‘As humans we often think that man is separate from nature, but we’re not separate, we are completely intertwined.’
There are some places, some moments, that are so gently powerful, so beautiful, that they touch a part of us we perhaps don’t even know we have. Places that seem to dwell in a different time frame, offer an alternative take on the world, are utterly transporting, and remind us somehow of something we’ve forgotten. Places where to go outside is, quite literally, to go in. We were taken to such a place last week …
When we were given the opportunity to show The Long View exhibition at O N C A in Brighton, we wanted to set up a meeting with someone who could give us some insights into trees and policies in the South Downs National Park. Through a few contacts we found our way to Nick Heasman, one of the park’s Countryside and Policy Managers, and we arranged to meet for a couple of hours: he’d offered to show us some trees.
To be honest, I didn’t know quite what to expect, and had anticipated a lot of talk about policy and the kinds of issues that present themselves in the South Downs. But the day unfolded quite differently. While we did talk about issues and policies – tree cover, diseases, protection of ancient woodland, woodland care, forest enterprises – these conversations formed around the edges of our curiosity and passion for trees and nature, and we shared stories from our respective homes and our own travels among trees. When we parted company, some six hours after meeting, we were all surprised, I think, that we’d spent so long together. A day formerly set up to talk about trees turned into a very special, personal tour from a man who has lived here all his life, and knows this place intimately; he shared many stories, with insights into geology and soils, meadows, birds, rivers, weather, tourism, sustainability and more. We felt very privileged.
The South Downs is an entirely new patch for us: neither of us has done more than drive through it in the past. So we were at the mercy of Nick’s whim on what felt like a magical mystery tour, beginning at Cowdray Park in Midhurst. There are so many trees here (some 24% land cover, compared to a national average of 12%) that nearly all the roads we drove down were flanked with green, or were tunnels through woods. Quite different from the open vistas and wide views in the Lake District where roads leave tree cover to climb up fells, or trace the shores of lakes.
Unlike the Lake District, whose geology makes for wide spreads of individual rock types, the South Downs crams five into a very small area, so you can quite literally walk from one to another as you go uphill, and you can deduce the soil type by the species of trees and other vegetation. Nick also suspects that people’s characters are shaped by the rocks and soil they live on and work with. The upper ground is chalk, then there’s upper greensand, then gault clay and finally, lower greensand; and there’s even Wealden clay in places.
The first tree Nick took us to grows on chalk. He had told us he would take us to a lime tree, and that was all I knew. I had no idea what would be revealed.
The footpath is thick with grass and slightly damp underfoot, and flanked on either side by walls of trees. This is a working wood, made up mostly of western red cedars, used for decking, flooring, cladding and roofing. They’re planted in blocks, making for dark woods that feel uninviting and unexciting, with very little growing on the woodland floor. If I wasn’t being led by Nick, I would probably follow the path without deviating. But before long, Nick turns off the path, treads gently through the long grass and brambles at its edge, and sweeps aside branches at face and waist height.
‘Having known the tree for nearly twenty years, sometimes there’s a path, and you know people have been here. Today, it’s a bit of a struggle, because the usual path has all grown up. The land owner knows it’s here, a few foresters in the area know it’s here, and a few ecologists, but apart from that, you’ve got to be told that somewhere like this exists.’
We step through the curtain of the red cedars’ dull foliage, and find ourselves in another world. Right in front of us, in the midst of the dark wood, is an enormous burst of radiant green: a lime tree that has spread itself out and out and out, and up and up and up. It is bigger than our house. There is no canopy shyness here. The highest branches of this magnificent, ancient giant press against the tops of the red cedars, and extend way beyond them. It is in full flush and it is as if every single leaf is throwing out its own green light.
Limes put out stems from the base of their trunks – in towns and cities these shoots are trimmed to keep the trees upright, tall and tidy, and in a woodland setting, trimming these shoots to coppice the tree means its wood can be used while the tree itself survives. This particular tree is thought to be a large leaved lime Tilia platyphyllos, although some old limes may be hybrids. It has probably not been coppiced since the First World War and now has around twenty basal shoots or stems, each, we estimate, more than 30 metres high. They rise straight and tall, forming the outside edge of a circle that’s perhaps five metres across.
Nick and I step inside. We are in the heart of the tree, completely surrounded by it. We look up, and gasp: it’s impossible to see the uppermost leaves but equally impossible to look away. This tree draws your eyes up and up, and in its towering crown is a play of shapes and the brightest of greens: it’s like being inside a kaleidoscope. My feet are on earth but they feel as if they are in wood, as if I am actually inside the long-gone central trunk of the tree, and I’m breathing in the scent of loam and wood and fresh leaf, bathed in birdsong; I feel held by something slow and strong. I could be in another world, it seems I am in a different time zone, and if I were here alone I could stay for hours. I don’t know how to describe my sensations and do little better than uttering several ‘Wow’s. Later, Nick puts it into words for me – for him, it is spending time within the timeless.
‘I often talk to a close friend of mine about time in the timeless,’ he says, ‘where you can be somewhere and it doesn’t matter what the time is, what the year is, or anything else is. On top a section of Down land, I can often feel echoes in the chalk. I lie down and I can hear other people’s footsteps. Sometimes a horse goes by, and you can hear that echo of the landscape. That’s time in the timeless. I close my eyes and it could be five thousand years ago, and hopefully five thousand years in the future.’
We fall quiet for a moment, taking in the green, and thinking about these great spans of time. ‘The general consensus is that this tree was the number one tree in the canopy when the Romans were here about 2000 years ago,’ says Nick. ‘It’s been coppiced for centuries. That’s why we still see it today – it’s been nurtured and cut by man for over two thousand years.’ Nick tells us that the farmer whose land this tree grows on feels very passionate about it, and often brings policy makers, including Defra officials, to see it, and presents the question: How do you preserve something like this? ‘Lots of people say, oh, you put a fence round it, you put a Tree Preservation Order on it. But what’s he’s trying to put across is that this tree is here because it has been cut – it’s here because of humans. People have marvelled at this tree and they’ve valued it and have actually prolonged its life by coppicing it and taking materials from it.’ He tells me why he think it matters:
‘I think it connects us to our landscape. As humans we often think that man is separate from nature, and yet by mankind’s hand that tree has been prolonged. That connects us back to our ancestors. It’s a natural history relic and it’s living, and it’s relevant today in allowing us to interpret who we are and where we are in this landscape. It’s a cornerstone to us understanding man’s relationship to landscape, to all landscapes – that we’re not separate, we are completely intertwined.’
I could have stayed with the giant lime for hours but we move on. The next tree Nick takes us to has an entirely different feeling. It’s a yew, rooted beside Faringdon church. Its wood is a painterly spread of twists and curves, but, being a yew, its leaves are dark: it does not feel so vital and is certainly not as energising as the lime. Still, it holds its own stories, and congregations have walked between it and its twin, for many hundreds of years. These ‘Great Yews’ are probably older than the lime: they were already ancient when the church was built in the 12th Century, most likely built on the site of a temple used by Pagans, for whom evergreen and long-living yews were a symbol of immortality.
Faringdon is not far from Selborne, where Reverend Gilbert White wrote The Natural History of Selborne. I discover that Gilbert White measured the girth of this yew’s trunk in 1816, and found it to be 30 feet. According to records, the tree had grown by only one inch over 200 years later. I’m left wondering: just how old a tree can be.
The third tree Nick chooses to take us to is in the heart of a village community, and, physically, it really does seem to be the village’s heart. It’s another ancient giant of uncertain age, a horse chestnut that’s in excellent health. Its flower heads have only just died back, and its foliage is still vibrant spring green, and when I look up I’m overwhelmed again by the abundance of green.
This chestnut is part of village life. There are stones hidden by its trunk as part of a treasure hunt, and I meet a woman who shows me some drone footage taken the week before. The film begins in the crown of the tree, covered with with its white ‘candle’ flowers, and the drone slowly draws back, and the tree seems to loom larger and larger as the camera moves back: the houses around the massive tree look like toy models. The tree dominates the village and I suspect it will continue to do that for many, many years to come: the village’s central point, a place for meeting, for sheltering, for games.
Before we go our separate ways, I ask Nick where his special ‘somewhere’ is. He smiles and admits that for him, the most special place is in the heart of the lime tree we stood today. There are other places around the world that intrigue him, and that he loves, but he is rooted in and most loves the South Downs, and is happiest sharing this with his family. ‘Paradise, I think, is what you make it. And it’s here, for me, rather than somewhere thousands of miles away that doesn’t work. I’ve been lucky to live in some very pretty places surrounded by nature, but there’s no point to that unless you are sharing it with someone. Us humans, we yearn for contact, and I think as much as there’s an ideal to be out in the wild, I want my mate with me, I want my partner with me.’
On that note, Rob and I leave, and head off for our final treat of the day. Nick has recommended we visit Kingley Vale Nature Reserve, and seek out the old yew trees there.
The Kingley Vale woodland is vibrant and green, with ashes, hawthorns, elders, oaks, field maples and hazels, and we have to step off the main path to find the yews, leaving the light and the green behind us. We find ourselves among browns: dark trunks, their twists and turns embedded into curves and reds and blacks and deep rust browns. Some of the trees are upright, some bent like tired knuckles, some are lying down, their roots splayed, upturned in a disturbance of soil and chalk, and their bare dead branches reaching hopelessly outwards.
It’s a strange, cool, brown environment that seems wrecked – like the timbers of a massive boat thrown up by the sea and left to lie where they fell – but it’s a paradox because it is full of life. These yews have been standing and falling here for hundreds of years. They have pushed up and up and saved all their leaves for the high canopy, where birds are playing and singing: blue tits above me, chaffinches behind, and black birds and thrushes beyond.
There’s a feeling of venerable antiquity here, a blend of liveliness and the slow and steady wisdom that comes with age: time not measured by a single tree or season but by the continued presence of trees and soil and fungi and birds that have been rooting, mulching, singing and breathing here for centuries, lives interconnected.
There is red in some of the trunks, vibrant as the blood of a wound. I have never seen this colour before in a yew, and a story Nick told me earlier comes back to me: Saxons holding their ground against the Vikings, refusing to give in to them. Back in Cumbria, the Vikings settled in, and their language still rings in the place names today, but here in the South Downs they didn’t settle, nor were they integrated, and the story goes that they were slaughtered in a final battle with the Saxons, right here. When I email Nick later to tell him about our afternoon, he sends a poem with his reply:
‘Extremely pleased you found and became lost at Kingley Vale. The story is the trees were felled Vikings, as Sussex was never taken by the Vikings apparently (funny poem about Sussex below which sums up its openness and stubborn way, if you don’t ‘push or shove’ Sussex can give ‘land and love’) …
Sussex Won’t be Druv
Some folks as come to Sussex,
They reckons as they know –
A durn sight better what to do
Than simple folks, like me and you,
Could possibly suppose.
But them as comes to Sussex,
They mustn’t push and shove,
For Sussex will be Sussex,
And Sussex won’t be druv!
Mus Wilfred come to Sussex,
Us heaved a stone at he,
Because he reckoned he could teach
Our Sussex fishers how to reach
The fishes in the sea.
But when he dwelt among us,
Us gave un land and luv,
For Sussex will be Sussex,
And Sussex won’t be druv!
All folks as come to Sussex
Must follow Sussex ways –
And when they’ve larned to know us well,
There’s no place else they’ll wish to dwell
In all their blessed days –
There ant no place like Sussex,
Until ye goos above,
For Sussex will be Sussex,
And Sussex won’t be druv.
W Victor Cook 1914
When we left Kingley Vale we walked past a number of elm trees. Dutch Elm Disease decimated elms across England and Wales in the late 20thCentury, but the South Downs escaped the worst of it thanks to the shape of the land and the direction of the wind. Tomorrow, we will visit the oldest English Elm trees in the world … the next blog will be about the Preston Twins in the heart of Brighton.
More to discover:
O N C A where The Long View is currently on show.
Listen to Nick talking (and the birds singing!) from inside the lime tree by clicking on the link here