Miles Kington: Who's afraid of a few leaves on the line anyway?

There were wild flowers and an old oak tree, and walnut trees and wild strawberries. Then the men from Network Rail arrived...
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The Independent Online

"When we manage the plants, trees and animals on our land, we do so to keep the railway safe and balance this work with our environmental obligations."

Network Rail statement

"Looking for more trees to cut down?" I cried cheerily.

This was a month or so back. I was in the field that runs from our house along between the river on one side and the railway line on the other. Above me, on the railway line, were two orange-jacketed rail workers inspecting the track. A year ago I would not have been able to see them, because of all the trees, but then Network Rail sent in men to cut down everything, and for weeks on end the air was hideous with the sound of the chainsaw. Now you can see the line clearly.

"No, we're not looking for trees," one of them called back. "Not that there are many left, are there?"

He wasn't kidding. Before Network Rail came storming in like Bush going into Iraq, the mile-long stretch of line between us and Freshford Station was well wooded, and the trees were full of life. There were deer. And there were foxes and rabbits and badgers. There were wild flowers and an oak tree, too old to worry about being old, and walnut trees which produced thousands of walnuts one year and none the next, and colonies of wild strawberries, and blackberries...

Then the men from Network Rail arrived and cut everything down.

"We haven't been down this stretch of line before," said the other orange jacket. "They really had a go at it, didn't they?"

"I can't see the point of clearing so much," said Number One. "It's not worth cutting down any trees more than 10 feet from the line. They must have gone wild. Did they say why they were doing it?"

Yes, they did, actually. I asked them, and they said it was all to do with leaf fall. Leaves on the line. They seemed to be very afraid of leaves on the line.

Considering they were cutting down trees up to a hundred foot from the line, they may have been pathologically afraid of leaves. But I don't think that they were telling the whole truth when they said they were afraid of leaves on the line. What they really meant was that they were stripping everything they could from the landscape to avoid any trouble at all from anything living whatsoever for the next 20 years.

A dead landscape gives no trouble, you see. Trouble is, it also looks rather like the aftermath of the Somme. Still does.

"Don't go thinking that you're the only ones to suffer," said Number one Orange. "It's like this the other side of Bristol as well, going down to Weston. It's all been chopped down."

My wife thought at the time that it was not only murderous, but also a bit short-sighted. She suspected that removing the trees from those steep slopes might cause earth to be washed away, and lead to landslides.

"No, no - I'm sure Network Rail know what they're doing," I said. "Even if it scars the landscape, it may be all for the good."

Messrs Orange didn't think so. They were on my wife's side.

"There's a bit not far from Bristol," said Orange Number Two, "where they took so much trees and vegetation away from an embankment that it all got waterlogged and started to slip, and now they're spending a fortune trying to shore it all up again."

"Network Rail are actually quite good when it comes to restoring the track," said Number One. "It's the other stuff they are not so good at. Infrastructure, and all that. They keep selling off the access to the line, for a start. Sometimes we have to get on to the line a mile or more from where we're headed. Speaking of which..."

And off they went.

I suspect that in a year or two it will all start to grow again, and the scars will heal, and the wreckage will rot down, and the trees come back, and even the foxes and badgers. Meanwhile, though, if anyone wants a location in which to film a First World War battle scene, I think I may be able to help them.

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