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The Groaning Tree of Badesley

I recently came across an interesting passage on a tree that groaned in a dusty tome called Old England: A Pictorial Museum (published by Charles Knight in 1845). The author recounts William Gilpin’s sketch of a rather singular elm from his older and dustier tome Remarks on Forest Scenery; and other Woodland Views (first published in 1791). Here is Gilpin’s original description:

The next tree I shall exhibit from New-forest, is the groaning-tree of Badesley; a village about two miles from Lymington. The history of the groaning-tree is this. About forty years ago, a cottager, who lived near the centre of the village, heard frequently a strange noise, behind his house, like that of a person in extreme agony. Soon after, it caught the attention of his wife, who was then confined to her bed. She was a timorous woman, and being greatly alarmed, her husband endeavoured to persuade her, that the noise she heard, was only the bellowing of the stags in the forest. By degrees, however, the neighbours, on all sides heard it; and the thing began to be much talked of. It was by this time plainly discovered, that the groaning noise proceeded from an elm, which grew at the end of the garden. It was a young, vigorous tree; and to all appearance perfectly sound.

In a few weeks the fame of the groaning tree was spread far and wide; and people from all parts flocked to hear it. Among others, it attracted the curiosity of the late prince, and princess of Wales, who resided at that time for the advantage of a sea-bath, at Pilewell, the seat of sir James Worsley, which stood within a quarter of a mile of the groaning-tree.

Tho the country-people assigned many superstitious causes for this strange phenomenon, the naturalist could assign no physical one, that was in any degree satisfactory. Some thought, it was owing to the twisting and friction of the roots. Others thought it proceeded from water, which had collected in the body of the tree - or perhaps from pent air. But no cause that was alledged, appeared equal to the effect. In the mean time, the tree did not always groan; sometimes disappointing it’s visitants: yet no cause could be assigned for it’s temporary cessations, either from seasons, or weather. If any difference was observed; it was thought to groan least, when the weather was wet; and most when it was clear, and frosty: but the sound at all times seemed to arise from the root.

Thus the groaning-tree continued an object of astonishment, during the space of eighteen, or twenty months, to all the country around: and for the information of distant parts a pamphlet was drawn up, containing a particular account of all the circumstances relating to it.

At length, the owner of it, a gentleman of the name of Forbes, making too rash an experiment to discover the cause, bored a hole in it’s trunk. After this it never groaned. It was then rooted up, with a farther view to make a discovery: but still nothing appeared, which led to any investigation of the cause. It was universally however believed, that there was no trick in the affair: but that some natural cause really existed, tho never understood.

Posted in Miscellany + Notable trees

The Plantations on the Estate of Wentworth (1888)

I recently came across a report entitled The Plantations on the Estate of Wentworth, Yorkshire in Volume 12 of the Transactions of the Royal Scottish Arboricultural Society, published by that Society in 1888. (You can find a full copy of the book at archive.org.) The report provides a fascinating first-hand account of estate forestry at the end of the nineteenth century - and the proximity of Wentworth to my hometown makes this of especial personal interest. The devastating effects of industrial pollution are given prominence, and the innocuous line that “For underwood and game cover we find… none take so freely to the soil as the Rhododendron” should ring ominously for every conservationist.

I’ve reproduced almost the whole report here. Even though it makes for a much longer than usual blog post, it’s a rewarding read and well worth your time. [Notes in square brackets are my own.]

The Plantations on the estate of Wentworth, Yorkshire. By George Dodds, Forester, Wentworth, Rotherham, Yorkshire.

In this Report I propose giving some details of the nature, extent, and management of the woodlands upon the estate of the Right Hon. The Earl Fitzwilliam, K.G. [William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, b. 1815 d. 1902, who was MP for Malton 1837-1841 and 1846-1847 and MP for Wicklow 1847-1857 before becoming the 6th Earl], at Wentworth, Yorkshire. [The famous Wentworth Woodhouse was the Fitzwilliams’ stately home.] The estate is situate in the southern part of the West Riding, and extends to close upon 60,000 acres; the woods and plantations occupying about 5640 acres of that area.

The difficulty now to contend with in growing trees in this district is the amount of smoke in the atmosphere, and any one not accustomed to iron and coal mining districts can scarcely conceive the damage done to vegetation by the smoke and fumes from the mines, and also from the coke ovens which are in constant operation in the locality. In making new plantations or in renovating the old woods upon the estate, much care has to be taken to use the species of trees upon which the smoke seems to have least effect. These are principally trees having a smoothish bark, such as ash, beech, birch, Spanish chestnut, horse chestnut, lime, wych elm, and sycamore.

A considerable quantity of larch has been planted of late years, but after reaching a height of ten to twelve feet the trees are gradually dying off, chiefly on account of the unsuitability of the soil for the growth of larch, but also in some measure from the surrounding atmosphere being impregnated with noxious vapours, which are injurious to plant life. I notice the only trees of the pine tribe that seem to thrive here are the Scots fir, Pinus sylvestris, the Austrian pine, P. Austriaca [Pinus nigra subsp. nigra var. nigra, a subspecies of black pine], and the Corsican pine, P. Larcicio [Pinus nigra subsp. salzmannii var. corsicana, another black pine subspecies].

Many of the newer conifers, especially Cedrus Deodara and Wellingtonia gigantea [Sequoiadendron giganteum - giant redwood a.k.a. Sierra redwood], have been planted in the Home woods and Park, but after lingering for a few years they have mostly all died out, and those that are alive present a very sickly appearance.

1. The Home Park.

Beginning with the Home Park, which extends to about 2000 acres, we estimate the area under wood, including some plantations that lie contiguous to the Park, at 1000 acres, of various ages. … Some of the trees in the Park have attained to large dimensions, chiefly oak, and it is currently reported here that some of the older and larger specimens are the remnants of the ancient natural forest, which I have no doubt once stretched across from Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire to this part of the country.

I regret to say that many of the largest of the old trees are dead, and more dying every year, some of them containing from 400 to 500 cubic feet of timber. In fact, we felled some last season which contained 430 feet of timber when measured. It is a pity to see so many hoary-headed monarchs of the forest standing dead or dying side by side. They well exemplify Dryden’s beautiful lines:-

“The Monarch Oak, the Patriarch of trees,
Shoots rising up, and spreads by low degrees;
Three centuries he grows, and three he stays
Supreme in State, and in three more decays.”

The earliest planting here of any note was done by the first Marquis of Rockingham [Thomas Watson-Wentworth, b. 1693 d. 1750], who lived about 180 years ago. It is rather a curious fact that even the trees that appear to be about 100 years’ growth, have not the least appearance of the older trees, as they are now showing symptoms of premature decay, by the stunted and sickly appearance of the foliage that they put on every season. This I attribute in a large degree to the prevalence of smoke and noxious fumes, which have arisen in this locality within the last hundred years or so.

There are some very fine rows of lime-tree and elm in the Park, planted in the same form as the Duke of Marlborough drew up his troops at the battle of Blenheim. The lime-trees are all intact, and are admired by every one, but a great many of the elms have been blown down from time to time, and not having been replaced, the gaps spoil the general effect. These trees are now about 170 years old.

… For underwood and game cover we find Rhododendron ponticum the most useful, although we plant several other sorts, such as blackthorn, privet, and hazel, but none take so freely to the soil as the Rhododendron.

[Ordnance Survey mapping shows plenty of woods in and around Wentworth Park, with some even including ‘plantation’ in their name, e.g. Cortworth Field Plantation and Mausoleum Plantation. Google Maps shows two lines of trees ‘facing’ each other (see below) – are these the remains of the ‘Battle of Blenheim’, or just a northern approach avenue to the big house? More research and a visit is required!]

2. Rainbro’ Park.

This wood may be said to be one of the Home plantations, as it lies immediately outside of the Park, and extends to 200 acres, varying in age from 6 to 150 years. …

The original crop has been oak, but as it was showing symptoms of decay, the greater portion of the old trees were cut down a few years ago, leaving only a few of the healthiest and best for the sake of appearance in the landscape. … A great many of the old trees are dying off and should be removed, which process will now require extra care, to avoid much damage to the healthy growing young trees.

[Rainborough Park is still a good-sized wood on OS mapping.]

3. Hood Hill.

It is about 80 years old… Some very promising specimens of beech and Spanish chestnut are growing here. …

[Today the OS shows 3 woods around Hood Hill, including Hood Hill Plantation.]

4. Low Woods.

This plantation extends to 180 acres, and is about 150 years old. … This wood has suffered severely from being in the neighbourhood of iron-works, which, however, are now done away with. I have advised to clear the greater portion of the present crop away and replant the ground with the most suitable kinds of trees.

[OS shows a Low Wood and adjacent Lowe Wood two or three miles north-west of Tankersley.]

5. Tankersley Woods.

This district comprises a parish and township lying at a high elevation, and is consequently much exposed. The highest part is about 600 feet above sea-level, and lies very exposed to the west wind. The woodlands extend to about 600 acres, and the trees vary in age from 10 to 70 years. … The younger woods have been planted in narrow belts, and mostly on land which has been occupied by old pit workings… This is also a smoke infested district, one of the largest iron-works in Yorkshire being upon the land, and also an extensive colliery. We are kept continually felling dead trees, and I am of the opinion that, if the smoke continues, very few live trees will be found in the course of a few years.

[There are still several woods around the small villages of Tankersley and Pilley, although an industrial estate and three major roads, including the M1, are now prominent in the area.]

6. Swinton Woods.

The woodlands in this district extend to about 300 acres. The trees are chiefly oak. …

The woods in the district have all the appearance of having been well attended to, and thinning has been judiciously practised. The great majority of the trees are well grown and healthy, and exhibit all the signs of attaining to valuable dimensions.

[Swinton now forms an urban conurbation with the towns of Wath-upon-Dearne, Mexborough and Rawmarsh; however, there are still a few small woods mostly to the south-west of town, many of which have ‘plantation’ in the name, e.g. Blackamoor Inn Plantation and Long Plantation.]

7. Eccleshall Wood.

This is a large wood extending about 450 acres, and lies to the south-east of the town of Sheffield. Portions of it have already been taken up for building sites, and in a few years hence, I have no doubt it will be extensively used for that purpose, lying as it does within easy reach of such an important and progressive town.

… It is moderately sheltered, and I believe is also an outlying part of the ancient Nottinghamshire Forests. The crop is oak, and must be of great age, as all the trees have the appearance of being grown from old stools.

The oak is not healthy, and shows symptoms of dying off in the course of a few years. Some planting has been done in a few of the openest parts, and consists of larch, Scots fir, sycamore, Spanish chestnut, ash, elm, mountain ash, birch, and beech, and all promise to grow well. The ages of the recent plantings are from 12 to 4 years. The great difficulty to contend against is the brackens and other rank herbage that grow upon this land, which entail a great amount of labour and expense in keeping the young plants clear. It has been found advantageous to cut the brackens in their early growth, as the constant bleeding weakens them much.

[Ecclesall Woods are today owned by Sheffield City Council and cover about 350 acres.]

8. Tinsley Park Wood.

This wood lies intermediate between the towns of Rotherham and Sheffield, and receives the full effect of the smoke, sulphur, and other fumes, no matter from which direction the wind may blow.

… The extent is 350 acres, age unknown, but to all appearance the wood is natural. The crop is oak, with a few birch that have grown up naturally. The greater portion of this wood is, consequently, a matter of some consideration for the owner, as to whether to keep it up as a wood or not? It is completely surrounded by public works, which entail great difficulties in the matter of planting. If replanting is undertaken here, I have recommended to plant sycamore, ash, birch, beech, and wych elm, as the trees most likely to grow to anything approaching timber size in such a locality.

[The ancient and historic Tinsley Park Wood is no longer with us; in its place we have Sheffield Airport, Tinsley Park Golf Course, the A630, and a big Morrisons. It was coal-mining, however, that brought about the wood’s destruction.]

9. Edlington Wood.

This wood extends to 510 acres… This is one of the most valuable woods upon the estate, and is no doubt a part of the remains of the Nottinghamshire Forests, as it is situate close to the borders of the counties of York and Nottingham. Some yews in the centre of the wood are of immense size and great age. The are still growing, and very healthy, and may at one time supplied Robin Hood and his merry men with bows and arrows.

The crop is principally natural oak, having a few ash, beech, and larch mixed through it which were planted about 60 years ago. The trees are generally healthy, but in some instances the older oaks show symptoms of decay, chiefly in the top branches, which may be attributed to the repeated cutting over, and springing up again from the old stools. The old oaks contain an average from 40 to 70 cubic feet. This wood has been worked upon the coppice principle. There are several miles of fine drives through it in various directions.

[Edlington Wood still exists, albeit adjacent to the M18.]

10. Bradfield Plantation.

An extensive tract of moorland extending to about 1800 acres. This district lies at an altitude of about 900 feet above sea-level… A ravine traverses a great portion of the wood, and upon the slopes, on both of its sides, the trees have done well.

The first planting was begun here in 1817 with 45 acres, and the whole extent was finished in 1830. The crop is principally larch and Scots fir, with a few spruce. The earliest planted parts are fast coming to maturity, hundreds of trees dying off every year. We are now contemplating clearing it off in sections, and replanting.

An experiment was tried here in a part where the soil is deepest and best. About 40 acres were sown with oak acorns; these have grown, but never attained to any size or value. The largest trees after 60 years’ growth may contain from three to four cubic feet, whilst many of the larch grown beside them contain 25 feet of wood. This has been a very profitable investment for the owner, as the land is chiefly moor, and of very little value for any other purpose. The larch grown here has the reputation of being very tough and durable. It has been mostly sold at one shilling per foot, at a distance of nine miles from a railway station or the nearest market. The whole of this wood is enclosed with a substantial stone wall.

[I have driven through this wood countless times. A couple of years agoI noticed that a large compartment had been clearfelled. This work was carried out as part of the ‘Bradfield Moorland Regeneration Scheme’1 – I have a bit more to say about this in a note at the end of this post.]


I cannot say that the woods upon this estate have been managed upon the most scientific principles, still they will compare favourably with most other extensive woodlands in the district.

The woods No. 7, 8, and 9, mentioned in this report, have been treated as coppice woods, or as they are termed in the district, “spring woods.” The routine of management of these woods is to have a fall every year; so that all the ground may be gone over in twenty-one years.

The timber is sold standing, by public auction, in early spring. The trees are all previously marked, measured, and valued by the woodman. The purchase pays all the expenses for felling, peeling, cutting, and clearing the underwood, etc. In a book for the purpose, the reserved trees, and trees for sale, are all noted. No tree is measured that does not contain ten cubic feet of timber. Under that size they are classed as poles. The system of measuring is as follows. The men are supplied with six rods, each six feet long, with ferrules to slip the rods into as they are passed up the tree. One man uses the rods, another the tape for the girth, and a third enters the number of tree, the length, and the girth into the book. It is surprising how near, by this simple method, they can go to the contents of each tree.

It is the custom to peel the trees standing, which is certainly an advantage in getting the bark earlier cured, as no time is lost in felling. I am of the opinion that it is also better for the timber, as the longer it stands after being barked, it is always becoming more seasoned.

Many would perhaps object to the purchaser cutting down the wood, but in this case it is no objection, as the woodmen are the proprietor’s servants; the purchase agreeing to pay for the working of wood at prices stated in the Rules of Sale.

The usual contract prices for working the wood are as follows:- for felling, per ton of 40 feet, 3s.; barking, per ton, 30s.; cutting and ranking of cordwood, 4s. per cord; stakes per score, 3d.; and so on, the woodmen providing their own tools.

In the Home plantations and Park much the same system of piece-work is carried out, especially in felling, barking, and similar operations, the same price being paid as in the “spring woods,” but in all the cases the wood is felled before it is sold, which is mostly done by private bargain.

The younger plantations have been partially thinned, but no system of pruning has been adopted. The consequence is, that most of them are found full of straggling, lob-sided trees, which might have been straight and well-grown if proper attention had been paid in due time to the pruning of them.

Planting was formerly done by contract; letting it to some of the working men, at so much per 1000 for making the pits and putting in the plants. This is a system which I do not approve, and consequently it has been put a stop to.

There are two nurseries, of about three acres each, upon different parts of the estate, for keeping up a supply of young trees, and plants for underwood. Seedlings are generally bough and kept a year or two, as the case may be, and in this way the young plants become to a certain extent acclimatised before being planted out permanently. Plants grown in these nurseries lift with abundance of roots, and when planted out they soon lay hold of the ground, and begin to grow with vigour at an early period. In this and other ways, they are an important advantage upon an estate.

1 The Bradfield Moorland Regeneration Scheme is a scheme whereby a significant proportion of ‘Bradfield Plantation’ will be clearfelled over a three-year period, reverting the land back to its historic moorland state. I’ve plucked the salient points from the Scheme’e environmental statement, which can be found in its entirety on the Forestry Commission England’s website. The woods and surrounding moorland, by the way, are still owned by Fitzwilliam (Wentworth) Estates.

[Under the heading of ‘Historic Landscape Context’]
Thomas Jeffrys’ Map of 1775 shows the study area to be open moorland labelled as “Hallfield Moor”, and there is no indication of tree cover in the vicinity. The land in the study area was allotted and enclosed by a Parliamentary Enclosure Act of 1826, which shows a managed plantation/woodland in place. So, it seems the Wentworth Estate converted part of the moorland to plantation sometime between 1775 and 1826. … The beech and oak plantations date from around 1900 and the bulk of the conifers were re-planted between 1923 and 1956.

[Under the heading of ‘Overall Project Objectives’]
The revised Bradfield Moorland Regeneration Scheme proposes to restore approximately 69ha of existing conifer plantation to a mosaic of dry dwarf-scrub heathland, wet heath and mire communities, and native broadleaved woodland to be managed as a grouse moor, retaining 136ha of existing conifers and semi-natural broadleaved woodland within the study area.

Posted in Miscellany

Birthday Tour (Part 1): Loch Rannoch - the Fortingall Yew – Bridge of Balgie

I woke up in a tent on my 27th birthday. It was early April, I had slept at the Forestry Commission’s campsite in Rannoch Forest, and it was as perfect a spring day as ever there was. I hatched a plan to photograph three big trees in the vicinity of Loch Tay while taking a motor tour through this part of the Highlands like a tourist of old: the Fortingall Yew, the Glen Lyon Ash, and a monster sycamore near Ardeonaig.

My campsite was just a short distance from both Loch Rannoch and the Black Wood of Rannoch, a remnant of the great Caledonian Forest, through which I’d walked the previous day.

Driving east along the road that follows the shore of the loch I passed the wee village of Kinloch Rannoch and soon met with the singular sight of a very shiny, snowbound Schiehallion. I climbed this mountain in November 2011 – my fifth Munro! – when I was lucky enough to see a faint Brocken spectre with double glory.

Following the Schiehallion road brought me up to Loch Kinardochy, which in contrast to the warmth of the day was still half frozen over. Back in the car I took the road south before turning right at Coshieville to follow the River Lyon upstream to Fortingall.

This is Fortingall parish church with the famous Fortingall Yew on the left. I’ve visited the yew five or six times over the last half-decade, but I’m now ashamed to admit that I never paid the church or churchyard any attention. Researching the church to say a little about it for these pictures has made me realise what I’ve been missing out on - antiquities that were right under my very nose half a dozen times! I only had eyes for the old tree, but my ignorance is inexcusable over so many visits… I must make amends on the next one.

The present church was built about 1900 on the site of its pre-Reformation predecessor. Three photographs from 1884, showing this earlier church and the yew (with a much smaller crown than today), can be found on the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland’s Canmore website.

According to this page on Undiscovered Scotland, the site may have been occupied by a monastery before the 1100s. Gravestones dating back to the 7th century, a stone font from around 700, and fragments of three Celtic crosses dating from around 800 were all found when the previous church was demolished in 1901. A 7th-century bronze-plated iron hand-bell is also on display within the church. As Undiscovered Scotland say, “Fortingall appears to have been an important Christian centre from a very early date.”

Today the Fortingall Yew is enclosed by a sturdy stone wall with sections of iron railings to allow a glimpse of the inhabitant’s trunks; only the healthy crown can be seen from farther back, a golden-green cloud resting upon a plinth. Peering between the railings, the uninformed would be forgiven for believing that they were looking at a pair of quite unremarkable trees. In fact these are but two fragments of a once immense trunk of almost unbelievable proportions, but being fully shrouded in healthy bark and showing no sign of decay, they could pass unrecognised as two yews of far less ancient provenance. The truth is nothing short of mind-blowing!

The Fortingall Yew is one of the oldest known trees in Europe. Allen Meredith (whose estimates according to The Tree Register Handbook “are as well-informed as anyone’s”) has suggested it could be as old as 5,000 years (along with the yews at Discoed in Powys and Llangernyw in Conwy), which is certainly something to think about. But what I find truly incredible is the gargantuan size it once reached. Forget the Yew as it stands today, so small, so utterly destroyed by ‘tourists’ in the 18th and 19th centuries, and try to wrap your mind around this: in the mid-1700s the Fortingall Yew had a girth of 56 and a half feet (17.2 m): a diameter of 5.5 metres (18 ft)! Consider that the thickest tree in Britain today is probably the Marton Oak with a dbh of 446 cm when measured around the three remaining sections of its trunk (although there are giant sequoias 7 m thick where their flared boles meet the ground). A five-and-a-half metre thick yew is phenomenal!

So how did such an enormous and enormously important tree end up looking like two smallish trees? I’ll let four old books tell that sorry tale (forgive a touch of overlap).

This sketch of the Fortingall Yew is taken from Thomas Pennant’s A Tour in Scotland; 1769, first published in 1771. The accompanying description runs: “A View of the gigantic Yew-Tree in Fortingal Church-Yard. The middle part is now decayed to the ground; but within memory was united to the height of three feet: Captain Campbell of Glen-Lion having assured me that when a boy he has often climbed over, or rode on the then connecting part.

In this book Pennant describes his visit to Fortingal on the 31st of July, 1769:

Rode to Glen-lion; went by the side of the river* that gives name to it. It has now lost its antient title of Duie, or Black, given it on account of a great battle between the Mackays and the Macgregors; after which, the conquerors are said to have stained the water with red, by washing in it their bloody swords and spears. On the right is a rocky hill, called Shi-hallen, or the Paps. Enter Glen-lion through a strait pass: the vale is narrow, but fertile; the banks of the river steep, rocky, and wooded; through which appear the rapid water of the Lion. On the north is a round fortress, on the top of the hill; to which, in old times, the natives retreated, on any invasion. A little farther, on a plain, is a small Roman camp†, called by the Highlanders Fortingal, or the Fort of the Strangers: themselves they style Na-fian, or descendents of Fingal. In Fortingal church are the remains of a prodigious yew-tree, whose ruins measured fifty-six feet and a half in circumference.

* This river freezes; but the Tay, which receives it, never does.
† It possibly might have been made during the expedition of Severus, who penetrated to the extremity of this island: it was the most northern work of the Romans I had any intelligence of.

Walter Johnson’s Byways in British Archaeology, first published in 1912, also mentions the Fortingall Yew. Johnson includes Pennant’s 1769 measurement (though mistakenly describing it as having been recorded “a few years later”, an error repeated from Loudon as you shall soon see) alongside another measurement taken in 1769 by Barrington, a judge – unfortunately there is a four-and-a-half foot discrepancy, perhaps accounted for by the measurements having been taken at different heights. Johnson writes:

From a long descriptive list of aged yew trees, slowly accumulated in a note-book, a few examples only need be extracted. At the head, in regard to antiquity, stands probably the yew in the graveyard of Fortingal (Fortingale, or erroneously, Fotheringhall), Perthshire. Sir R. Christison estimated this tree to be 3000 years old, and deemed it “the most venerable specimen of living European vegetation3.” De Candolle’s determination was about the same as Christison’s. The hollow stump, which has been carefully railed in, is now the merest wreckage. The Fortingal yew was measured by Daines Barrington in 1769, when the circumference was set down as 52 feet1. Pennant, a few years later, gave the result as 56½ feet… It is worthy of notice that a very old ecclesiastical establishment once existed near the Fortingal yew3. Loudon gives us a woodcut representing the tree as it appeared in 18374; beyond this we have to rely on the figures quoted, and on oral tradition.

Competing with the Fortingal yew for the premier position, there formerly existed that of Brabourne, in Kent. It was alluded to by Evelyn in his Discourse on Forest Trees (1664), as already “supperannuated,” and it disappeared about a century ago5. De Candolle put its age at more than 3000 years6, and while this was doubtless an over-estimate, yet, if the recorded circumference, 59 feet7, be correctly stated, the tree was actually more ancient than its Scottish rival.

A third claimant, from Hensor (Bucks), must be introduced with a wavering pen. Its circumference, according to Mr J. R. Jackson, of Kew, was 81 feet8, hence, if this measurement be accurate, the yews already mentioned are hopelessly out-ranged, for here we should have a tree 2000 years old. Unfortunately, this yew no longer remains to tell its own story, or to allow the measurement to be checked.

3 Life of Sir R. Christison, II. p. 264. Physiologie Végétale, t, II. p. 1002.

1 Philosoph. Trans. 1770, LIX. P. 37.
3 Notes and Queries, 5th Ser., V. p. 477.
4 J. C. Loudon, Arboretum Britannicum, IV. p. 2079.
5 Murray, Handbook for Kent, 5th edition, 1892, p. 37.
6 Physiologie Végétale, t, II. p. 1002.
7 Handbook for Kent, l.c., Black’s Kent, p. 143.
8 Notes and Queries, 5th Ser., V. p. 376.

So there once existed an even larger yew than the one at Fortingall! Later in his book, Johnson touches on one of the reasons for our yew’s present diminished state:

The Fortingal yew had its career shortened by the lighting of Beltane fires against its trunk1. The origin of Beltane fires is on all hands admitted to be at least pre-Roman. Another illuminating fact is that when this aged tree had become separated into two portions, funeral processions were accustomed to pass between the limbs2.

1 Naturalists’ Journal, 1895, p. 99.
2 Nat. Jour., l.c.; J. G. Strutt, Sylva Britannica, 1826, p. 28. Strutt gives a fine illustration of the Fortingal yew.

Jacob George Strutt does indeed give “a fine illustration of the Fortingal yew”. Here it is, taken from his Sylva Britannica; or Portraits of Forest Trees, first published in 1822 (an expanded edition followed in 1830). It is a far more life-like representation than the sketch made by Pennant in 1769, and I think we can safely consider it a fairly accurate likeness of the tree as it was in the 1820s.

Strutt provides us with an updated description of the yew:

THE FORTINGAL YEW is one of the largest and oldest trees in Scotland: it stands in the Church-yard of Fortingal, or the Fort of the Strangers, so called from its being in the vicinity of a small Roman camp; a wild romantic district lying in the heart of the Grampian Mountains, comprehending Glenlyon and Rannoch, abounding in lakes, rivers, and woods, and formerly inhabited by that lawless tribe of freebooters, who, setting the civil power at defiance in the intricacy of their fastnesses, laid all the surrounding country under that species of contribution so well known at the time it was exacted, by the name of Blackmail.

This prodigious tree was measured by the Hon. Judge Barrington, before the year 1770, and is stated by him to have been at that time fifty-two feet in circumference; but Pennant describes it as measuring fifty-six feet and a half. The same elegant tourist also speaks of it as having formerly been united to the height of three feet; Captain Campbell of Glenlyon, having assured him that when a boy, he had climbed over the connecting part. It is now however decayed to the ground, and completely divided into two distinct stems, between which the funeral processions were formerly accustomed to pass. It is impossible to ascertain its age; but judging from its present state and appearance, it is not too much to suppose that its date is contemporary with that of Fingal himself, whose descendants the Highlanders in the vicinity are fond of styling themselves.

Johnson, in his Byways in British Archaeology, also wrote that “Loudon gives us a woodcut representing the tree as it appeared in 1837”. Here is it, taken from John Claudius Loudon’s Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum, which was originally issued in sixty-three monthly parts from January 1835 until July 1838. Loudon’s illustration matches up nicely with Strutt’s.

Loudon gives our best insight yet into the appalling fate of the Yew:

The Fortingal Yew (fig. 1989) stands in the churchyard of Fortingal, or the Fort of the Strangers, so called from its being in the vicinity of a small Roman camp, lying in the wild romantic district at the entrance to Glen Lyon, in Perthshire. Its age is unknown, but it has long been a mere shell, forming an arch, through which the funeral processions of the highlanders were accustomed to pass. It was first described in the Philosophical Transactions (vol. lix.), in 1769, by the Honourable Daines Barrington, who found it 52 ft. in circumference; and some years afterwards, by Mr. Pennant, when the circumference had increased to 56 ft. 6 in. Dr. Neill visited the tree in July, 1833; and a notice of it by him will be found in the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal for that year, from which we make the following extract; premising that, when Daines Barrington measured the tree, he found one side of the trunk a mere shell of bark, all the interior having decayed. “Considerable spoliations,” Dr. Neill observes, “have evidently been committed on the tree since 1769; large arms have been removed, and masses of the trunk itself carried off by the country people, with the view of forming quechs, or drinking-cups, and other relics, which visitors were in the habit of purchasing. What still exists of the trunk now (1833) presents the appearance of a semicircular wall, exclusive of the remains of some decayed portions of it, which scarcely rise above the ground. Great quantities of new spray have issued from the firmer parts of the bark, and a few young branches spring upwards to the height, perhaps, of 30 ft. The side of the trunk now existing gives a diameter of more than 15 ft., so that it is easy to conceive that the circumference of the bole, when entire, should have exceeded 50 ft. Happily, further depredations have been prevented by means of an iron rail, which now surrounds the sacred spot; and this venerable yew, which, in all probability, was a flourishing tree at the commencement of the Christian era, may yet survive for centuries to come.”

This is the larger of the two fragments of trunk still surviving today.

According to Undiscovered Scotland, a wall was first built around the Fortingall Yew in 1785, “though as already noted this seems to have done little to prevent further damage. The wall was rebuilt with gaps for viewing protected by railings in 1842…” This protective enclosure still surrounds the tree, and without it I sincerely doubt that there would be anything left of the yew today. Fortunately, the regenerative abilities of the ‘immortal’ yew have allowed the pathetic remains of this once-gargantuan tree to flourish within their sanctuary, and today they could pass as two healthy but entirely separate trees, five metres apart. A ring of wooden pegs on the ground marking out the extent of the old trunk connect the two fragments, and the twin crowns blend together as one.

This is an old postcard of the Yew and the church from my collection. I’m not sure of the date it was taken. It is unused postally, which doesn’t give any clues, but the church is clearly the one built after 1900. The Fortingall Yew itself had a much smaller crown then, when its previous appalling treatment was a less distant memory. The gravestones are our best bet at fixing a date for this photograph. The bright white one on the right must have been erected only recently here: in my present-day photo below, it has been discoloured by the passage of time. There are other changes to the graves too.

A familiar scene, April 2013.

…So after bidding the yew a fond farewell I took the picturesque Glen Lyon road as far as the Bridge of Balgie, where I’d hoped to enjoy a birthday scone. Unfortunately, as I had very little cash on me and the wee post office / tearoom didn’t accept card payments… I had to settle for a tin of Irn Bru and a Double Decker instead!

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Continue to Birthday Tour (Part 2): the Glen Lyon ash - Loch Tay.

Posted in Holidays and field trips + Notable trees

MacCulloch’s Fossil Tree

The Ardmeanach Peninsula with Loch Scridain on the left.

I went on my own up to Mull for a few days at the end of March. On my first full day there I climbed Ben More, 966 metres tall and the island’s only Munro - my seventh. On my third day there I took the ferry across to Iona and visited the ruined nunnery and restored abbey, and the next day I had an eleven-hour drive back to Sheffield. On my second full day on Mull – the 31st of March - I went for a walk to see MacCulloch’s fossil tree.

I left the car at the National Trust car-park just past Tiroran on the Ardmeanach Peninsula and set off west along a Landrover track. It was a beautiful day, warm enough for shorts and t-shirt for the most part. The previous day I’d climbed Ben More in dense fog, relying on map and compass to reach the summit and descending in chilly rain. The day after, on Iona, the weather was miserably overcast and drizzly. But the day I chose to visit the fossil tree was absolutely lovely. Lucky me!

Looking back at the farmhouse at Burg, the last inhabited house on the peninsula and home to the only person I saw on my whole six-hour walk – an old man who stood looking after me once I’d passed by. Today this farmhouse and a small bothy are about all that’s left here, but over fifty people lived at Burg before the Highland clearances in the 1840s. East of Burg, there were also settlements at Culliemore and Salachry, but these too were cleared in the 1800s for sheep-farming. I saw a lot of ruins of small buildings along the track.

This 19th-century monument stands in the centre of a ruined iron age fort – you can see the thick, curved wall in the right of the picture. This “probable D-shaped semibroch or a sub-oval dun” is known as Dun Bhuirg. Archaeological notes are available at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland’s website.

It was also called Castle Dare at one time. A plaque on the other side of the monument, erected by Mr. John Hamilton Turner, reads:

15TH AUGUST 1896

Puir wee lassie. According to Walking on the Isle of Mull by Terry Marsh, Daisy’s family owned the Tiroran and Carsaig Estates. She died, aged twelve, when the small boat she was in with her brothers Ronald and Leslie was overtaken by a storm as they sailed to Carsaig. The boat capsized and sank with Daisy caught in the rigging; the boatmen and her brothers survived. Her proper name was Helen Margaret Cheape. [I found this further information here.]

Looking east, back along Loch Scridain.

At one point in my walk, I rounded a corner and was surprised by this sight: two stags (red deer or roe?), a family of feral goats, and a buzzard!

This mad wheel of basaltic cooling columns is in the sea close to MacCulloch’s fossil tree. I have read that this wheel itself was formed by lava cooling around a tree – we’re seeing a horizontal cross-section of the tree and the surrounding lava, whereas MacCulloch’s tree is seen in vertical cross-section. It seemed to me that this wheel was the terrifying maw of a gigantic kraken.

The wheel and a collection of more regular vertical cooling columns.

Even closer to MacCulloch’s fossil tree, the path takes you to a rusty old ladder that leads down onto this stony beach. The ladder looked very old and seriously corroded, so it was an act of faith to climb down it. An even older and rustier ladder still hangs on beside it!

And so, finally, to MacCulloch’s fossil tree – after a four hour walk which I reduced to two hours on the return leg simply by taking next to no photographs.

The tree was probably swallowed up by a lava flow from Ben More, then an active volcano, between fifty and sixty million years ago during the Paleogene period. Although the fossil today is mainly just an imprint, at the time its discovery by John MacCulloch in 1819 the imprint was lined with a two-inch deep layer of charcoal which has since been removed by souvenir hunters and unscrupulous geologists. The remains of the stump are capped by concrete to preserve what is left.

The best and most technical description of the fossil I could find was in a paper by Marsh, B. D. &. Coleman, N. M., published in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research (volume 182, issues 1-2, pp. 76-96) in 2009, entitled ‘Magma Flow and Interaction with Waste Packages in a Geologic Repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada’:

Perhaps a more pertinent example [of quenching] is MacCulloch’s Tree in Ardmeanach of the western Mull magmatic comples of Scotland. Here a large (~2 x 15 m) upright Eocence (~55 Ma) conifer (Taxodioxylon) has been encased in a columnar basalt lava flow. The clearly defined quenched margins are of a thickness approximately that of the radius of the tree (see Figure 7). In addition to the distinct quenched margins, also clear in this example is notable horizontal columnar jointing or fracturing due to contraction upon cooling. Columnar jointing is an indicator of the direction of cooling, with the trend of the columns being in the direction of the local strongest influence on cooling. This pattern of jointing shows the major effect of this tree in quenching massive flowing basalt.

I’ve annotated my photo to match Figure 7 in Marsh & Coleman’s paper, which they caption: ‘Upright Paleocene conifer caught in a thick basalt flow in Scotland. The distinctive quenched rinds have been noted along with the strong horizontal columnar jointing reflecting the overall effect of quenching and local rapid cooling. Also notice the man for scale. (after Emeleus and Bell, 2005).’ Emeleus and Bell are the authors of The Paleogene Volcanic Districts of Scotland. I provide the scale!

Posted in Gone for a walk + Holidays and field trips

Perfect Sunday walk around Dale Dike and Strines Reservoirs (Part 1): ancient oaks & Boot’s Folly

Impressive ash on the way to Dale Dike Dam.

On Sunday I went walking with a couple of buddies in perfect weather through some beautiful countryside. Even though we’re not yet halfway through March it was a very good impression of summer: hot and cloudless and lovely. We set out from Lower Bradfield in the morning and walked along the south-eastern shore of Dale Dike Reservoir, looped around Strines reservoir via Boot’s Folly and the Strines Inn, then followed the north-western shore of Dale Dike back to Lower Bradfield, before climbing the hill to Upper Bradfield where we enjoyed a pint and some pub grub in the afternoon sun. It was a great way to spend a Sunday.

I’m 99% sure that this is Daldinia concentrica, a fungus going by the common names of King Alfred’s cakes, carbon balls, and cramp balls. There were a few of them growing on a dead tree by the dam wall at Dale Dike Reservoir.

This is a seriously ancient oak. It grows between the two reservoirs and when I first spotted it I was amazed – amazed because this is the first veteran oak of this class I have found in my local area. Then I was excited. It looks smaller it really is in this photograph – my photos never seem to do big trees justice – but you can see it is a tree of great antiquity; an old pollard, from the look of it. 400 years old? 500? I look forward to putting it to the tape measure!

A nice little hawthorn.

A pause on the climb up to the folly for a look back over Dale Dike Reservoir.

Boot’s Folly! This 45 foot high tower was built in 1927 by Charles Boot of nearby Sugworth Hall (son of Henry Boot, founder of the eponymous LSE-listed company) to keep his workmen occupied during the Great Depression. There are stairs inside the tower but only at the very top – the story goes that they were mostly removed in the 1970s after a cow got itself stuck up there. The folly is a well-known local landmark that can be seen from much of the surrounding country, to which it adds character. It’s my opinion that it looks most impressive when viewed from up close, with the countryside as a backdrop.

This big ash grows just south of Strines Reservoir. The two branches on the left sure reach a good distance from the stem.

Another ancient oak pollard! This one is more squat and not so tall as the oak already passed, but it’s still a reverential veteran that has witnessed the passing of more than a couple of centuries. It’s part of a line of old trees that follow the stone wall on the left.

Continued in Part 2 & Part 3.

Posted in Gone for a walk + Notable trees

Caledonian pinewood in Ryvoan Pass, Glenmore (Part One) – including a brief history of Glenmore

Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) in the Ryvoan Pass, near Glenmore.

At Glenmore, near Aviemore, there is a remnant of the ancient Caledonian Forest. Today, only 180 km² of the Caledonian Forest remain – a pathetic 1% of its estimated maximum extent. As is usually the way, Homo sapiens is to blame for the loss. If you’d like to find out more about the Caledonian Forest, let me point you in the direction of Trees For Life, an inspirational organisation ambitiously dedicated to restoring a 2,300 km² area of the Forest. This description of the Caledonian Forest is taken from their website:

The Caledonian Forest originally covered much of the Highlands of Scotland… the native pinewoods, which formed the westernmost outpost of the boreal forest in Europe, are estimated, at their maximum extent, to have covered 1.5 million hectares as a vast primeval wilderness of Scots pines, birch, rowan, aspen, juniper and other trees. On the west coast, oak and birch trees predominated in a temperate rainforest ecosystem rich in ferns, mosses and lichens. Many species of wildlife flourished in the forest, including the European beaver, wild boar, lynx, moose, brown bear and the wolf, as well as several notable species of birds - the capercaillie, the crested tit, and the endemic Scottish crossbill, which occurs nowhere else in the world apart from the pinewoods.

However, there has been a long history of deforestation in Scotland, and clearance of the land began in Neolithic times. Trees were cut for fuel and timber, and to convert the land to agriculture. Over the centuries, the forest shrank as the human population grew, and some parts were deliberately burned to eradicate 'vermin' such as the wolf. More recently, large areas were felled to satisfy the needs of industry, particularly after the timber supply in England had been exhausted. The widespread introduction of sheep and a large increase in the numbers of red deer ensured that once the forest was cleared, it did not return.

Today only a tiny percentage of the original forests survive, and the native pinewoods have been reduced to 35 isolated remnants. Gone with the trees are all the large mammals, with the exception of the deer. Species such as the brown bear and the wild boar had become extinct by the 10th and 17th centuries respectively, while the last to disappear was the wolf, when the final individual was shot in 1743.

A large witch’s broom on a large downy birch (Betula pubescens) – a common abnormal growth caused by the fungus Taphrina betulina.

After staying at Fearnan by Loch Tay for a couple of nights, from where I visited the Birks of Aberfeldy and Britain’s widest conifer at Cluny House Gardens, I drove north to Glenmore (climbing Schiehallion – Munro no. 5 - en route) and checked into Cairngorm Lodge, a SYHA hosel, for four nights. The next day (Nov. 20th) I meandered (really meandered) part-way up the Ryvoan Pass to An Lochan Uaine – the Green Lochan. I’d walked down the pass and past the Lochan to camp near Glenmore three years previously with two friends, towards the end of a hike from Blair Atholl to Aviemore, but that’s another story.

Looking up at one of the giant Scots pines of the Caledonian Forest.

To provide you with a very brief history of Glenmore during the past century, I’ve just skimmed through the excellent little book I bought from the Glenmore Forest Shop during my stay. The book is called ‘No rivalry but different’; Glenmore and Rothiemurchus in the 20th Century, the third publication in the Touchwood History series. It was written by Mairi Stewart and first published in 2010.

Pine foliage against a clear, blue sky – it was a lovely day for late November in the Highlands!

One hundred years ago, the estate of Glenmore was owned by the Dukes of Richmond, who used it as a hunting ground. Between 1916 and 1918, during the First World War, just over a hundred thousand trees on the estate were felled to provide timber for the war effort – to make pit props, trench supports, crates, etc. Thankfully, the 7th Duke, Charles Gordon-Lennox, is said to have stipulated that some trees were retained to allow the forest to naturally regenerate – trees to be spared had the Duke’s stamp burned onto them. In 1923, the Duke sold the 12,474 acre estate to the newly-created Forestry Commission. Although the Commission decided that three-quarters of the estate were unsuitable for forestry, it had planted around 1,300 acres by 1934 – favouring the faster-growing but non-native Sitka spruce, Norway spruce and European larch over Scots pine.

Looking up at an absolute monster of a Caledonian pine. I have never seen Scots pines like these – they really are jaw-droppingly, breathtakingly, heart-stoppingly awesome.

Glenmore escaped the forester’s axe during the Second World War because it was considered more important for training soldiers than for supplying timber (although neighbouring remnants of the Caledonian Forest, at Abernethy and Rothiemurchus, were not so lucky).

A large fragment of scaly pine bark.

Glenmore was run as both a sporting and forestry estate until 1947, when it was designated a Forest Park. This re-branding officially recognised the popularity of parts of the estate with outdoor activities enthusiasts. Extensive planting continued throughout the Forties, Fifties and Sixties, however. In the 1960s recreation at Glenmore, particularly skiing, really took off, and a lot of new infrastructure was built. By the early Eighties the campsite at Glenmore was accommodating a thousand people at its busiest, and the main focus had shifted from forestry to recreation.

In the foreground – juniper (Juniperus communis). I have never seen so much juniper! In many places it formed an almost continuous shrub layer beneath the pine trees. Very pretty, very necessary for gin, but very prickly when wading through a waist-deep sea of the stuff to get to the next big pine.

During the 1990s the Forestry Commission underwent a significant change in its outlook and policies, with the old approach of “create as much timber as possible” replaced with a more responsible approach to forest stewardship. At Glenmore this meant felling the non-native trees planted in earlier decades, resulting in the decimation of two-thirds of the forest. These areas are being replanted with the native Scots pine.

Huge. Beautiful. Ancient.

Posted in Gone for a walk + Holidays and field trips + Notable trees

Idyllic rurality in the lower Ewden Valley

Not yet in the Ewden Valley – this is my favourite hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna).

One hell of a bull at Hunger Hill.

Leaving Heads Lane, I walked through an old farm and started down to the bottom of the valley…

The pleasant, pastoral view back across the valley from the other side (near Snell House).

Lamb’s eye view?

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea).

More Hall Reservoir is looking empty again. It was about this empty at the start of the year, before briefly filling up in spring.

I passed this imposing and impressive ash (Fraxinus excelsior) in Wantley Dragon Wood. The tree would have been twice as big in its heyday when its stem forked into two equal stems a couple of metres off the ground, but one of them has been removed. The size of the trunk at ground level was incredible! It must be one of the largest ash trees in the local area.

Nearby a dragon slithers into a grassy clearing. According to the information board (sited close enough to ruin any photo from this angle) it was created by wood carver Mark Bell and dry stone waller John Alston, with the head made of elm. The sculpture represents the eponymous monster of the ancient satirical ballad The Dragon of Wantley, first published anonymously in 1685. The dragon lived across the Don valley in a cave on Wharncliffe Crags and devoured children, cattle, buildings and trees. The locals called upon More of More Hall to rid them of the dragon. After donning a special suit of Sheffield armour bristling with six-inch spikes, he hid in a well and kicked the dragon in the mouth as it went to drink, killing it. According to the information board, a “later version [published in 1765] included an explanation that it was based on a lawsuit against Sir Francis Wortley (the dragon) by other landowners, where the lawyer was More (the knight). It is difficult to know if this is true. Some of the elements could be a satire about a lawsuit; others are classic to dragon myths in this area. It is possible that this story is a combination of several tales.”

Finally, the approach to Bolsterstone from a footpath just uphill of Sunny Bank Road. Broomhead Park and Moor are seen in the background.

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This month the Festival of the Trees returns to Via Negativa for its fifth anniversary. Go read!

Posted in Gone for a walk

The Cape Wrath Experience. Watery postcards from North-West Scotland.

A powerful waterfall above Bucktooth’s Meadow in Glen Golly. We were going to camp in the meadow on our third night, but nay sooner than we’d selected a passable pitch a swarm of midges materialised and we legged it sharpish.

Two weeks ago I was on a hike in the extreme North-West of Scotland with two friends from uni. This was Team Seatle’s fourth big walk together, having previously done Lake Windermere and Coniston Water in the Lake District in 2007, Blair Atholl to Aviemore through the Cairngorms in 2008, and the Skye Trail in 2010. This year, because of some spectacularly wet weather, we had to cut short our planned route. Yet despite our perpetually saturated boots (leading to some impressively sore feet on my part), we still managed to enjoy four days of walking and three nights of camping in an incredibly remote and beautiful part of the country.

I drove us up from Edinburgh on Saturday the 28th of May and we stayed the night in the Durness youth hostel. The bunkhouse was pretty basic, but as we discovered later in the week, the communal area in the second building was lovely and cosy. In the morning we caught the ferry across the Kyle of Durness - we were lucky the ferrymen decided it was safe to cross as the sour weather had prevented any crossings being made the previous day. On the other side of the water we walked through an incredible rainstorm to arrive soaking wet at Cape Wrath, the most north-westerly point of mainland Britain; we camped just south of the Cape that night. A sunny Monday saw us walking south towards Sandwood Loch before turning east up a long glen where we made camp again. It bucketed it down during the night, but Tuesday (Day Three) gave us pleasant weather. This was a long day of walking up and down glens, past lochs and waterfalls, for miles and miles and miles. We camped not far from Glen Golly, and as we were eating our evening meal the rain started up again. It rained hard all night and we seriously thought the tent wouldn’t make it through to the morning, the wind was giving us that much of a hard time. (We should never have doubted the tent.; it was only forty pounds from Halfords but it has seen us through all four walks!) We were rained on all day Wednesday as we followed the road down Strathmore to Loch Hope. Here we turned onto the Moine Path, which was pegged as one of the trip highlights. Unfortunately, three weeks of unseasonally bad weather (and I suppose that’s saying something for this part of the world) had turned the path into a seriously unpleasant quagmire. After trudging uphill for an hour (my wet boots had been busy on my feet the past few days so I was limping quite badly), we came to the first of fourteen rivers marked on the map. The river before us was a raging torrent, though I suspect it is usually a quiet stream. Well, we were wet enough already without performing another river crossing, and we reasoned that we might struggle across seven rivers only to be well and truly blocked by the eighth, so we made the decision to retrace our steps back down the Moine Path.

I hitch-hiked back to Durness to collect the car, then I drove us to Tongue were we spent Wednesday night in considerable luxury at the youth hostel there (where we had planned to stay anyway), after a grand meal in the bar at the Tongue Hotel. The next day we were tourists, visiting places like the cleared township of Ceannabeinne, the ‘beach of the burn of the old woman’, and the awesome Smoo Cave. The night we spent back in Durness hostel, and we drove back to Edinburgh on Friday the 3rd of June. Quite an adventure!

I know that hasn’t got anything to do with trees, but it sets the scene for the handful of photos I took that actually have trees in them. There aren’t many trees up in that wild land.

We passed this rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) on Day One soon after crossing over the Kyle of Durness on the ferry (which was just a really small boat). It was just coming into flower.

The Kyle stretches out behind the rowan. In the distance we saw a group of seals chilling on a sand bank.

On Day Three a landrover track we had been following ended abruptly at a loch. We followed deer tracks around the edge of the loch and had to cross over this boisterous stream which was at the foot of a very impressive waterfall… (The tree in this photo is another rowan. The vast majority of trees we saw were rowans or downy birches (Betula pubescens)).

…this waterfall. Seeing the waterfalls in full flow was definitely a worthy pay-off for suffering with incessantly-soaking boots. We filled our water bottles at this one. The water was good.

This is another ‘tree’ that we saw a lot of. It was common on the boggy moors and grew no taller than the grass and heather. I’m fairly sure that it’s some dwarfish species of alpine willow, but I can’t make a positive ID. Can anybody help me out with this one?

We walked past this broch in the rain on Day Four (the stone structure by the river). We passed it again driving back to Edinburgh so we stopped to take photos in better weather. According to the information board: ”When built about 2000 years ago, Dun Dornaigil (or Dornadilla, as it is also called) would have stood about twice as high. Its drystone walls formed a complete circle, pierced only by a single narrow entrance. The walls were hollow, and within their thickness a stone stair gave access to several narrow galleries, probably used for storage. The inner courtyard would have held a thatched wooden dwelling which housed the small farming community who had built the broch as a shelter against marauding raiders.” The Strath More river is calm in this photo, but when two days earlier it was flowing frighteningly fast.

We stopped for a bit at Glenmore near Aviemore on the way back to Edinburgh. This is the view across Loch Morlich to the Cairngorms; those leaves in the foreground are common alder (Alnus glutinosa). The weather was phenomenally nice, so it was a bit weird to be seeing snow on the tops. After resting by the loch-side for a while, we headed to the café adjoining the visitor centre for cake and a drink… which was exactly what we did as we passed through near the end of our big hike in 2008! I thought that was a nice touch.

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June’s video-laden edition of the Festival of the Trees - No. 60 - is hosted by Brenda of Rubies in Crystal. Go read / watch!

Posted in Holidays and field trips

Trees from the past beneath More Hall Reservoir (Part One)

In the Ewden Valley at the turn of the twentieth century.

Once upon a time there was a pristine, wooded valley in the middle of England. Over time ancient humans cleared away most of the trees to create fields for their animals and crops. At the end of the 19th century the lower reaches of this Ewden Valley were covered with fields and not trees but it was still a beautiful and lovely place, from the top of the hills to the river flowing down in the bottom. Nearby was the city of Sheffield, growing rapidly as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution. The industries and populace of Sheffield were thirsty for water, so the Corporation embarked upon an ambitious programme of dam-building in the valleys to the north. Two reservoirs were constructed in Ewden: Broomhead and More Hall. Work started on More Hall Reservoir in 1913, but the First World War caused delays. It was officially opened in 1929.

More Hall Reservoir, winter 2010/2011.
The middle of the reservoir is covered in a thick layer of ice.

The water level in More Hall Reservoir is very low at present, and has been since at least the autumn. I walked around the reservoir on Sunday on land that would normally be completely submerged. There wasn’t a lot to see: lots of mud, a few remnants of old dry stone walls, and a few dozen old tree stumps - trees that were felled almost one hundred years ago, before the reservoir was filled. These stumps have spent the best part of a century underwater and are fairly well preserved. In many places the stumps sit alongside the old stone walls or on the now-desolate banks of the old river, where the water still flows when the reservoir is low. It was quite a sad and eerie walk alone in the drizzle, slipping on the miserable mud and stones that normally lie well below the surface of the reservoir. I tried to imagine the trees that used to grow where today only ghostly stumps remain. I tried to imagine a beautiful alder leaning out over a babbling brook that wound its way merrily through grassy fields. But all I could see was a charred-looking stump jutting from the stony earth beside a dead river.

I didn’t mistake this stump for a lobstrosity, no sir.

This tree’s root still occupies the gap it drove between these two stones (part of a kerb? part of a wall?) over a century ago.

This stump had the remains of a couple of old mushrooms beneath it. A stump spends decades submerged, but no sooner is it left high and dry then the fungi move in!

To be fair, when it’s full up More Hall Reservoir is a nice place on a sunny day. And higher up the Ewden Valley the country gets as wild as one could wish for so close to Sheffield. I love it.

This post is continued in Part Two.

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I will be hosting next month’s edition of the Festival of the Trees. Please send your submissions to mail [at] treeblog [dot] co [dot] uk before the 30th of January, ensuring that you include Festival of the Trees or FOTT within the header. Thanks!

Posted in Gone for a walk

Hallowe'en (Part One)

After a night in town dressed as a zombie steel-pirate, I required a dose of fresh air to purify my brain. There’s an old barn I found photographs of on Flickr that I’ve been wanting to visit for a couple of weeks now, so that’s where I headed: Swinden Barn. It was a very foggy day.

My eyes were drawn by a young field maple (Acer campestre) standing out from the misty gloom with an impressive display of yellow autumn leaves.

This auld track goes by the name of Badger Lane. It is home to a rather haphazard avenue of oak trees.

Each cobweb drooped under the weight of a thousand tiny jewels.

Part of Badger Lane is lined with some really strange trees that look as though, at some point in the dim and distant past, they were trained to become a hedgerow. But these trees aren’t the species to make a hedgerow: downy birch (Betula pubescens), horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus). What is the story here?

This sycamore grows immediately to the right of the one in the previous photo. They might well be the same tree. Viewed as a whole, it is one long tree.

Swinden Barn. It is the only remaining building of Swinden Farm, which was apparently occupied until the 1930s or 1950s and demolished in 1991. The barn is in good condition. It’s hard to see from my photograph, but the end wall on the left shows that a smaller building was once attached to it. The end wall on the right, which cannot be seen at all in my photograph was very interesting in that it is covered with another wall built of uncut stone in the style of a dry stone wall. It didn’t look as though this was once the end wall of another building, so what was it built for? Another wall close by the barn has stone shelves built into it. A very interesting place indeed – how I wish I could see how the place looked when the whole farm was there (working time machine required). From the Peak District National Park Education Website:

Farms in the water catchment area of the reservoirs were seen as a danger to the purity of the water… The water catchment area was ‘sterilised’ by eliminating any cattle from the land around. Sheffield Corporation Waterworks therefore allowed a policy of depopulation of the farmed land around the reservoirs to control pollution of the water catchment area.

In the Swinden area, (whose name Swine Dean meant the wooded area where pigs foraged for acorns) there were five farms which all fell into decay. Swinden Farm was the last to be abandoned and was lived in until the 1930s.

[To put all this into context, the nearby Langsett Reservoir is the one that necessitated the depopulation of these farms. Work on the reservoir started in 1889 and it was completed in 1904. Another of the five depopulated farms is North America Farm, which I have been to loads of times; I don’t know anything of the other three.]

In this part of the woods fallen larch needles had coloured the floor a strange butterscotch hue. This photo doesn’t do it justice.

After descending down a steep slope I was pleasantly surprised to come out on the banks of the Little Don River, only a few hundred metres upstream of… (To be continued).

* * * * *

Hallowe’en (Part Two)
Hallowe’en (Part Three)

Posted in Gone for a walk

A walk in the sun (Part 3): on to Mortimer Road

Continuing this series of photos from a walk in the sun on the glorious first of June… carrying on down the salt path to reach Mortimer Road.

Flowering hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna).

A big old yew tree – in the Ewden valley. Is Ewden a corruption of Yew Dene, dene being an old British word for a wooded valley? There aren’t very many yews in Ewden today at any rate!

Yew (Taxus baccata) leaves.

The green roof overhead.

From woodland the path opens into this sloping grassy field. I bet it would be perfect for cheese rolling.

Which one do you prefer?

Bear in mind that this photo was taken three weeks ago, but look how far behind this ash (Fraxinus excelsior) is lagging in the leaf stakes. Ash is the last tree to come into leaf in these parts, but the majority of the local ashes were by this time halfway through flushing.

Shady woodland on the bank of a tiny stream, a tributary of Ewden Beck

Mortimer Road just above where the path comes out. From Jack Branston’s History of Stocksbridge:

[Mortimer Road] was named after Hans Winthrop Mortimer, Lord of the Manor of Bamford who died in 1807. He had the idea of linking the Peak with the woollen manufacturing districts of the West Riding and so reap a profit from the road-tolls. This road was to run from Penistone Bridge to Grindleford Bridge, starting from Penistone, over Midhope Bridge to Bardike and Agden Bridge, past the Strines Inn and so on. In the wall at [I think he means outside the Strines Inn] you can see a stone built in which reads “Take Off”. This was another of Mortimer’s ideas; whilst wagon horses were resting he used chain horses to pull the wagons to the given point, then took them off and returned for another wagon.

The Sanderson – Bradfield and Beyond site says that the road was built in the 1770s and that Mortimer died in poor circumstances after failing to comply with the Authorising Act of 1770. And from this Flickr page, part of a comment by ‘evissa’, who mentions a small book called Mortimer Road: the turnpike that failed:

[Mortimer] owned property in Essex, Derbyshire and London and was MP for Shaftsbury. Alas he died bankrupt.

Hawthorn flowers in their prime.

Posted in Gone for a walk

Out on the bike: around Langsett and back (Part 2 of 4)

The Porter or Little Don river just above Brookhouse (or Brook House) Bridge. This little section looks nice in the photo but I tell you it’s ten times better when you see it in the flesh on a sunny day. Every time I’ve been there on such a day, as last Sunday was, there’ve been people sunbathing on the flat grassy area and kids playing in the river. I sat myself down on a large, flat stone poking above the water and let the river cool my feet. The babbling of the burn and the beautiful surrounds were highly relaxing and I reposed for almost an hour. The presence of all the people playing and chilling out (there were more than in the photo when I arrived, and there were many more behind me) added to the carefree, summery atmosphere, whereas normally I’d rather be away from the general public while enjoying the countryside.

A lovely, pebbly bit of riverbed next to my rock.

A large sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) – just right of centre in the first picture – and Brookhouse Bridge. All the stones in the lower right have built up behind a large weir, built to prevent such sediment from entering Langsett Reservoir, which isn’t much farther downstream. The bridge takes its name from Brook House farm, which had to be abandoned to prevent its livestock polluting the reservoir – Langsett was built to supply the rapidly-growing population of Sheffield with drinking water. There are old books and magazines describing the farm’s unusual rent, payable to the lord of the manor (a modern book has it being paid in 1588, but the older books imply it was a annual arrangement over several years):

BROOK HOUSE, Yorkshire.--A farm at Langsett, in the parish of Peniston and county of York, pays yearly to Godfrey Bosville, Esqre., a snowball at Midsummer, and a red rose at Christmas.

[ - from A righte Merrie Christmasse!!! The Story of Christ-tide by John Ashton (1894).]

Estates have often been held by the tenure of a rose – a red one – at times being stipulated for, and these floral tributes generally had to be paid on St. John the Baptist’s Day… For Brook House, Langsett, Yorkshire, it is said that a rose had to be provided at Christmas, and a snowball at Midsummer, and as evidently there would often thus be much difficulty in paying the rent, we are probably correct in surmising that in this case a money fine was the alternative.

[ - from Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip: An Illustrated Medium Of Interchange And Gossip For Students And Lovers Of Nature, Volume XVII, edited by John Eller Taylor (1881).]

The weir and the sycamore.

A wych elm (Ulmus glabra) leaf backlit by the sun. Wych elm is the only elm that is undisputedly native to Britain.

A cluster of unripe wych elm samaras (a type of winged fruit). Each samara has a seed centred between two symmetrical wings.

These leaves belong to a field maple (Acer campestre), another tree native to Britain. They always make me think of extra-large hawthorn leaves.

Bluebells are a classic British wildflower, the kind of plant that almost everyone can recognise. But there isn’t just one species in Britain anymore; there are two species and a hybrid. Our native bluebell is the common or English bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), but there is an alien species about too: the Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica), popular with gardeners and introduced around 1680. Both species hybridise to give the hybrid bluebell (Hyacinthoides x massartiana a.k.a. Hyacinthoides hispanica x non-scripta) which was first noticed growing wild in 1963. The genetics of our native bluebell are therefore threatened by dilution, and a lot of ecologists aren’t happy about that at all. According to Plantlife International, a recent study conducted by their volunteers found one in six British broadleaved woodlands surveyed contained hybrid or Spanish bluebells.

I think that these are hybrid bluebells. Why? Our native species have their bells all on one side of the stem, which droops over with the concentrated weight. Spanish bluebells have a thicker, straight stem with bells all around. The hybrid has bells around a slightly drooping stem - which is an accurate description of the bluebells in this photo.

In case you missed it, here is a link to Part 1 of this four-part series of posts. And here is a link to Bluebells for Britain: A report on the 2003 Bluebells for Britain survey, a leaflet in .pdf format by Plantlife that sheds more light on the subject and gives some simple advice to gardeners.

Posted in Gone for a walk

Drummond Hill silver birch provenance trial

I spent the last week up in the Highlands by Loch Tay, collecting data from the Drummond Hill silver birch provenance trial at Boreland (Drummond 34). About three weeks previous to my Highlands trip, I'd been down in Thetford for a week at another silver birch provenance trial (see this post and this post). Whereas the Thetford site was a model provenance trial, all perfect neat rows and level ground, the Drummond Hill trial was a bit of a 'mare. Not as bad as the provenance trial in Ormsary (Kintyre 20) that I visited in September, but still a bit of trouble. The site was split in two by a forest road, and the lower portion was a right weird shape. The ground was all stoney and uneven, and holes made during mounding were often hidden by dead vegetation. It was a pain to traverse, and was real ankle-spraining country. Luckily no injuries were sustained, and I was accompanied at all times by my assisstant forester in case any such sprainage should have ocurred. The upper section of the site was less stoney, but was still full of stumps and holes. And the trees were planted all higgledy-piggledy! Some of this was understandable because of all the stumps and stones and whatnot, but some of it seemed a bit unnecessary. As a result, whilst in some parts of the trial clear rows of birches could be seen and we knew exactly where we were, in other parts we were a bit lost, especially when trees were missing, out of line, or just plain not planted in a nice five-by-five square!

Nevertheless, these difficulties were overcome and I now have all the data I require for my dissertation!

the provenance trial from afar

The provenance trial from afar (viewed from the other side of Loch Tay).

Drummond Hill silver birch provenance trial

Drummond Hill silver birch provenance trial from a much closer perspective. The birches are behind the deer fence, and in the background you can see a spruce plantation.

view over Loch Tay from the trial

A typical view over Loch Tay from the trial (only typical when the Sun was shining!) - isn't it beautiful?

an old shieling within the trial

I think this is part of a ruined old shieling. There were a few ruins in the lower portion of the trial site, and I think they were all once shielings. The OS map for the Loch Tay area shows an abundance of old shielings all over the place, but the ones in the provenance trial aren't marked on. I wonder whether or not these ruins are known to archaeologists? This page at 'Comunn Eachdraidh Nis' has a good description of what shielings were.

Loch Tay at sunset

Loch Tay. This pleasant scene was seen as we were leaving the trial site at half six on the second day, Tuesday the 18th of March.

fallen ash

When all the hard work was done, it was time for a little sight-seeing. The map showed an incised cross very close to the provenance trial, so I went to look at that. A plaque on the back identified it as the Fernan (or Fearnan) Fair or Market Cross. Right next to the cross a huge ash tree had fallen over, its upper branches reaching over the cross.

wooded isle

In Killin, on an island in the middle of the River Dochart just below the impressive Falls of Dochart, is the Clan Macnab Burial Ground. There was a nice spot of woodland on the island.

farm with snowy mountain in distance

And finally, a view of the farm complex on the Kinnell Estate where I stayed for the duration of my visit.

One last thing. We also made a visit to the nearby Fortingall Yew, the oldest tree in Europe, which is estimated to be between two and five thousand years old! The Wikipedia page gives a basic description.

Posted in Holidays and field trips + Notable trees

Nutters and nutting: illegal hazelnut gathering

Everyone is familiar with the term 'nutter', but I bet not many people know how the word originates. The book Sheffield's Woodland Heritage by Mel Jones explains (the context is woodland management from the Middle Ages to the 1800s):

There were particularly sensitive times of the year in the woods. In autumn when berries and nuts were ripe, and in winter, when firewood and food supplies were low, thefts were particularly common. The practice of collecting hazel nuts in local woods caused widespread damage to wood boundaries and the underwood and prompted the Pegges of Beauchief in 1809 and the Duke of Norfolk in 1812 to post warning notices around their estate and woodland boundaries.

The text below is included as a figure, labelled as 'Warning to hazel nut gatherers, Beauchief estate, 1809.'

The Woods and Wood-Fences,
Have for several Years past suffered great
Damage about this Season pf the Year,
from a set of idle People, who stile them-selves NUTTERS :
That if any Person or Persons are caught
Nutting, or pretending so to do in the
above-mentioned Woods, or Premises, they
will be prosecuted as the Law directs.
Beauchieff, August, 1809.


Posted in Miscellany

Traditional Highland uses of birch

The Highlanders of Scotland make everything from it, they build their houses, make their beds, chairs, dishes and spoons; construct their mills; make their carts, plows, harrows, gates and fences; and even manufacture ropes of it. The branches are employed as fuel in the distillation of whisky; the spray is used for smoking hams and herrings, for which last purpose it is preferred to every other kind of wood. The bark is used for tanning leather, and sometimes, when dried and twisted into a rope, instead of candles. The spray is used for thatching houses; and dried in summer, with the leaves on, it makes good bed when heath is scarce.

- J. C. Louden, An Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs, being the Arboretum Fruiticetum Britannicum, 1842 (London).

Posted in Miscellany

Giant Yorkshire oak trees (1829)

What follows is taken from John Wainwright’s Yorkshire (published in Sheffield in the year 1829), or to give the tome its full title, Yorkshire. An Historical and Topographical Introduction to a Knowledge of the Ancient State of the Wapentake of Strafford and Tickhill; with Ample Accounts of Doncaster and Conisbrough: and of the Villages, Hamlets, Churches, Antiquities, and Other Matters connected therewith.

In the Introduction (from page liv onwards), Wainwright writes of the area of Hatfield-chase, which at the time of his writing seems to have been a boggy wasteland, but upon which there once stood a forest. The author theorises that the Romans (when they occupied parts of Britain) annihilated the forest and flooded the land, in order to render it unusable by the natives, with whom the Romans were warring.

That the plot was not originally in that drowned condition, is sufficiently manifest from the large quantity of wood which everywhere lies buried under the surface of this fenny tract, and which has been deemed a strongly corroborating proof of an universal deluge; while the celebrated Dugdale supposes the fall to have arisen through the humidity of the soil. That this was not the case with these levels is, however, plainly evident to the most superficial observer; for the trees did not decay by parts, as would have been the case, had they fallen by a gradually operating cause; but fell in the full vigour of vegetable life, as would appear from the circumstance of acorns, nuts, fir-cones, &c. being frequently found attached to the parent tree. Marks of the axe are also borne on the face of some, while others manifest their fall to have been through the agency of fire.

Wainwright writes further of stupendous trees, relics of the ancient forest, which had been dug up from the ‘fenny tract’ (notes within square brackets are my own):

The trees which covered this valley in the British era, had in several instances attained to a gigantic stature; so large, indeed, that the revolution of several centuries alone could produce them. Oaks have been found, twenty, thirty, and even thirty-five yards [32 metres] long, all of which had lost much of their top. Pryme informs us, that about one hundred and eighty years ago, was found, under a very large tree in the parish of Hatfield, an old-fashioned knife, with a haft of a very hard black sort of wood, which had a cap of copper or brass on one end, and a hoop of the same metal on the other, where the blade went into it. There was also found an oak tree in Mr. Candby’s parcel of moors, “forty yards [36.6 metres] long, four yards [3.7 metres] diametrically thick at the great end, three yards and a foot [3 metres] in the middle, and two yards [1.8 metres] over the small end; so that, on a moderate calculation, the tree must have been nearly twice as long [about 70 metres! – the current tallest tree in Britain is a 61 metre grand fir (Abies grandis) in Argyll].” On another occasion, was found, a fir-tree. “thirty-six yards [32.9 metres] long, exclusively of what it had lost from the small end, which might probably have been fifteen yards [13.7 metres] more [so about 46 metres].” We also have seen trees of more ordinary magnitude taken from the sombre bowels of this waste, but never had an opportunity of measuring them.

In a letter to which we have before alluded, Mr. Bigland gives the dimensions of a tree which he measured, in the following words: “In the beginning of the year 1819, James Brailsford or Belford, a person whom you well know, dug up, about two hundred yards from the west bank of the Torne, and nearly opposite to the bridge, between Akum and Gate-wood, an oak-tree, of which the trunk measured forty yards [36.6 metres] in length, and was twelve feet [3.7 metres] in circumference [1.2 metres in diameter] in the middle. Making a reasonable allowance, for the top, this giant of the forest can scarcely have been less than seventy yards [64 metres!] in height. Had it been now sound and standing, it would have contained by the usual (although somewhat erroneous) mode of measuring, about 1,080 feet, and at the present price of good oak timber, would have been worth about £162.; besides the branches, which might have been worth £15. or £20. more; making the whole value £177. at the least.”

To a tract of land capable of producing trees of so uncommon a size, a moderate degree of dryness in the soil, and a lapse of nearly ten centuries are requisite.

I personally find it hard to believe that oak trees of the dimensions stated by Wainwright have ever grown in Britain (yet I want to believe). The tallest oak in Britain today is a sessile oak (Quercus petraea) at Whitfield, Hereford. It is a whopping 43 metres - a mere shrimp, relatively speaking, compared with the 64 and 70 metre tall beasts described in Yorkshire.

This to-scale diagram displays the relative heights of different trees (and a man): the Mother Beech on the shore of Loch Tay; the Capon Tree at Jedburgh; the tallest oak in Britain at Whitfield, Hereford; and the two gigantic oaks described in Wainwright’s Yorkshire.

Posted in Notable trees

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