Something happened last week that made me rather sad. The 600-year-old Bretton Oak, near Peterborough, one of the last survivors of Grimeshaw Woods, an ancient forest that once covered much of that part of the world, was felled after final desperate attempts to save it failed.
This ancient tree, which had stood since the reign of Henry VI, was ripped apart by men with hi-vis jackets and chainsaws in a matter of minutes, to the horror of many locals. Its crime? The roots were allegedly causing ‘structural damage’ to nearby housing. Although, as one resident pointed out, that case was debatable.
No matter. Insurance companies were refusing to underwrite the affected properties, and so the man from the council decreed that the oak had to go. Six centuries of history, a living organism that had outlasted kings, queens, plagues, war and famine, felled by petty bureaucracy.
The Bretton Oak had stood since the reign of Henry VI
Oh, it’s just an old tree, I hear you say. And yes, it is – or was. But the thing about ancient trees is that they are not just old, knarly bits of wood. They are a living connection to the past. Their bark bears the marks of many generations. Their roots and branches mark the passing of the decades.
They are, in many cases, astonishingly beautiful, living sculptures in our green and pleasant land. And unlike humans, they ask very little from their environment. Indeed, if anything they enrich it: the soil, the air, the countless generations of animals and insects that live among their leaves.
I must confess, I’ve always had a thing about trees, ever since I was a child. My favourite children’s book was Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree, about a series of revolving worlds at the top of a magical tree in an enchanted wood. When my father read me The Lord Of The Rings, I fell in love with Treebeard, last of the mighty Ents, described by Gandalf as ‘the oldest living thing that still walks beneath the Sun upon this Middle-earth’.
In middle age, as life has presented its challenges, trees have once again become my escape. When it all gets too much, I get in my car and I go ancient tree-hunting. I seek them out – by rivers, in fields, in churchyards – and I spend time with them.
This may sound batty, and maybe it is, but they bring me great comfort and solace.
They are like old souls, wise and gentle, a reminder that, good or bad, everything passes – and ultimately, nothing really matters, certainly not success or money or whether the barista makes your flat white just so.
Some reside in splendour in National Trust glory, tended to by expert horticulturists, others grow wild in the most unlikely of places – in people’s gardens, by the side of roads, in the corners of fields.
Last week, the Woodland Trust published research indicating that there are between 1.7 and 2.1 million trees of ‘great age’ across Britain, only about 115,000 of which have been recorded.
Like the poor old Bretton Oak, very few have any legal protection, although some – such as the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest (around 1,000 years old) and Big Belly in Savernake Forest (which would have been an acorn around 1066) – are famous enough to be immune from the attentions of town planners.
Everyone loves an oak, of course, but there are many others.
Some, such as birches, are defined as ancient once they get to the age of mere 150. Yews, on the other hand, are practically classified as teenagers until around the age of 800. Some in this country are thought to date back to the Bronze Age. One of my favourites is the Defynnog Yew, which lives in a unprepossessing churchyard in the Brecon Beacons. As wide as it is tall, it is so old the trunk has split, so now it looks like two trees – but it is in fact one.
Climb inside the belly of this gentle giant, as I have done, and you will feel a stillness and a peace like no other. If I could choose anywhere to draw my last breath, it would be in the soft caress of its mossy woodiness. There is a reason so many churches are built where these extraordinary trees grow: there is something deeply spiritual about them.
Why do we protect our ancient buildings and not our trees? Why are we so arrogant as to think bricks and mortar matter more than a creature that was alive when we were still grubbing in the dust?
Our ancient trees are part of our culture and history. We should honour them for the giants they are.
Recently my phone has stopped recognising my Face ID in the mornings. I can only conclude that this is because, like all women of a certain age, it takes my features a while to rearrange themselves into the correct order after a night buried in a pillow. Truly, there is no end to the humiliations of growing old.
Crushing kids dreams? Despicable
With weary predictability, teaching unions have rejected the Education Secretary’s proposal for up to nine per cent pay rises, meaning that schools now face the prospect of strikes in the autumn.
With everything that pupils have been through over the past three years – all the hours of learning missed, all those opportunities lost, all those young lives stalled – the idea that teachers could in all conscience want to inflict more pain on pupils and parents makes me fear for the profession. Teaching is a vocation: no one goes into it to get rich, and nine per cent is a good offer – far more than most low-paid workers in the private sector could ever dream of.
But then, as with all these strikes, it’s not really about fair pay, is it? It’s about making life as awkward for the Government as possible and smoothing the path to power for Keir Starmer and his union cronies. In this case, by trampling on children’s dreams. Despicable.
Sadly secret Swift
Singer Taylor Swift is reportedly engaged to her English boyfriend of five years, Joe Alwyn
Congratualations to Taylor Swift, who is reportedly engaged to her English boyfriend of five years, Joe Alwyn. I say reportedly, because she only wears her engagement ring ‘behind closed doors’. Poor girl: the one time in a woman’s life when you really want to show off a piece of jewellery – and she can’t. Such is the price of fame.
It’s clear that Tory MP Chris Pincher, who resigned as deputy chief whip on Thursday following allegations that he groped two men at the Carlton Club on Wednesday night, has some serious explaining to do. But if it really is true that he was so drunk he couldn’t even remember his own address, then he also needs help. No one in his kind of position gets that out of it unless they have a serious problem with alcohol. Westminster’s drinking culture goes to the heart of this, and so many other, scandals that could – and should – have been avoided. Tackle that, Prime Minister, and you’ll be doing yourself – and the country – a massive favour.
Hurrah for Halifax Howard!
Howard first danced onto our screens in 2000 sending up Tom Jones’s ‘Sex Bomb’ to advertise current accounts
Howard from the Halifax, I think, spoke for many with his howl of outrage at the way the bank has dealt with criticism of the appearance of pronouns on staff badges. Whoever was running Halifax’s social media account essentially told customers: ‘If you don’t like it, you can leave.’ It’s a reminder of how things have changed since 2000, when Howard first danced onto our screens, sending up Tom Jones’s ‘Sex Bomb’ to advertise current accounts. Back then, you see, there was this thing called ‘a sense of humour’. You kids should try it some day.
I don’t know what’s worse: the fact that abortion – even in cases of rape, incest and where the foetus poses a threat to the mother’s life – is now illegal in some US states. Or the fact that some people are talking about how this affects men seeking abortions. Point of order: men can’t get pregnant, therefore they can’t have abortions (or even, for that matter, miscarriages). Bad enough that you steal our rights; can you please stop trying to steal our identities too?
Lewis Hamilton suggested that ‘older voices’ should be silenced after Nelson Piquet, 69, used the N-word
Taking of old, Lewis Hamilton is wrong to suggest that ‘older voices’ should be silenced after Nelson Piquet, 69, used the N-word when talking about the British driver, right, and was defended by Bernie Ecclestone, 91. Both those men, Ecclestone in particular, are thoroughly despicable human beings. But the idea that all older people are racist bigots is a lazy generalisation – and smacks of a similar kind of prejudice.