For the love of trees

100_6211Advocates of HS2, a high-speed railway that is to link London Euston station to Birmingham and beyond, proclaim a short but persuasive list of arguments in its favour.

The opponents to the new line have a less coherent argument.  Many objections are based around questions about the official predictions about the costs, profitability and usefulness of the new line.  Most people won’t bother studying the numerical data to help them reach a conclusion, but few can fail to be engaged by discussion of the adverse impact of the project on the beautiful British countryside.

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“We all love trees.”
My affectionate, protective, congress with a tree in Footherley Woods, circa 1970.

Residents of the Chiltern Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty have been vocal about the detrimental effect of cutting a high speed line through their culturally and environmentally rich “back yard.”  In south Staffordshire we, too, are told that we have plenty to lose.  The “anti” campaign here has included emotive notices pinned directly to particularly beautiful, mature road-side trees which potentially lie in the path of HS2, pleading for their life.  We all love trees, don’t we? I can hardly count the ways I do.  Here, I sit a mile or two beyond the boundary of the part of the National Forest descended from Needwood Chase (its pre 15th century name), and I can identify from my little pantry window, the tree clad slope of Beaudesert Park on Cannock Chase.  Trees have never been so universally valued and nurtured in Staffordshire, and, at last, deforestation has been arrested or even reversed.  This comes after several millenia during which woodland has been plundered for domestic and industrial fuel, and building materials, or simply destroyed for being the  malevolent sanctuary of ferocious wolves and robbers, and the obstacle to efficient arable farming.  So very recently, even individual trees were still an expendable nuisance in the rural landscape, an obstruction to the widening track-width of agricultural machinery post-WWII, and grubbing them out was one of the jobs to be tackled on the farm in the “back end,” when other tasks were complete, even though from 1947, trees have been defended by the making of legally binding  Protection Orders.

The enclosure of woodlands, as of the vast majority of land held in common, was taking place piecemeal throughout Staffordshire during two or three centuries leading up to the turn of the 19th century –  sometimes by negotiated agreement between local people.  Even in those cases, the very poorest in society will have been further impoverished by the change – and denied the opportunity to life independent of support – by losing their rights to grazing and pannage for their animals, and to collect firewood and wild food, as each acre of land became someone else’s possession: to fence, to hedge, to husband or to neglect as they chose.  Motivation for the enclosures in the early 1800s will have included the cupidity of men, but it resulted in a dramatic increase in food production.

Enclosure remains a contentious issue.

An 1801 Act of Parliament extinguished common rights in Needwood, and it was clear that enclosure of the land and the felling of many trees would follow, swathes of destruction many times more extensive than HS2 may cause.

For every pauper family pitifully anxious about their future source of sustenance, it seems that there was a poet in rural Staffordshire, quill in hand, ready to laud the beauties of Needwood and point out its ecological significance as the habitat of naiads, satyrs, and assorted wood-nymphs.

In 1776, Francis Noel Clarke Mundy published Needwood Forest, a work inspired by fears about the imminent destruction of Needwood, which included poetic contributions by Brooke Boothby, Anna Seward and Erasmus Darwin.  The raw, sincere, feeling for nature in this work is fully in the Romantic tradition of Wordsworth, yet two decades before his first verse was published.  Here is yet another example of the prescience of the Lichfield polymath Dr. Darwin.

The Swilcar Oak was one several particularly magnificent ancient trees in the forest.  It towered beneficently over a natural grazed “lawn” between Newborough and Marchington.  In Mundy’s poem, he describes movingly how the tree itself might speak of its plight:

Huge SWILCAR shakes his tresses brown,

Out-spreads his bare arms to the skies,

The ruins of six centuries,

Deep groans pervade his rifted rind

– He speaks his bitterness of mind.

“Your impious hands, barbarians, hold!”

The words of the elderly, noble oak as he envisions the death of his brother trees in the coming holocaust, and offers, heroically, to sacrifice himself for them are very touching indeed:

…”Deaf are the ruthless ears of gain,

And youth and beauty plead in vain.

– Loud groans the wood with thick’ning strokes!

Yes, ye must perish, filial oaks!

In heaps your wither’d trunks be laid,

And wound the lawns, ye used to shade;

Whilst Avarice on the naked pile

Exulting casts a hideous smile.

Strike here! On me exhaust your rage,

Not let false pity spare my age!”

A volume entitled The Fall of Needwood Forest followed a few years later, bemoaning the failure of the cause. Swilcar however, was spared during the massacre, and he lived on for at least another century, for visitors to the district to marvel at.

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The landscape of the parkland surrounding Yoxall Lodge still gives a fair impression of Needwood as it would have been in the 18th century. Spring 2013

At Yoxall Lodge, the poet and Reverend Thomas Gisborne’s devotion to the forest scenery was publicised in his 1794 book of verse Walks in a Forest.

His campaigning against the enclosure of the forest has been overshadowed by his involvement in another contemporary cause: his friend William Wilberforce was his frequent guest, and the peaceful sylvan setting of Yoxall Lodge was his choice when working on his successful campaign for the abolition of slavery.

Gisborne also made a detailed botanical survey of the forest, and his collection of 600 specimens are now in the British Museum, and I think that he would be pleased with his legacy all round.

The Georgian House he occupied is gone, but the 175 acres of land granted to him when enclosure took place still give a fair impression of what Needwood may have looked like prior to the changes. When the Featherstone family, who farm there now, open the grounds to the public in bluebell time, your own Walk in the Forest is not to be missed!

Thomas Gisborne’s younger brother, John, shared his brother’s upbringing at Yoxall, his appreciation of the natural world, and exceeded him in poetic talent.  Lacking the Wilberforce connection, and of a pathologically shy and self deprecating disposition, his light has been firmly under a bushel for two hundred years.  He even destroyed the letters of praise he received for his work, including one from Wordsworth. He and his wife, Millicent, both of them gentle and delicate, were described thus by Anna Seward:

The second Miss Pole gave her lovely self to Mr John Gisborne, younger brother to the celebrated moralist and poet of that name. Mr John Gisborne’s philosophic energies, poetic genius, ingenuos modesty and true piety render him a pattern for all young men of fortune, and an honour to human nature.

From John Gisborne’s diaries, and the memoir that was lovingly written by his daughter Emma, we can share what unbearable anguish  this Georgian Nimby felt when he realised that the Forest would fall.

Holly Bush House, Newborough, is just a short stroll from brave, avuncular Swilcar, and had been a residence of Francis Noel Clarke Mundy.  In 1795, John Gisborne had purchased it for his family home, and observed with horror the coming developments which were to change his environment forever.  His daughter describes:

….Government gave orders for the enclosure of Needwood Forest, and Mr J. Gisborne,  finding, with his large and increasing family,  that he could not afford (without running a risk of injuring his family) to purchase some beautifully wooded elevations of the adjacent Forest, and which, if cut down would seriously injure the beautiful scenery surrounding Holly Bush; he resolved to sell his estate, as he could not bear the idea of a place to which he was become so ardently attached, being despoiled of any of its varied beauties, and which must be the case if he retained the property in his own hands..

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The avenue of lime trees leading from Orgreave Hall to its lodge on the A513. The trees would already have been a century old when John Gisborne moved here.

In the Autumn of 1806, Holly Bush was sold and the Gisborne Family became Lord Anson’s tenants at Orgreave Hall for the next 8 years.

Then as now, I suspect that he found natural, broadleaf woodland scarce just here, whether to comfort him in his nostalgia for the view from Holly Bush, or to remind him painfully of his loss.

Orgreave “meadows” had already been intensively farmed for many centuries, although a few older trees are dotted around the hedges of blackthorn, hawthorn and holly.

The trees which would have shaded him on his contemplative walks are the avenues of lime trees, placed by man and not by nature.  Beautiful as they are, I don’t feel that they would quite have hit the spot for him after living in the heart of Needwood.

A typically gorgeous Needwood scene near Dunstall.

A typically gorgeous Needwood scene near Dunstall. June 2013

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13 Responses to For the love of trees

  1. This was worth all the effort and research you have had to put in. very emotive, I was so upset at the poor poet having to move out rather than see his beautiful estate destroyed, and I foam at the mouth at mention of that dratted high speed rail link, all that destruction and for what ? Just to save a few minutes which would be better spent on a slow train looking out at the TREES!

    • Yes, the research was a pig….I had much too much unwieldy information!! Rail is less intrusive than car…and less damaging than enclosure derived felling….as long as the contracts go to British companies, I am cautiously PRO HS2……. But don’t tell the neighbours!!!

  2. ROSALIND COOPER says:

    I have left a comment. Really well combined bit of research, well done you, the tree with its “die” notice made me feel quite tearful.

    Have been to Tesco and got a Salmon Wellington!!! Forecast dire for Monday and Tuesday, but so what !

    Much love Ros

    ________________________________

  3. Bethan Waite says:

    I’ve read your piece on trees with great interest. Do you know the precise location of the Swilcar Oak – I’m assuming it’s long dead. I’m Chairman of Newborough Parish Council – we’re trying to update the history of our parish. Thanks in anticipation!

  4. Liz Williams says:

    I have just come across an engraving depicting the Swilcar Oak in “Staffordshire – Beauties of England & Wales 1812” which is available for download at http://www.youroldbooksandmaps.co.uk. It looks a very impressive tree and is surrounded by others. The etching also depicts dear under the tree which helps to give a sense of proportion

  5. Julian Beach says:

    So very happy to have stumbled across this!

    As you will see if you visit my blog, I was brought up in Hoar Cross, in the heart of Needwood Forest, and I’m constantly on the look-out for information relating to Mundy, Gisborne, Seward et al.

    Thank you!

    • Thank you for reading, Julian. Needwood is very special. I have moved to Gwynedd, where dramatic natural beauty abounds, but there is nothing that stirs my soul like the remnants of Needwood.

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