Can't see the wood for the trees? Mark and Hugh on New Forest

Can’t see the woods for the trees?

Mark and Hugh on the multiple uses and revelations, of the trees of the New Forest

Mark and Hugh signoff 600x400This week Mark and Hugh look closely at New Forest trees and consider their multiple uses through time and also the unexpected ways in which they can improve our lives -  valuable as always and topical too in challenging times.

I can’t see the woods for the trees.

Our New Forest is notable for many features but surely the most important living structures we have are trees.

Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer's day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time. John Lubbock, The Use of Life.

As you might have guessed from this and previous articles, your writer is essentially lazy. To me a tree is an invitation to sit down and stare for a while. There used to be a chap named Jack Hargreaves who presented a television programme called Out of Town. He had a motto and that was ‘If you want to see something you’ve never seen before, sit still at the base of a tree for an hour.’ If you want to test this in your own garden it’s so easy. When you first sit down, all is still but if you wait, the birds return. What you need to remember, is that to all fauna, we humans are the enemy. At any sign of our approach, they will either fly away, run away or become perfectly still. By sitting, motionless, at the base of a tree you become part of the landscape. You’re not invisible, far from it, (well, unless you’re in the habit of dressing up like a special forces type) but your stillness will do the trick.

Now, as your back begins to itch a little against the rough bark and your bottom protests slightly at the unfamiliar earth floor, listen. Gradually you will begin to hear signs of activity. When you first arrived, all was silent. Now you begin to hear the fluttering of wings. Out of the corner of your eye you see movement. Keep still, become part of the tree. Gradually nature will come to you, and, if you are both patient and lucky, you might indeed see something you have never seen before. The denizens of the Forest have spent many years avoiding human beings; often their lives would depend on it. Don’t ever fool yourself into thinking that you can go looking for nature. It’ll see or hear you coming a long way off and then disappear like mist on a summer morning.

The warship and how it denuded our Forest.

When Royal Navy ships were made from wood, the New Forest became the supplier. Oaks were marked with the broad arrow by expert surveyors. Branches were singled out to form the ‘knees’ of the boat. Also, the root was often dug up in its entirety as each root formed a ninety-degree bend from the main body of the tree. These ‘grown’ bends where the grain follows the line of the bend are immensely strong and invaluable for a boatbuilder. Imagine being a surveyor of the time. Imagine being paid to take a walk in the woods, nice work if you can get it. But this person had an expert eye in that he could visualise the frames of the ship and pick certain branches for their strength. The thirst for wood began to take its toll and the demands placed upon the Forest were unsustainable. In the nick of time came iron, the new wonder material.

Yeah yeah, we all know about oak, what about the rest?

OK, hold your ponies. Many forest trees were coppiced. That is to say, cut down and then left to regrow, the stump is known as a stool. Coppicing is a technique that maintains the tree at its juvenile stage. Consequently, it never dies of old age and some enormous stools have been estimated to be hundreds of years old. The shoots that spring from the stool are, apart from the bend at the base, dead straight and as such, immensely useful. When we think of coppicing, we tend to think of whip thin willow used for baskets and trugs. In fact, many types of tree were coppiced, each having their own role in construction. If left the thin shoots become thick poles, again, dead straight and super useful. In our modern world we find that wood is rarely used as it tends not to be the first choice for a factory turning out objects in their thousands. Our frenetic pace of consumption cannot be met by woodsmen and their expertise. Oil, in one way or another, is now the master in that it is the base for all plastics. Mass production has led to incredibly cheap products. Craftsmen of yesterday could never compete. The downside of all this lack of value is a lack of care. A carefully made trug would last a lifetime. The plastic equivalent would become faded and brittle in just a year. Modern items are essentially headed for landfill or incineration. It’s life, I know, but sometimes it just seems a pity.

If it’s exotica you’re after.

In the past there have been far sighted individuals who have planted non-native species in places such as the Rhinefield Ornamental Drive and also, Boldrewood. I won’t try to bore you with a long list of names because there’s no need. Most of the species have a clearly marked and well positioned label. Probably the most spectacular are the redwoods which soar like living skyscrapers; their bark is so soft that often, in busier areas, it is protected in order that it isn’t damaged by our physical attention. Rhododendron is another non-native which continually produces the most vibrantly coloured blooms, a rare treat in our softly coloured Forest of browns and greens with the splash of yellow of gorse. I have been told though that these plants are highly invasive and difficult to control. I’m no expert so for now I shall just enjoy the colour palette.

If you thought I was old.

There are many ancient trees in the Forest. Beech trees can be up to three hundred years old. Oaks, between four and eight hundred years old. But the daddy of them all? The yew. These can live up to one thousand years old. To put this in perspective, this means that a beech could have been a sapling at the time that Edmond Halley was appointed Astronomer Royal by George 1 in 1720. The oak could have started its life when the foundation stone for Salisbury Cathedral was laid in 1220. As for the yew, it would have been fully grown when King Cnut ruled Britain in 1020. There’s some history in our forest all right.

Rest awhile.

So, if you take the advice of John Lubbock, or perhaps Jack Hargreaves and you find yourself sitting with your back to a particularly large tree, let your mind wander. Try to imagine what life was like only two hundred years ago when there were no cars or aircraft. The pace must have been slow.

It’s nice to slow down now and then.

Bridge over stream in forest

More tales and cartoons for Lymington and the New Forest from Mark and Hugh

If you enjoy these skilfully told tales and cartoons and you don't already receive our Weekly What's On e-newsletter do sign up to receive it on Friday mornings! 


Meanwhile, if you'd like to read previous articles on diverse subjects written by Mark and illustrated by Hugh's cartoons here they are, click the links embedded in the titles:

Cartography and trig pillars
Pony drifts and pannage in the New Forest
A journey from the New Forest via Lymington
The brilliance - and persistence - of Marconi

Equality in the skies
Bees pollinators par excellence 
Cordless home entertainment

The joy of sheds

When the Isle of Wight was just Wight
Bucklers Hard

Salisbury Cathedral 
Pond Life in our Forests 
Bombs Away 
Baileys Hard 
Rufus Stone and Sir Walter Tyrrell
Graffiti through the ages
Freedom of the roads
Heath fires
Lymington Lido
Watch the birdie
Unstoppable momentum of nature
Socially distanced socialising
Calshot Spit, a curse for mariners...



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