J. Leyland, a nineteenth-century ship’s captain, landowner and amateur botanist. He spotted this unusual hybrid growing wild on his brother-in-law’s estate in Scotland, and took some seedlings to his home at Haggerston Castle in Northumberland, a mile or so from the causeway that conveys travellers across the sea to Holy Island.

Leyland was a rather splendid man, who devoted his home life to building a plethora of weird and wonderful buildings at the Castle (now a holiday camp), including an astronomical observatory built into a water tower, and a walled Italian garden. It is a shame that the folly that he is best remembered for is a monstrous tree, rather than the Greek goddesses and pergolas of the walled garden.

There’s a BBC article on the species, with a few pictures here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-15018807


[1] Leylandii are also popular in Australia, where they are known as ‘Leyton Green’ or ‘spite trees’ – Problem Hedges Australia is the campaign group for those affected.

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Owls in Highgate Wood

My journey home from work involves riding my bike across the edge of Queens Wood (which is the slightly quieter part of Highgate Woods, on the slope down towards Crouch End). At this point of the year I am doing this just after dusk. It’s been lovely to hear what seems to be a rather busy owl population hooting away as darkness falls.

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Vivian Stanshall and Topiary

Vivan Stanshall is a much-missed genius of weirdness. In the book, I was going to use part of this quote from Rhinocratic Oaths by the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band, for his lovely surreal take on the way that neighbours can define themselves and compete through their garden hedge maintenance:

Much as he hated arguments or any kind of unpleasantness, Ron Shirt thought things had gone too far when, returning from a weekend in Clapton, he found that his neighbour had trimmed the enourmous hedge dividing their gardens into the shape of a human leg.
Enraged and envious beyond belief, Ron seized his garden shears and clipped his white poodle Leo into a coffee table.
“That’ll fix it,” thought Ron, but he was wrong.
The following Wednesday his neighbour had his bushy waist-length hair cut and permed into a model of the Queen Elizabeth and went sailing.
Everywhere he went, people said “Hooray!”
Sometimes you just can’t win.

The complexity of getting permissions for song lyrics mean I left this out in the end, but I’ll put it up here anyway. You can hear the song in all its glory on Youtube here:

On the same subject of bizarre suburban disputation, it’s also worth listening to My Pink Half of the Drainpipe.

 

 

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The Meikleour Hedge

For anyone who wants a barrier between themselves and their neighbours, the ultimate aspirational hedge must the one at Meikleour in Scotland. Running alongside the A93 between Perth and Blairgowrie, this is an extraordinary solid wall of beech trees. The hedge, for a long time officially the highest in the world*, is over 100 feet high at its tallest point and a third of a mile long.

It was planted in 1745 by Robert Murray Nairne. This was the year of the Jacobite Rising, and Nairne and many of the men who worked with him and helped to plant the hedge went on to fight for the Jacobites in the Battle of Culloden in the following year.

The battle and its aftermath were grim for the Jacobites, who were mostly Highland Scots supporting the House of Stuart’s claim to the throne. Alongside the French they were fighting against English and Scottish troops under the Duke of Cumberland, son of George II (the Hanover king).

The duke became known as “Butcher” Cumberland – he was the one who gave the orders to take “no quarter.” Hundreds of wounded soldiers were shot lying on the ground, while others were taken prisoner, then either burnt alive in pits of fire or shot in cold blood.

So one can hardly begin to fathom the deep sorrow of Nairne’s wife, Jean Mercer of Meikleour. She let the newly planted beech hedge grow up to heaven in memoriam of her lost husband and friends. And to this day it has remained there as a monument to her grief.

*Rather gallingly, the tallest hedge in Britain is now the double row of Leylandii at the National Pinetum in Bedgbury, Kent, which at the time of writing is 130 feet tall. But I’m tempted to say that since that is Leylandii it doesn’t really count.

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The Hundred Acre Wood

I have brought my daughter for a day out in Ashdown Forest in the hope of getting some sense of what the original wildwood looked like. The first hedges were, of course, created as assart hedges, the remnants of ancient woodland, surrounding clearings in the forest. From the neolithic period onwards, the forests that covered this land were cleared by people undertaking the backbreaking labour of cutting trees down and grubbing out the roots in order to create land that could be farmed.

We spend a pleasant hour or two wandering through mild, sunny woods without finding anything that really fits the bill. Eventually we find one small patch where the trees are dense enough and the undergrowth sufficiently tangled to allow our imaginations to run wild.

We peer into the dark undergrowth where tree branches tangle together with brambles, saplings, brushwood and forest flowers into an impassable wall of vegetation. The notable thing about this kind of woodland is how dark the interior is. There might be the odd trickle of sunlight from the ceiling of the forest, but at ground level it is murky, a miasma of brown, black and grey shadows.

My mother grew up in the dense woods of upstate New York, in a clapboard house with a patch of land amongst the trees. You could walk into the woods and get completely lost for hours at a time. I visited when I was four years old and when we ventured even a short distance into the ‘big woods’ I was always aware of her warnings about rabid animals, quicksand, wild bears, and yellowjacket’s nests. So my strongest memory of those woods is a keen sense of danger.

In the south of England there aren’t many patches of woodland that can create such a sense of isolation and fear. The nearest woodland to me is in patches such as Highgate Wood or Epping Forest. They do contain much that is fascinating from a historical point of view, including ancient earth banks and evidence of coppicing over the centuries. But nineteenth-century woodland management cleared the undergrowth, creating spacious, sanitised woodland that has been depleted of ancient plant species.

However, patches of ancient woodland can still be found in Britain. I once spent a day walking on my own in Abernethy Forest in the Cairngorms, a remnant of the Caledonian pine forest. The dense trees made it hard to see any great distance or to navigate, and many of the paths seemed to peter out into nothing. I remember sitting down, listening to the noise of the birds and the rustling of the trees and feeling that I was a frighteningly long way from civilisation.

Ashdown Forest would also once have been a maze of unknown dangers. It is part of the Weald, which was deep woodland, in the valley between the North and South Downs. The Celts, Romans and Saxons had a few roads into the forest to the iron and tile works there, but the rest of the forest was unpopulated except for a few smugglers, highwaymen and other outlaws. It is only in the last two to three centuries that the area was more extensively cleared.

All afternoon I have been scaring my daughter with stories of the wolves, witches, ogres and monsters of folk tales. As we stare into the dark, tangled branches of this patch of forest we try to imagine how our ancestors must have felt as they confronted their primeval fears. It is only a very distant glimpse of the wildwood, but it seems a good moment to cheer things up.

So I point out that this is the Hundred Acre Wood, the real place from which A. A. Milne conjured up his enchanted wood, with its cast of heffalumps, tiggers, rabbits and owls. After a brief period of negotiation, we make our way to the village of Hartfield and on to the Pooh sticks bridge, which still stands nearby.

I used to play Pooh sticks myself when I was her age and our house was a short walk from a bridge over a stream. I’ve played it with her before in local parks, and now we are at the epicentre of the sport we have to gather some twigs for a game.

After a lot of shouting and excitement, I win six games. She wins seven. Then we head off to find somewhere that sells Ribena and chocolate cake.

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