A walk in the woods

April 29, 2022

Trees may be slow, but forests are fast. That’s how it seemed to me in our Welsh woods last week. We were honoured with a visit from the Royal Forestry Society (or at least its North Wales Division), and it reminded me how much things have changed in the 28 years we have been in charge.

What is still recognisable are the contours; slopes of five hundred feet or so from the valley to a ridge, commanding a huge view across the sea towards the Wicklow Hills, and south to the rocky north face of Cader Idris (a mountain more noted for its bulk than its height). That is the airy mountain component. The rushy glen is the course of the Afon Dwynant, from a few springs high on the hill to a burbling, occasionally rushing stream as wide as a country road that eventually tips into the estuary of the River Mawdach.
The estuary is lined with what is termed ‘Atlantic Oak Woodland’, a precious zone where contorted oaks thrust up from a bed of boulders with only moss and ferns for company.

There had been no rain for three weeks. The hillside springs were dry, with a surprising effect: without moisture they appeared as brown, even scorched, patches in the grass and heather. The rotation of a commercial forest (as much of ours is) is about sixty years. The tallest remaining trees are spruces almost a hundred feet high and larches, perhaps eighty feet but incomparably beautiful, their delicate canopies soaring on ramrod trunks to form airy colonnades.

Foresters talk about ‘yield-class’, a figure denoting the number of cubic metres of timber produced in a year per hectare – depending, of course, on many factors. Inevitably, sadly, the star performers are always the aggressive Sitka spruce, black in the landscape, spiky to touch. They don’t seem to care if it’s bog or rock; you don’t even have to plant them; their self-sown seedlings sprout everywhere. Foresters call it ‘re-gen’, often so dense that it needs ‘re-spacing’.

Our policy is to leaven our money-making plantings of Sitka with admixtures of other conifers,; pines. firs, thuja, usually larch, and a scattering of broadleaves, which could be beech, birch (which comes up anyway), alder, wild cherry or even Norway maple. Oak is very slow in getting started. The lovely Western hemlock, with drooping sprays of bright apple green, is prolific, and can be vigorous enough to hold its own. Then there is rowan, the sweet-smelling gorse, and of course bracken and brambles. To me it is like a garden on a giant scale, its pleasures magnified, too.

The coulter rusts

April 26, 2022

‘Rewilding’ makes it sound positive and trendy. ‘Glamping’ is the next thing that springs to mind. On our farm in deepest France it was simply logical; the inevitable outcome of poor land, low prices, and dearth of labour. Indeed, scarcity of inhabitants. The French term for abandoned land, or fringe hand never brough into cultivation, is ‘friche’. We had lots, once either grazed or even ploughed, since then just neglected as scrub invaded. Parts were rocky, other parts inclined to bog. There were open spaces where purple orchids made an appearance and impenetrable tangles of blackthorn and bramble and incipient hornbeam and oak. ‘Bramble nurses oak’ was almost a local saying.

My antique Massey Ferguson could, noisily, clear paths – backwards. I would raise the ‘girobroyeur’ , the hydraulic shredder, to about waist height, set the heavy spinning blade going, and back into the tangle with a crash, juddering and sending torn branches flying. Then I would do it again, with the contraption a fraction lower. A few ear-shattering passes like this and a rough track, full of snags, appeared. The midges appeared with it, or, worse, clouds of the tiny insects called aoutats (relating them, I suppose, to August; they appear after harvest). Aoutats are the larvae of a spider, but whereas the spider does no harm, its larvae get under your skin – in every sense. Once a cloud of them bit me all over, most maddening when they invaded the palms of my hands. Thunder bugs, thrips, ticks; I’m no entomologist or arachnologist. I simply say don’t stint on the geranium oil.

My tracks enabled me to explore parts of the farm that no one had bothered with for decades. You could tell how long by the height of the trees – on their way to becoming the eventual forest. Birch is always one of the pioneer trees, but some of our land was so dry and acid that even birches stalled and died. Here and there a juniper struggled through the undergrowth. Hornbeam and oak were the first species to become seriously established, along with wild service tree, Sorbus torminalis, which grew even in the driest and darkest conditions, regardless, it seems, of soil acidity off the chart.

Foresters showed me their patient way of converting friche to woodland; a question of watching the canopy, at whatever height, year after year,and cutting out anything that competed for the light with something more desirable. Most often it was hornbeam, at twenty or even thirty feet, blocking the light from a slender oak. They felled the hornbeams (whose coppice would probably survive to grow several new stems, unless the ubiquitous deer munched it first.). The oak, released, would go on for another century or so to become a valuable tree and parent of many more.

The coulter? The Duke of Burgundy in Shakespeare’s Henry V laments his war-torn land. ‘Nothing teems but hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burrs….while that the coulter rusts that should deracinate such savagery.’ Reluctant rewilding.

Water knows

March 7, 2022

Highly rated as Poohsticks is, or are, as a non-violent water-sport, I can recommend one even better. You need a steepish slope, well-carpeted with leaves, preferably under substantial oak or beech trees. For equipment a stick will do, although a light border fork has the advantage. And you need a water supply; the teeniest stream will do. The game is to design a river. The power of gravity is both your collaborator and competitor. This is how I got on this afternoon.

I was climbing the slope, which falls to our very minor stream, when near the top I spotted a patch where leaves were afloat on a puddle. It took one poke with my fork to breach the rim and let a dribble out, a dozen beech leaves stirring, then lining up to spill over the edge. The dribble disappeared under the leaves, then a moment later came up, gleaming, and pushed more leaves aside to head down the slope a few feet, before it lost momentum on a tiny plateau.

Which way next? I watched it spreading, speculating which was the low point where it would make a breach. A moment later it chose the spot, pushed a few brown leaves aside and gathered speed downhill. I looked back; already a silver thread had formed, water organizing into a rivulet and picking up speed, gravity calling. Where next? I nudged it one way; it decided on another. My survey was a millimetre out. Water knows.

A few feet lower it met a dam, a stout twig barricaded with leaves. A little pool started to form, soon a few crystalline inches deep. Impatient, I put the boot in, trod on the twig and the weight of the puddle surged out, no hesitating about its direction. I stood, surveying, where would it stop, regroup and choose its next route? It headed for a grey beech trunk, met a young holly that deflected its flow, was balked by a patch of moss, gathered its force and sped on. The slope got steeper here; through bracken stems I could see the glitter of water lower down the slope. Walking backwards, balancing with my fork, I used my decisive weapon, my heel, to show it the way, a little trench in shiny clay. Leaves danced through, jostling, hiding the incipient stream until they reached the drop. It was a cascade now, pulling the silver thread down the hill to splash into the swelling stream below. How long would it take – perhaps another day – to meet the sandy estuary tide and join the sea?

Trees to see

March 2, 2022

The rain came on suddenly, with a ferocity that made me think it was the first of the extreme weather events we are told to expect. Photos from California, where the three-year drought has ended in floods, should make us apprehensive. We were in the middle of the Yorkshire Arboretum at Castle Howard, and scuttled off to the tearoom for shelter, arriving soaked.

I had not been there since 1999, when the arboretum was ceremonially opened, with John Simmons, retired curator of Kew, as director. But I had seen its emergence since the 1970s as the brainchild of two Eton contemporaries, George Howard the owner and his full-time plantsman Jim Russell. Russell had owned Sunningdale Nurseries at Ascot, with its historic collection of rhododendrons, azaleas and much else collected in China. Graham Stuart Thomas was once manager. Waterers took over Sunningdale and Jim Russell moved north, with truckloads of rare plants, to live in the Old Dairies at Castle Howard and develop Ray Wood, once a formal garden on the hill nearest the big house, into a home for woodland rarities. I remember Jim choosing spots under dipping boughs of maples or spindles or rhododendrons to plant a precious new hosta or epimedium. He would come back the next year and divide it, again and again, until the solitary treasure had become a healthy clump.

The arboretum was the almost accidental outcome of Jim’s ambition, a major destocking by Hillier’s Nursery, and a serious mid-winter freeze. As I remember it, George Howard was persuaded to buy a long list of rare and unusual trees and the lorries arrived just as a big freeze began. Planting became a matter of urgency. Jim had sketched out a spacious place, almost filling a gentle valley by happy chance sandy on one side and clay on the other. He planned broad rides sweeping in curves down the slopes, to a lake at the bottom, organizing the trees more by type than by botanical categories. Jim was by nature a stickler, but time was not on his side.

Forty years later the plan is a triumph; a wood to wander in, learning the alternative beauties of trees you have never heard of as well as those you often see but rarely appreciate. It is presided over by John Grimshaw, author of New Trees, whose expertise and kindness saved my own tree book from botanical howlers. As editor of the authoritative new website of the International Dendrology Society https://treesandshrubsonline.org/ (which started life in the 1920s as the immortal Bean’s Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles) you could say John’s word on trees is pretty final. Weather is not particularly gentle in Yorkshire, positively ‘inclement’ at times. (Does anyone actually say ‘inclement’, or is it just used on official pronouncements?) But if anyone doubts that 40 years is enough to create a mature arboretum the proof is here.

Garden breakfast

February 20, 2022

It was warm enough at breakfast time to leave the French windows of the kitchen open, and the scent flooding in was enough to put me off my yoghurt. The combination of daphne and sarcococca is almost a cliché of front gardens around here, ambushing you in waves as you walk by. There are two daphnes contributing to my breakfast ordeal: D. odorata, which at present has more flowers than leaves, and a D. bholua that arrived in a tiny pot, a seedling from the garden on Isola Madre in Lake Maggiore. She is seven feet high now, and challenging our little winter-flowering cherry, which I planted in its pot to keep it small enough

Iris unguicularis; not quite mauve….

. Apart from one cheeky root escaping by climbing over its rim (the effect quickly became obvious in lusty new shots above) the bonsai experiment has worked well.


While the back garden is almost excessively pink at present the front is near monochrome in mauve, though Tommy crocuses don’t quite match the colour of Iris unguicularis. The spot of scarlet in ours and many gardens in the street is the fruit of the doorstep plant, Nandina domestica. I’ve chronicled ours (many times, I fear) and its journey from the botanic garden in Kobe, as the seed of an unusual white-berried plant, to its routine red in England. The folklore about this odd (very odd) berberis with the air of a bamboo is the usual stuff about good luck, and in this case hospitality. What happens to Japanese houses – and their guests – where there is no Nanten by the door, (they are rare), I hate to think. It shouldn’t be this warm in mid-February, though.

Late Constable

February 13, 2022

‘Late Constable’ was the not-very-exciting title of an exhibition at the Royal Academy that revolutionised my view of Constable’s painting – and I could even add my way of looking at landscape. A number of the artist’s most famous paintings were there, the Haywain, the Leaping Horse, his view of Dedham Vale. Several were accompanied by his preliminary sketches; even full-size ‘six-footer’ first versions. It was comparing the two, or several versions, that compelled me to open my eyes, clean my specs, and concentrate on little details as well as the whole composition. The extraordinary value of the exhibition was that there were no ropes. You could put your face inches from the painting – and see far more than the customary viewing allows.

Constable was a master of mood. He painted atmosphere. Hadleigh Castle, a ruin by the Thames estuary, in his preliminary version is dismal, threatening, under a lowering stormy sky, the river in an angry mood. Next to it hung what were presumably the artist’s second thoughts; the same crumbling tower, but with catches of light as well as shade, a glimpse of a green meadow through an arch, a hint of sun from behind a cloud. And more than one spot of red.

I began to understand, dwelling on each painting in detail, how Constable must have gone over each one at the last minute with a fine brush dipped in red paint. A lock-worker’s waistcoat is about the largest area of red he allows himself. There is a story of how he and Turner tried to upstage each other at an Academy vernissage by adding an eye-catcher of red; one of them a buoy in the choppy sea.

In some paintings, the red touch is as unobtrusive as, for example, the tongue of a panting dog. In the Cornfield it is the waistcoat of the little boy lying down to drink out of a pond. The excitement of being so close to the paintings was to see how precisely, in a painting of a wide landscape, Constable zoomed in on minute details. You can read the body language of figures in the distance, mere specks of black a millimetre high. The artist who could use a broad brush or his palette knife to depict a storm remained in total control of every inch of his canvas.

The tommies are out at Kew

February 10, 2022

Stone Age

February 3, 2022

It’s been two years en route from Gwynedd to Hampshire – not bad going, perhaps, for a chunk of granite the size of a Bentley. We finally planted it last week; a stone that had been straddling a stream in Snowdonia for who knows how many centuries. It was a tricky and slippery bridge to cross, and finally collapsed into the water. The footpath demanded better. So we built a simple plank bridge (ceremonially opened and christened Pont Cleo by our granddaughter Cleo) and set about giving the very considerable stone a new role.

I have a thing about monoliths (not the only indication, friends say, that I inhabit the Stone Age). Years ago we brought a rather beautiful pillar of granite from Wales to dignify the garden at Saling Hall. This was a tougher proposition. Luckily Wyn Owen, our farmer neighbour in the sheep-strewn hills, is an earth-mover, in many senses . He bought his biggest tractor to bear, a monster weighing 14 tons with the name of Komatsu. To reach the bridge in the forest meant dispatching several dozen (out of thousands) of Sitka spruce. The way cleared. Wyn somehow plucked the stone from the churning waters, landed it like a colossal fish and dragged it, like Samson in chains, half a mile through the forest, sliding on the mud (the rain that February day never let up for an instant). Wyn lifted it on to a trailer at the roadside. “Blimey”, he said in Welsh, “that’s way over three tons”.

Wyn’s son Gareth, equally adept with powerful engines, volunteered to tow it down to the New Forest behind his Land Rover. All went well until he came to the Dinas pass that leads from the coastal valley to the interior. A steep climb. It was slow tugging, until near the top the engine died. Was that expression the Welsh for a blown gasket? Another Land Rover was needed for a retreat back to the farm.

There was stalemate then, as coronavirus started directing our movements. Our mighty brown rock slept on its trailer for almost a year, shining in the rain. Last winter Gareth found a friend with a lorry to bring the stone south to the New Forest. A borrowed forklift laid it gently by the drive under tall oaks whose bark bore it a clear resemblance.

Another year passed while we made a planting plan. It will be a sundial, we decided; or rather a gnomon. Its one straightish and sharpish edge will point due south. In the morning the east side will be (with luck) sunlit, and in the afternoon the west. So we will know when it’s lunchtime. The last stage, last week, was to dig a deep hole, measure the thick end of the stone for a bespoke concrete bed, and use a lorry-borne crane to pick it up, dangle it heavy-end down over its slot and gingerly lower it in. “4.6 tons”, said the crane driver. It all went to plan, and now it stands in its clearing among the oaks, bearing a faint resemblance to Gibraltar and telling the approximate time. It is tempting to carve an inscription: ‘I am a sundial, and I make a botch of what is done far better by a watch’.

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