Once there were giants

Gnarled, ancient and soaring skywards with cathedral-like grandeur, beech forests are a quintessential part of Britain's natural heritage. But could their fiery autumnal displays soon become a thing of the past? Peter Marren reports


Late last autumn, for a few dazzling days in November, England became New England. Even city-dwellers couldn't miss it: a sudden kaleidoscope of colour in our woods and parks, in every imaginable shade of crimson, copper, tangerine and gold.

Late last autumn, for a few dazzling days in November, England became New England. Even city-dwellers couldn't miss it: a sudden kaleidoscope of colour in our woods and parks, in every imaginable shade of crimson, copper, tangerine and gold.

All our traditional greenwood trees were enjoying the benefits of an unusually dry, sunny autumn. Above all, it was the beeches. No variation of autumnal hue seemed beyond them, no subtlety of texture or shade. Their beauty came also from the sight of colour in motion as slanting light flickered through the leaves and illuminated this bough and then that. It was almost as if the beeches were showing off.

If that was their moment of glory, could it have been something else, too? Could the beeches also have been saying farewell?

That's less far-fetched than it sounds. The future of the beech in Britain has never looked less promising. As a southern tree, it should benefit from climate warming; and indeed this year, too, has been a good "mast year", with quantities of ripe nuts following an amazing spring flowering. But a more violent climate - more gales, more floods, more periods of drought - will hit the beech much harder than it hits other trees.

The wind resistance of tall, thin trees, never great, is weaker still for trees with shallow roots, such as beech. That is why the great gale of October 1987 knocked so many of them down. The wind doesn't snap them as much as blow them over. And if the soil is cracked and loose from alternate flooding and drought, so much the worse. The great trees keel over, pulling out huge circles of earth in the clasp of their roots.

Add the fact that we now have far too many deer and grey squirrels nibbling away at our beech trees, and there are more genuinely sick beeches in evidence than I have ever seen before. Stressed-out beeches suffer from a variety of ailments, including beech bark disease, a fungal infection spread by a scale insect. And, experiments have shown, beech is more vulnerable than native oak to the dreaded sudden oak death disease, which has recently spread into parks and woods from garden centres.

For lovers of the British landscape, this is serious. Our native trees are among the most glorious on the planet, and none - not even the park oak, with its crenellated leaves and acorn pipes, its corky, fissured bark and its immense boughs - seems so reassuringly home-grown as the beech.

There was one memorable old beech wood in the Chilterns, near Henley, where the elegant smooth-barked trees soared heavenwards like the nave of a Gothic cathedral. You stood far below on the cool, bare, dim forest floor, squinting up at the light flickering on the glossy foliage. It was hard not to feel that you were in the presence of something eternal.

The great storm of 1987 did for the wood - afterwards, it looked like a giant woodstack studded with chalky craters. But other such woods remained, as well as a host of quite different beech woods, which remind us that, historically, the beech hasn't always been a tall tree. The real beech is a shape-shifter, a quantity of woody plasticine that moulds itself according to circumstance.

Nearly all the oldest beeches are pollards: that is, trees that had their crowns cut off at about 10ft every 20 years or so to provide billets of small-bore timber for bakeries and glass-making factories. Skilful pollarding actually prolongs a tree's life: the operation is a kind of rejuvenation. All things being equal, a pollard beech will always live longer than a "natural" beech.

It also, arguably, looks better. An old pollard ceases to be merely a tree and becomes architecture. Could there be a greater contrast between the "chair-leg" beeches of the high Chilterns and the weird "tree-men" of Burnham Beeches, a few miles down the road? Here, there are trees on stilts, as though walking through the glades; trees that look like fantastical Henry Moore sculptures; and trees with groping, limb-like arms that would be quite at home on JRR Tolkien's ents.

Burnham Beeches - and specifically the Cage Pollard, which appeared in the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves - is one of several beeches that feature in Jon Stokes and Donald Rodger's book, The Heritage Trees of Britain and Northern Ireland. Published to highlight the Green Monuments campaign run by the Tree Council, the book identifies and celebrates British trees whose age, beauty, fame and historical associations make them part of our heritage.

Others featured include the Layering Beech at Kilravock (pronounced "Kilrawk") Castle near Inverness; the Pollok Park Beech in Glasgow; the Wesley Beeches (twined together as saplings by John Wesley in 1787 to represent the unity of Methodism and Anglicanism) at Lambeg, near Lisburn in Northern Ireland; and the Meikleour Beech Hedge - 530 metres long and the world's tallest hedge - along the A93 near Blairgowrie in Perthshire.

But there is much more to our beech heritage. There are collections of ancient beeches in most southern counties: some are well known, such as Frithsden Beeches near Berkhamsted, or Felbrigg Beeches in Norfolk; others less so, like the corkscrew mountain beeches at the Blorenge hill near Abergavenny, or the pollards of Savernake Forest in Wiltshire, where the boughs have fused together.

In the Chilterns, you can even find rare examples of beech coppice, which looks like gnarled bonsai stumps bearing shaggy sprays of boughs like giant shaving brushes. They look unearthly, but that is exactly the sort of beech a medieval peasant would have been familiar with. Tall beeches weren't in demand in the days before power lathes and factory saws. Julius Caesar, you may remember, remarked that he saw no beeches in Britain. Maybe he was looking for big trees. He should have checked the bushes.

But much of this heritage is in peril, and there is little we can do about it. True, public money is being used to plant community forests and farm woods - one government policy with which nearly everybody agrees. But the trouble with planted trees is they are all pretty much the same, whether they are in Glasgow or Gateshead or Guildford, and we are in danger of creating a landscape full of homogenised pseudo-woods.

I would rather see 10 interesting trees than a thousand dull ones, or one ancient beech than any number of skinny saplings. I prefer trees to be individuals. Give me a tree with "imperfections" any time. Such trees have not only character but surprise and meaning, with history in their contorted limbs and mossy roots. And wildlife prefers them: many of the insects associated with beech are confined to old beeches with their much greater variety of insect habitats, such as rot-holes and sap-runs.

The good news, as I see it, is that the bulk of the danger is borne by the tallest, straightest beeches. Don't get me wrong - I love those "cathedrals" of beech - but it is possible to see their demise as a case of nature reasserting itself. Why, after all, do woods end up looking like cathedrals? Because, like the columns that support the church roof, the trees are all more or less identical. Despite their apparently timeless aura, these trees were put there by someone's great-great-grandfather to supply timber for chair legs. Britain's woods are full of trees that have long outlived their original purpose. Many 200-year-old oaks were planted to build wooden ships in the 21st century. Our 50-year poplar plantations were meant to provide the matches for the chain-smoking Nineties.

Woods, more than most places, have an air of permanence. Old trees do decay and die, but they are replaced by younger ones and, we were told, things go on pretty much as they are. Under some immutable law, bare ground is supposed to turn into scrub, and then, rather more slowly, into woodland. But the woodland doesn't turn into anything else unless someone chops it down. It's the "forest climax", and it goes on and on.

Except that it doesn't: not today. Many big trees are dying prematurely, and the replacements are nibbled away by deer or smothered in mildew. Probably the best way to preserve old beeches is to embark on a cautious programme of pollarding - which means not pollarding all of them, nor all the boughs at once. And, as they go on feeding wildlife after death, we should as far as possible leave the fallen trees to rot away. The best way to preserve our ancient forests would be to rediscover a taste for venison. And full legal protection for our historic trees is long overdue.

The crucial thing, though, is to prize quality, not quantity. For too long, we have tended to think of British trees as synonymous with British timber. What damages the timber quality must damage the tree, according to this thinking. So fungi, insects, wind, floods, squirrels, age and anything that prevents a tree from assuming the smoothness of a lime-green lollipop must be bad.

In fact, a tree can retain its magic, and its ecological value, long after it has lost its use as timber. After the devastation of that Chilterns wood, many of the trees would have gone on growing. But they no longer conformed to the forester's idea of what a beech tree should look like, so they tidied it all up and planted some more beeches.

No doubt there's merit in planting trees all over the place in the hope that, like the bomber, some will get through. But what really matters is that we take better care of the trees we already have. It will be a poor look-out if we let old trees be felled on spurious grounds of health and safety, or because they inconvenience developers. These - the heritage trees - are our real trees, rooted in landscape and history. And, unlike the saplings in their tree shelters, they are neither expendable nor replaceable. It is time to stop considering the forest and take a closer look at the tree.

'The Heritage Trees' is published by Constable on 14 October (£16.99). To order a copy for the special price of £14.99 (free p&p) call 01206 255800 and quote "IND". Offer ends 29 October 2004 and applies to UK only

The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
Life and Style

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album