Category Archives: Trees

Trees for Cities (…and remember that hedges are trees too)

Trees for Cities are a nice charity who aim to help people to plant more urban trees, which is a great cause as trees make a big difference to the urban environment.

Their website is here: http://www.treesforcities.org/

It’s also worth bearing in mind that hedges are trees too. The individual plants may be humble compared to fully grown trees but they carry all the same environmental advantages and more – they provide shelter for birds, insects and other wildlife, they help to absorb CO2, filter pollution, reduce noise, and they soften the urban environment with a touch of greenery. In the average street there are far more trees planted as part of a hedge than fully grown.

One of the blights of my part of London is people pulling up their front gardens and hedges and concreting over them to create parking spaces. It’s ugly, environmentally damaging and increases flood risk by reducing the amount of soil that will absorb water. Urban hedges aren’t afforded the same protection as their country cousins, but in their own way they are just as valuable in their contribution to biodiversity and the environment. They’re not quite our version of the rainforest, but without them we’d be a lot worse off.

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More Autumn Leaf Patterns

My mum sent me this picture of some leaves which she had taken in the garden after doing a bit of artful arranging…

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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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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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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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Filed under Historical Hedges, Rural Britain, Trees, Woodland

Greek hedges and trees

I was recently in Kefalonia for a week’s holiday. Inevitably a few of my holiday pictures ended up being of hedges and trees, so here are a few thoughts, based on entirely unscientific observations of the immediate area I was staying in (near Argostoli).

The range of trees in Greece is pretty spectacular, with lots of the obvious species like lemon, fig and olive: here’s one of each of those.

(There were plenty of big fig trees, but this one amused me because it was just growing in a crack in the pavement).

When it comes to hedges. the Greek climate mostly doesn’t encourage a dense British-style hedge, so you get two main types of hedge. Firstly you get slightly flimsy flowering hedges like these ones:

This shrub is quite common in the flimsy style of hedge (not sure what it is called)

Secondly you get denser, low hedges, more like an ornamental border. For instance this one at the airport, complete with “Keep of the grass” sign (sic).

And this one, which amuses me because of the symmetry of the hedges containing a garden with nothing in it. (I suspect the British owners of these apartments can be blamed for the slightly neurotic design of this):

Finally, there were plenty of trees I couldn’t identify. I’m not sure whether this triffid is technically a tree or not, but it is definitely pretty weird and a bit scary. It was growing almost horizontally out of the roadside bank, which was also full of strange little cacti:

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When is a Row of Trees a Hedge?

Sometimes it’s interesting to see the internet searches that bring people to this blog. The above question was one of them yesterday. It’s a pretty hard question to answer precisely – I’ve got a whole chapter in the book called “What is a Hedge” and I still don’t claim to have the definitive answer, but here are a few quick thoughts.

Firstly, a hedge is traditionally a row of trees or woody shrubs that have been interlinked so as to form a boundary or barrier.

However this can’t be a precise definition. A hedgerow that has become gappy can still be called a hedge. And if I plant a row of trees on a bank or field boundary with the intention of laying them into a hedge, you could still call the row of trees a hedge, even though they are not interlinked.

My general theory is that a hedge is always the result of human intervention in the landscape – hedges can be grown (or early hedges were left on the edge of assarts, clearings in the wildwood), and managed as barriers, boundaries, screens or ornaments. The only kinds of hedge that aren’t intentionally created are fencerows, meaning the lines of vegetation that grow alongside barriers such as walls and fences because they are protected from the elements. But these are still caused by the creation of the original barrier.

In all these cases the hedge exists because of human action. A line of trees is a hedge if it is functioning as a hedge, is intended to become a hedge, was once intended to be a hedge, or grew alongside something else that was intended to function as a barrier or screen.

So I’d suggest that a hedge is never an entirely natural element, and can always be explained in terms of its use or intended use as a barrier, boundary, ornament or screen.

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Filed under Historical Hedges, The Hedge Philosopher, Trees