The fallen oak of Pontfadog

The fallen oak of Pontfadog

old oak1

We used to have a caravan just outside Glyn Ceiriog, near Chirk in north Wales.  The road approaches the village winding through the beautiful valley of the Ceiriog river, and a few miles before arriving in Glyn Ceiriog you pass through the hamlet of Pontfadog. There, once, stood an oak tree, the oldest tree in Wales, the third largest in Britain and one of the oldest in Europe.

That is where, in June 2005, I took the photos that open and close this post.  It was the last time that we visited this gnarled and ancient tree, attended by its black guard dog.  Now, after standing for around 1,500 years, the Pontfadog oak has fallen, blown down by gales that swept across North Wales on 17 April (while we were away in Naples).

Pontfadog Oak has been knocked down by the wind,  Wales

There was some uncertainty about exactly how old the tree was because it had lost its heartwood.  But it was certainly ancient: a National Trust tree expert calculated in 1996 that it had stood at least 1,181 years, and possibly was as old as 1,628 years. ‘I cannot find a record of an oak tree of any of the 500 species internationally which has a greater girth anywhere in the world’, he wrote. What had been called ‘Wales’s national tree’ had a girth measured at over 53ft in 1881.

The tree occupied no special place in the village of Pontfadog – it did not stand on a village green, but instead was approached across a farmyard, presided over when we visited by a large black dog. The oak stood near to the farmhouse, by a gate that led into a hillside meadow.  There were no signs, no celebratory plaques.

The oak, and the farm on whose land it stood, had been in the Williams family for generations. ‘It was always a working tree, pollarded or pruned for its wood. It was part of the community. People built houses from it, cooked from it. That’s why it lived so long. It always had a role,’ Moray Simpson, tree officer for Wrexham county borough council, told the Observer.

Pontfadog oaks

We forget, these days, just how important these oaks were in medieval times, primarily as a source of timber for buildings.  Oliver Rackham, in his History of the Countryside, estimates that 90% of medieval building timbers are oak.  Although oak was the most common timber tree, it was the most expensive; other species – elm or ash, for example – are more often found in medieval terrace houses and the homes of the relatively poor.

But most medieval buildings are made from large numbers of small oaks; every timber, Rackham says, was taken from the smallest tree that would serve the purpose.  It was a skilled job: oaks are crooked, and carpenters had to make ingenious use of the irregular shapes into which they grow.  Remarkably, a typical 15th century farmhouse was constructed from around 330 trees. Small trees, though: usually 9 inches or less in diameter, so perhaps many timbers came from the pollarded trees to which Moray Simpson referred.

In his poem ‘Oak’, Michael Hamburger meditates on the ‘loss of that patient tree, loss of the skills/That matched the patience, shaping hard wood/To outlast the worker and outlast the user’:

Slow in growth, late in putting out leaves,
And the full leaves dark, austere,
Neither the flower nor the fruit sweet
Save to the harsh jay’s tongue, squirrel’s and boar’s,
Oak has an earthward urge, each bough dithers,
Now rising, now jerked aside, twisted back,
Only the bulk of the lower trunk keeps
A straight course, only the massed foliage together
Rounds a shape out of knots and zigzags.
But when other trees, even the late-leaved ash,
Slow-growing walnut, wide-branching beech and linden
Sway in a summer wind, poplar and willow bend,
Oak alone looks compact, in a stillness hides
Black stumps of limbs that blight or blast bared;
And for death reserves its more durable substance.
On wide floorboards four centuries old,
Sloping, yet scarcely worn, I can walk
And in words not oaken, those of my time, diminished,
Mark them that never were a monument
But plain utility, and mark the diminution,
Loss of that patient tree, loss of the skills
That matched the patience, shaping hard wood
To outlast the worker and outlast the user;
How by oak beams, worm-eaten,
This cottage stands, when brick and plaster have crumbled,
In casements of oak the leaded panes rest
Where new frames, new doors, mere deal, again and again have
rotted.

After the Pontfadog oak fell, the local memories surfaced: a missing bull had once spent two days inside the hollow trunk; two golden chisels were said to have been hidden in it; in 1880, six men could be seated around a table inside it; it was used by sheep both as a shelter and somewhere to die; children used to play in it; Victorians posed for photographs by it; and generations carved their initials in it.  And there was Welsh legend: in 1157 before he took on and defeated the English King Henry II, the Welsh prince Owain Gwynedd rallied his army under the tree, and later, when the English king had his men cut down the Ceiriog woods in 1165, the tree was spared.

Here’s a pertinent poem, ‘The Fallen Oak’ by Giovanni Pascoli (translated from the Italian):

Where its shade was, the oak itself now sprawls,
lifeless, no longer vying with the wind.
The people say: I see now—it was tall!
The little nests of springtime now depend
from limbs that used to rise to a safer height.
People say: I see now—it was a friend!
Everyone praises, everyone cuts. Twilight
comes and they haul their heavy loads away.
Then, on the air, a cry—a blackcap in flight,
seeking a nest it will not find today.

Naturally, there was sorrow at the loss of such a venerable living thing – and some recriminations. In December 2012, the Woodland Trust presented a petition with 5,300 signatures to the Welsh Assembly noting the tree’s fragility and calling for better protection.  But the £5,700 cost was considered too high, so nothing was done.  But, maybe we should just accept the hand that fate dealt: in Woodlands, Oliver Rackham points out that great storms and the felling of trees, rather than being a disaster, can be an unmitigated benefit for wildlife.  Monotonous areas of shade are broken up, creating new habitats.  And most uprooted trees survive, sprouting from the base and sometimes along the trunk, calling into question, he writes, ‘the assumption that the ‘normal’ state of a tree is upright’.

old oak2

See also

Ashes to ashes

Ashes to ashes

They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;
And that talks no less for knowing,
As it grows wiser and older,
That now it means to stay.

There’s an ash that I pass each morning with the dog.  I pay closer attention to the tree’s features – the grey bark, ribbed with a fine lattice pattern of ridges, the delicate leaves with their matching pairs of leaflets, and the distinctive black buds leaflets at the tip of each new shoot – now that it is like a friend of whom you hear news of a life-threatening illness.  This tree looks healthy yet (photos of it illustrate this post), but the fungal spores that lead to ash dieback are advancing across the country: there has been at least one confirmed sighting in neighbouring Cheshire.

According to Oliver Rackham in Woodlands, the ash is one of the longest-established trees of these isles, advancing across the land bridge after the end of the last ice age.  In that book Rackham writes that ‘trees are wildlife just as deer or primroses are wildlife. Each species has its own agenda and its own interactions with human activities’, and the spectre of losing all our ash has prompted many reflections on how deeply embedded trees are in our culture and our daily, living consciousness.

In Wildwood, Roger Deakin talked the feature of ash which has bound it to humans through time immemorial: its practical virtues as a timber, deriving from its remarkable pliability and toughness. He quotes William Cobbett, who valued the utility of ash over its beauty:

Laying aside this nonsense, however, of poets and painters, we have no tree of such various and extensive use as the Ash. It gives us boards; materials for making instruments of husbandry; and contributes towards the making of tools of almost all sorts. We could not well have a wagon, a cart, a coach or a wheelbarrow, a plough, a harrow, a spade, an axe or a hammer, if we had no Ash. It gives us poles for our hops; hurdle gates, wherewith to pen in our sheep; and hoops for our washing tubs; and assists to supply the Irish and West Indians with hoops for their pork barrels and sugar hogsheads. It therefore demands our particular attention; and from me, that attention it shall have.

Deakin points out that coopers made the hoops Cobbett refers to by cleaving coppice ash in two and bending the flat side round the barrel or washing tub.  He also took advantage of the ash’s pliable nature when he created an ash bower near his home at Walnut Tree Farm:

My ash bower is a kind of folly, an Aboriginal wiltja that stands at the top of my long meadow in Suffolk. It consists of a double row of lively ash trees bent over into Gothic arches like a small church. I planted it twenty years ago. It is eighteen feet long by nine feet wide, with four pairs of trees six feet apart along each side curving up to meet just under seven feet off the ground, so you can walk up and down inside. In the summer heat it is a cool, green room roofed with wild hops and the flickering shadows of ash leaves. I sometimes sling a hammock inside. I even installed a bed last year … […]

I make no claims for the originality of its conception: it was directly inspired by David Nash’s Ash Dome. It is what they call in film or art magazines an hommage, although I prefer to hold up both hands and call it pure plagiarism. For all that, it gives me enormous pleasure and interest, and it has grown into a mild obsession. […]

The elephant-grey bark begins to gleam in a light rain shower. I love this skin of ash, almost human in its perfect smoothness when young, with an under-glow of green. It wrinkles and creases like elephant skin at the heels and elbows of old pleachers where they have healed. […]

The bower is floored in lords and ladies, ground ivy and mosses, and its eight trunks cross-gartered with wild hops, our English vines. They thatch its roof with their big cool leaves, dangling bunches of the aromatic, soporific female flowers from the green ceiling like grapes. As spring comes on, the bower fills like a bath with frothy white Queen Anne’s lace … Even at the age of twenty the trunks of the bower are beginning to show some of the early signs of what will accrue with age: they are green with algae and lichens are beginning to form around their damp feet. They are putting on ankle socks of moss. There is something goat-footed about ash trees: the shaggy signs of Pan.

Deakin speaks, too, of the characteristic flamboyance of the ash:

I love its natural flamboyance and energy, and the swooping habit of its branches: the way they plunge towards the earth, then upturn, tracing the trajectory of a diver entering the water and surfacing. In March the tree is a candelabra, each bud emerging cautiously, like the black snout of a badger, at the tip of every branch.

By the time Deakin came to write about his ash dome, in the closing pages of Wildwood, he was terminally ill, though unaware of this fact. In the book’s final passage he questions whether he was right to force the tree into the contortions required of it to form the bower; but, reasons:

I’ve done the tree no harm and in time it will grow into something beautiful as ash always does, the badger-noses on the new shoots leading the way.  It doesn’t need me to teach it to dance: it is naturally playful, a contortionist with ancestral memories of tumbling with the hedger’s no less wilful strength.  When the bower eventually comes of age long after I am gone, the wooden spinning top might still be going round too.

The ash dome created by David Nash on his own woodland in North Wales, is an example of a ‘growing’ work, a ring of ash trees he planted in 1977 and trained to form a domed shape. The dome is sited at a secret location somewhere in Snowdonia and whenever it’s filmed, crews are taken there by a circuitous route to guard its security. His planting of twenty two ash trees has committed him to more than thirty years of care, training and pruning and echoes his belief that he begins the works but they are completed by time and circumstance. Nash continues to maintain the Dome and records its changes in different contexts through drawings and photographs.

A couple of years back the Woodland Trust published a collection of short stories, Why Willows Weep, in which various writers each told a tale of their favourite tree.  William Fiennes chose the ash in ‘Why the ash tree has black buds’:

The trees have always had some idea of what happens to them when they die. In forests they saw their neighbours toppled by wind or age and rot into earth, and their roots sent up descriptions of peat and coal in vast beds and seams. Later, when humans came along, trees saw the stockades, the carts pulled by horses, the chairs and tables set out in gardens, and quickly put two and two together. Trees growing beside rivers saw themselves in the hulls and masts of boats, and trees in orchards understood that the ladders propped against them had once been trees, and when men approached with axes to fell them, the trees recognized the handles.

Trees often wondered what their particular fate might be. Would they subside into the long sleep of coal, or blaze for an hour in a cottage grate, or find themselves reconfigured as handle, hurdle, post, shaft, stake, joist, beam – or something more elaborate and rare: an abacus, a chess piece, a harpsichord? And out of these dreams a rumour moved among the trees of the world like a wind, not quite understood at first, it was so strange – a rumour that when they died, instead of being burned, planed, planked, shimmed, sharpened, many trees would be pulped. This was an entirely new idea to trees, whose self-image was all to do with trunk, sturdiness, backbone, form. But trees are good at getting the hang of things, and soon they understood that from pulp would come the white leaves humans called paper, and that these leaves would be bound into books, and after a short season of anxiety in which conifers shed uncharacteristic quantities of needles, the trees came to terms with this new possibility in the range of their afterlives.

Yes, the trees recognized themselves in paper, in books, just as they recognized themselves in all the other things that hadn’t been thought of quite yet, like bedsteads and bagpipes and bonfires, not to mention violins, cricket bats, toothpicks, clothes pegs, chopsticks and misericords. Men and women would sit in the shade of trees, reading books, and the trees, dreaming of all that was to come, saw that they were the books as well as the chairs the men and women sat in, and the combs in the women’s hair, and the shiny handles of the muskets, and the hoops the children chased across the lawns. The trees took pride in the idea of being a book: they thought a book was a noble thing to become, if you had to become anything – a terrible bore to be a rafter, after all, and a wheel would mean such a battering, though of course the travel was a bonus, and what tree in its right mind would wish to be rack, coffin, crucifix, gallows . . .

One tree was more excited than all the rest, and that was the ash. The ash has such an inviting, feathery shade: when men and women first had books to take into the shade of trees, they often chose the shade of an ash. The ash would look down at these people reading and see that they were discovering new regions inside themselves, and notice how when they stood up and left the jurisdiction of its branches they had changed as if buds inside them were coming into leaf, and the ash saw that this change was a property of the marks on the paper, and that paper was the only leaf with worlds in it. Soon ash trees were discussing this phenomenon all over the place, whispering about books in Manchuria and Poland and the Pennines, passing information from grove to grove, until ash trees across North America and the Eastern and Western Palearctic were sighing and swaying with thoughts of words and pens and poems and printing presses and Odysseus and Scheherazade and the Song of Songs . . .

So ash trees dreamed of becoming books themselves one day, even though they would be much in demand as firewood, and prized as material for oars, hockey sticks and the chassis frames of Morgan motor cars. Sometimes, dreaming ahead, they saw men and women sitting beneath them, writing – writing in notebooks and diaries, writing letters of love and consolation, writing stories. And the ash tree wanted to be that, too – not just the book, but the writing in it, the words that carried the worlds. They saw the men and women holding their pens, and the ink that came out of them on to the paper, and although they didn’t have hands, they tried to curl their branches into fingers that might hold pens, and they dreamed it so vividly that the tips of their fingers turned black with ink as they waved against the blank white page of the sky, trying to write on it.

Look closely: the ash tree has black buds, and the branches bend upwards at their tips, towards the whiteness.

The anthology has just been republished on Kindle to help raise funds for the Woodland Trust to combat diseases threatening the ash and other native trees.

Who knows how many ash trees may have to be cut down as the disease spreads.  In his journal, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of his anguish at seeing an ash being cut down:

The ash tree growing in the corner of the garden was felled.  I heard the sound and, looking out and seeing it maimed, there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not to see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more.

Ash trees were not, of course, cut down for their useful timber – they were pollarded.  Here, Manley Hopkins is expressing the pain in losing a tree which forms part of the ‘inscape’ (a word he had invented meaning ‘individually-distinctive beauty’), as all trees are part of all our collective ‘inscape’. In the poem ‘Ash-boughs’ Manley Hopkins celebrates a tree waking from winter’s dormancy, groping toward warmth and light.  He watches the tree in winter, and then as it throws off snow and welcomes spring. It is the earth sustaining and being sustained by new life:

Not of all my eyes see, wandering on the world,
Is anything a milk to the mind so, so sighs deep
Poetry to it, as a tree whose boughs break in the sky.
Say it is ashboughs: whether on a December day and furled
Fast or they in clammyish lashtender combs creep
Apart wide and new-nestle at heaven most high.
They touch heaven, tabour on it; how their talons sweep
The smouldering enormous winter welkin! May
Mells blue and snowwhite through them, a fringe and fray
Of greenery: it is old earth’s groping towards the steep
Heaven whom she childs us by.

In Edward Thomas’s ‘Fifty Faggots’, the age-old certainties of laying aside ash and hazel faggots for the winter is subsumed into a sense of dread at the uncontrollable forces at work in a world at war:

There they stand, on their ends, the fifty faggots
That once were underwood of hazel and ash
In Jenny Pinks’s Copse. Now, by the hedge
Close packed, they make a thicket fancy alone
Can creep through with the mouse and wren. Next Spring
A blackbird or a robin will nest there,
Accustomed to them, thinking they will remain
Whatever is for ever to a bird.
This Spring it is too late; the swift has come,
‘Twas a hot day for carrying them up:
Better they will never warm me, though they must
Light several Winters’ fires. Before they are done
The war will have ended, many other things
Have ended, maybe, that I can no more
Foresee or more control than robin and wren.

Diana J Hale, in her most recent blog post, also on the threat to the ash, quotes a beautiful passage from Edward Thomas writing about the sight of ash trees shedding their leaves in autumn.

Two contemporary poets seem to capture a sense of the deep meaning attachment that trees evoke, even in a suburban setting – as in Kathleen Jamie’s ‘The Tree House’ – or deep beneath the capital’s streets on the London underground in Katherine Gallagher’s quirky ‘The Year of the Tree’.

Hands on a low limb, I braced,
swung my feet loose, hoisted higher,
heard the town clock toll, a car
breenge home from the club
as I stooped inside. Here

I was unseeable. A bletted fruit
hung through tangled branches
just out of reach. Over house roofs:
sullen hills, the firth drained
down to sandbanks: the Reckit Lady, the Shair as Daith.

I lay to sleep,
beside me neither man
nor child, but a lichened branch
wound through the wooden chamber,
pulling it close; a complicity

like our own, when arm in arm
on the city street, we bemoan
our families, our difficult
chthonic anchorage
in the apple-sweetened earth,

without whom we might have lived
the long-ebb of our mid-decades
alone in sheds and attic rooms,
awake in the moonlight souterrains
of our own minds; without whom

we might have lived a hundred other lives,
like taxis strangers hail and hire,
that turn abruptly on the gleaming setts
and head for elsewhere.

Suppose just for the hell of it
we flagged one – what direction would we give?
Would we still be driven here,
our small town Ithacas, our settlements
hitched tight beside the river

where we’re best played out
in gardens of dockens
and lady’s mantle, kids’ bikes
stranded on the grass;
where we’ve knocked together

of planks and packing chests
a dwelling of sorts; a gall
we’ve asked the tree to carry
of its own dead, and every spring
to drape in leaf and blossom, like a pall.
Kathleen Jamie

I came across Katherine Gallagher’s poem when it was selected by Carol Rumens as poem of the week on her regular online feature for The Guardian where you can read her gloss on the poem:

I carried a tree
through the Underground.

It was hard. At first,
people scarcely noticed me

and the oak I was lugging
along the platforms –

heavier than a suitcase
and difficult to balance.

We threaded through corridors,
changing lines: up and down stairs,

escalators, and for a moment
I imagined everyone on the planet

taking turns
to carry a tree as daily rite.

A few people asked
Why a tree?

I said it was for my own
edification –

a tree always
has something to teach.

Sharp gusts
whirred through the corridors

rustling the branches
as I hurried on

past the sweepers
picking up rubbish, scraps of paper.

Be sure to take the tree
with you
, they said.

Don’t worry, I’m taking it
to my garden,

the start of a forest.
When people stared,

Relax, I said,
it’s a tree, not a gun.

But I think it’s Robert Frost, in ‘The Sound of Trees’ who speaks most powerfully of the hold that trees have on us:

I wonder about the trees.
Why do we wish to bear
Forever the noise of these
More than another noise
So close to our dwelling place?
We suffer them by the day
Till we lose all measure of pace,
And fixity in our joys,
And acquire a listening air.
They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;
And that talks no less for knowing,
As it grows wiser and older,
That now it means to stay.
My feet tug at the floor
And my head sways to my shoulder
Sometimes when I watch trees sway,
From the window or the door.
I shall set forth for somewhere,
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.
I shall have less to say,
But I shall be gone.

Update 20 November: via the Caught By the River blog I was directed to this web page at Little Toller books that is a celebration of the beauty and the utility of the ash.  On the same website, Poet Jos Smith responded with a superb essay which concludes:

We ought to think about making vivid tributes to the ash tree now. Tributes that capture something truly distinctive about the tree as Hopkins’ ‘Ash-boughs’ or as E.J. Scovell’s ‘Ash Trees’ do. Poems, paintings and recordings, words, images and sculptures that with their own ‘shining loam’ conserve something of the ash. Not as elegies or commemorations necessarily, but to remind future generations of the virtues of this remarkable tree, a tree with which we have shared our lives more intimately than perhaps we always remember. Soon enough, and for many generations, the ash may no longer be a familiar sight, but here and there a few tenacious genetic variations will endure as they have in Sweden, Denmark and Lithuania. Of course, this won’t help the forest wildlife that will feel the withdrawal of such a huge agent in our ecosystems acutely, but it will give future generations some access to the impression the tree makes on us today; its uses as medicine, material and myth. It will also – and perhaps just as importantly – offer a simple appreciation of the ash’s ubiquitous and companion presence on the edges of our lives, dripping with rain or swelling softly with wind through the night.

Also at Little Toller Books, there’s a piece by Sue Clifford and Angela King that reminds us that the ubiquity of the ash is revealed in place names. Not far from here is the suburb of Knotty Ash, and my mother grew up in a Derbyshire village not far from Monyash:

It is one of our most common trees, as a glance at the numerous place names containing ash or ask in any gazetteer will tell: Ashby-de-la-Launde to Long Ashton, Askam and Askrigg to Knotty Ash. Reaching heights of 140 feet (45m) it thrives in city parks unhindered by air pollution. Enjoying the lack of competition for light, it is a frequent hedgerow tree, often covering for the lost elms. Ash also makes fine woodlands: on its own on the steep slopes of the Derbyshire Dales, with oak on the Herefordshire borders and on chalky boulder clay in the east where it also lives with maple and hazel accompanied by the richest of woodland ground flora.

Monyash means ‘many an ash’ and certainly the valley ash woods as well as road-side trees in the White Peak and Yorkshire pick out the Carboniferous limestone, further to the east the north-south sliver of magnesian limestone from Nottinghamshire up to County Durham also favours ash. Ash is common in the Jurassic limey Cotswolds and the Carboniferous limey Mendips where the oldest ash tree in Europe is said to be found at Clapton in Somerset; it’s of no age in comparison with the coppice stools in Suffolk.

They reminded me of something else, too, that I had completely forgotten: an old saw my mum passed on to me:

Looking out for the first to leaf in spring is one of the ancient and best known forecasting tools: Oak before ash we’re in for a splash, ash before oak we’re in for a soak.  The oak relies on warmth, the ash on light and our climate has changed sufficiently in the last 20 years to bring the oak into leaf every year before the ash, it is now ten days ahead…

And check out Richard Mabey speaking wise words about ash dieback in this recent YouTube video:

Holloway: beyond curbed ways and tarred roads

Holloway:  beyond curbed ways and tarred roads

There is always something stimulating to be found on the Caught By The River blog.  Today there is a post about a new book, Holloway, a collaboration between writer Robert MacFarlane and artist Stanley Donwood. The first things that caught my eye were the beautiful etchings by Stanley Donwood that illustrate the book, such as the one above. MacFarlane explains to Caught by the River how the book came about:

Eight years ago this July, I drove down to Dorset with my friend Roger Deakin, to explore the holloways of the area around Chideock. Holloways – the word comes from the Anglo-Saxon hol weg, hollow way – are paths that, over centuries of use, have sunk down into the landscape through which they run, worn into the earth by footfall, wheel-roll and rain-rush. Some of them are twenty feet deep and steep-sided: more ravine than road. Many have been overgrown by the trees that border them, so that they’ve become green-roofed tunnels. They’re too deep to fill in and farm, and often too narrow to take vehicles, so holloways are often wild places: filled with brambles, nettles, ferns, bees, badgers, ivy and history.

Roger and I spent hot summer days exploring the holloways, tracing out their routes and their histories, camping in the flower meadows that bordered them, lighting fires after dusk, keeping an eye out for farmers. We became fascinated by how strangely time seemed to behave in those ancient routes; the strange pleatings and repeatings of history they seemed to inspire, the ghosts they kept. We both ended up writing about those days and those holloways: me in a book called The Wild Places, and Roger in his wonderfulNotes From Walnut Tree Farm, which was only published posthumously – for within two years of our trip Roger had died of a brain tumour, long before his time. […]

In the autumn of 2011, I returned to the south Dorset holloways, this time in the company of two artist-writers, Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards. You’ll know Stanley’s extraordinary work, even if you think you don’t: he’s famous for many things, but is probably most renowned as the artist and designer of Radiohead’s albums and artwork.[…]

A collaboration was proposed, slowly took form: we would make a small, strange, beautiful book about the holloways. A book about those old ways, printed in the old ways: with lead type, set by hand, written by me and Dan, designed and illustrated by Stanley. … By the time we returned from Dorset, the holloway had lodged itself deeply in Stanley’s mind. He spent months drawing, etching and engraving versions of it. A 24-carat gold, with a figure seen indistinctly at its end. An ink drawing with three thousand or more pen-strokes.

The resulting book, Holloway, is limited to 277 copies, for the height of Pilsdon Pen – the high ground on which the journey began – is 277 metres above sea-level. Each copy costs £27.70.

Hol weg.
Holwy.
Holway.
Holeway.
Holewaye.
Hollowy.
Holloway.

A sunken lane (hollow way or holloway) is a road which has over time sunk significantly lower than the land on either side, the result of erosion by water, footfalls and wheel tracks. In Anglo Saxon charters they were recorded as hola weg (hollow path). They were essential lifelines to our forbears, who walked, with their animals or the produce of their labours, around and between their own and neighbouring villages. Holloways were discussed in Oliver Rackham’s book A History of the Countryside (1986):

An expatriate in a new country, where the roads roll out prosaically over the ground surface, misses especially the holloways of the English landscape – the lanes mysteriously sunk in deep ravines which protect them from sun and the blasts of winter, lined with great trees whose roots overhang far above, their cavernous shade the home of delicate plants like hart’s tongue fern, shining cranesbill and moschatel. Holloways … have [existed] for more than a thousand years.

Holloways were subject to floods and snowdrifts and could be left impassable, isolating the villages they linked for days or weeks, as these entries from the journals of Gilbert White, naturalist and vicar of Selborne in Hampshire in the last two decades of the 18th century record:

September 13th, 1792: The stream at Gracious Street, which fails every dry summer, has run briskly all this year; & now seems to be equal to the current from Well-head. The rocky channel up the hollow-lane towards Rood has also run with water for months: nor has my great water-tub been dry the summer through.

February 26, 1791: Deep snow, which damaged & broke my plum-trees, & hedges. This is much the greatest snow that we have seen this year. Some of the deep lanes are hardly passable.

December 30, 1787: Some of our hollow lanes are not passable.

December 23, 1784: Many labourers are employed in shoveling the snow, & opening the hollow, stony lane, that leads to the forest. Snow frozen so as almost to bear.

April 2, 1784: No snow ’till we came to Guild-down; deep snow on that ridge! Much snow at Selborne in the fields: the hill deep in snow! The country looks most dismally, like the dead of winter! A few days ago our lanes would scarce have been passable for a chaise.

January 10, 1782: The earth is well-drenched; streams run; & torrents fall from the fields into the hollow lanes.

In his book, The Natural History of Selborne, Gilbert White described the hollow lanes around Selborne:

Among the singularities of this place the two rocky hollow lanes, the one to Alton, and the other to the forest, deserve our attention. These roads, running through the malm lands, are, by the traffic of ages, and the fretting of water, worn down through the first stratum of our freestone, and partly through the second; so that they look more like water- courses than roads; and are bedded with naked rag for furlongs together. In many places they are reduced sixteen or eighteen feet beneath the level of the fields; and after floods, and in frosts, exhibit very grotesque and wild appearances, from the tangled roots that are twisted among the strata, and from the torrents rushing down their broken sides; and especially when those cascades are frozen into icicles, hanging in all the fanciful shapes of frost-work. These rugged gloomy scenes affright the ladies when they peep down into them from the paths above, and make timid horsemen shudder while they ride along them; but delight the naturalist with their various botany, and particularly with their curious filices with which they abound.

In particular, White records the impact of heavy snow falls in January 1776:

January 7th. — Snow driving all the day, which was followed by frost, sleet, and some snow, till the 12th, when a prodigious mass overwhelmed all the works of men, drifting over the tops of the gates and filling the hollow lanes.

On the 14th the writer was obliged to be much abroad; and thinks he never before or since has encountered such rugged Siberian weather. Many of the narrow roads were now filled above the tops of the hedges; through which the snow was driven into most romantic and grotesque shapes, so striking to the imagination as not to be seen without wonder and pleasure.

The poet John Clare lamented the loss of paths and sunken lanes in his poems, for example in this opening passage from ‘Enclosure’:

There once were lanes in nature’s freedom dropt,
There once were paths that every valley wound-
Enclosure came, and every path was stopt;
Each tyrant fixed his sign where paths were found,
To hint a trespass now who crossed the ground:
Justice is made to speak as they command;
The high road now must be each stinted bound:
Enclosure, thou’rt curse upon the land,
And tasteless was the wretch who thy existence planned.

In ‘Summer Moods’ he evoked the sense of enchantment gained from walking down a holloway:

I love at eventide to walk alone
Down narrow lanes o’erhung with dewy thorn
Where from the long grass underneath – the snail
Jet-black creeps out and sprouts his timid horn.
I love to muse o’er meadows newly mown
Where withering grass perfumes the sultry air,
Where bees search round with sad and weary drone
In vain for flowers that bloomed but newly there;
While in the juicy corn the hidden quail
Cries ‘wet my foot’ and hid as thoughts unborn
The fairy like and seldom-seen land-rail
Utters ‘craik craik’ like voices underground,
Right glad to meet the evening’s dewy veil
And see the light fade into glooms around.

On Exmoor, a couple of years ago, near Dunkery Beacon we discovered the holloway featured in these photographs. It ran only for a short distance, but was a place of enchantment: almost entirely enclosed in green and dappled shade with steep banks of bracken and hedgerow flowers on either bank, the interlacing branches of the hedgerow trees entwined above. These lanes are now valuable as mini nature reserves, offering an ideal habitat for small animals and birds and shelter for wild plants displaced from surrounding fields.

In today’s Caught By The River blog post, Robert MacFarlane refers to his exploration, eight years ago, of the holloways of the area around Chideock in Dorset with his friend Roger Deakin.  He wrote an extended essay, Going to Ground: Britain’s Holloways, on that experience that was published in the American environmental magazine Orion in June 2008:

Holloways: from the Anglo-Saxon hola weg, meaning a “harrowed path,” a “sunken road.” A route that centuries of use have eroded down into the bedrock, so that it is recessed beneath the level of the surrounding landscape. Most holloways will have started out as drove roads, paths to market. Some as Saxon or pre-Saxon boundary ditches. And some, like the one near Bury St. Edmunds, as pilgrim paths.

The oldest holloways date back to the early Iron Age. None is younger than three hundred years old. Over the course of centuries, the passage of cart wheels, hooves, and feet wore away at the floor of these roads, grooving ruts into the exposed stone. As the roads deepened, they became natural waterways. Rain drained into and down them; storms turned them into temporary rivers, sluicing away the loose rock debris and cutting the roads still further below the meadows and the fields.

Holloways do not exist in the unyielding rock regions of the British archipelago, where the roads and paths stay high, riding the hard surface of the ground. But in the soft stone counties of southern England—in the chalk of Kent, Wiltshire, and East Anglia, in the yellow sandstone of Dorset and Somerset, in the greensand of Surrey, and in the malmstone of Hampshire and Sussex—many holloways are to be found, some of them twenty feet deep: more ravine than road. They go by different names in different regions—bostels, grundles, shutes—but they are most usually known as holloways.

Trodden by innumerable feet, cut by innumerable wheels, they are the records of journeys to market, to worship, to sea. Like creases in the hand, or the wear on the stone sill of a doorstep or stair, they are the consequence of tradition, of repeated action. Like old trees—the details of whose spiraling and kinked branches indicate the wind history of a region, and whose growth rings record each year’s richness or poverty of sun—they archive the past customs of a place.

Gilbert White, in his Natural History of Selborne (1788), made a typically attentive study of the holloways in his Hampshire parish. “Two rocky hollow lanes,” he recorded, ran through the parish, “the one to Alton, and the other to the forest.”

In many places they are reduced sixteen or eighteen feet beneath the level of the fields; and after floods, and in frosts, exhibit very grotesque and wild appearances, from the tangled roots that are twisted among the strata, and from the torrents rushing down their broken sides . . . These rugged gloomy scenes affright the ladies when they peep down into them from the paths above, and make timid horsemen shudder while they ride along them.

To enter these holloways, White said, was to access a world of deep history, an unexpectedly wild world, buried amid the familiar and close-at-hand. He visited his holloways in different weathers, to see how their moods altered with the changing climate. During the fiercely cold January of 1768, when the temperature in Selborne dropped to -34 degrees Celsius, and the leaves of laurel bushes were scorched brown by the cold, and when the snow fell thickly enough to fill the holloways, White observed how it there became sculpted by the wind into shapes “so striking to the imagination, as not to be seen without wonder and pleasure.” When the sun shone that winter, reflected sunlight from the snow was bright enough to dazzle animals and birds. Poultry sat in their roosts all day long, stupefied into inaction by the land’s luster.

Few holloways are in use now: they are too narrow and too slow to suit modern travel. But they are also too deep to be filled in and farmed over. So it is that, set about by some of the most intensively farmed countryside in the world, the holloways have come to constitute a sunken labyrinth of wildness in the heart of arable England. Most have thrown up their own defenses, becoming so overgrown by nettles and briars that they are unwalkable, and have gone unexplored for decades. On their steep damp sides ferns and trailing plants flourish—bright bursts of cranesbill or hart’s tongue, spilling out of and over the exposed network of tree roots that supports the walls.

Dorset is rich in holloways: they seam the landscape cardinally, leaving the coast and moving northward, uphill and inland, cutting into the Jurassic Lias, the Permian sandstones and mudstones, the oolites and the chalks of the region. Along these routes dray horses, carts, and carriages would have moved to and from the harbors and bays, supplying and evacuating the incoming ships.

My friend Roger Deakin had been tipped off by a friend of a friend about an especially deep and forgotten holloway near the village of North Chideock, which lies in a small lush valley, cupped by a half-moon of low green rabbit-cropped hills, the horns of which rest upon the sea. There could have been no one better with whom to discuss wildness. An original member of Friends of the Earth UK, he had been fascinated by nature and landscape all his life, a fascination that had culminated in the late 1990s, when he set out on a journey to swim through Britain. Over several months, Roger swam in dozens of the rivers, lakes, llyns, locks, streams, and seas of England, Wales, and Scotland. His aim was to acquire a “frog’s-eye view” of the country. The book he wrote describing his journey, Waterlog, is a funny, lyrical travelogue that was at once a defense of the wild water that was left and an elegy for that which had gone.

So on a hot July day, Roger and I set off for Dorset to see if we could find wildness amid the dairy farms. We got lost several times on the way. When he was unsure of the correct exit to take on a roundabout, which was nearly always, Roger tended to slow almost to a halt and squint up at the exit signs, while I assumed the crash position in the passenger seat.

We reached Chideock—a one-song drive west of Bridport—in the early afternoon, left the car, and began walking up along the village’s main road, keeping where we could to the shade cast by the big green-gold laurel bushes that lapped at the road. The sun roared soundlessly in a blue sky. Hot light glared off every leaf and surface. Dust puffed up from the road wherever we stepped. There was the smell of charred stone.

The path that Roger and I followed up into the hills was itself the beginnings of a holloway, cut down ten feet or more into the caramel sandstone of the area. Though no traffic other than walkers now passed this way, the road was still being deepened by water. Heavy rain had fallen the previous week, and the holloway floor bore evidence of the water rush that must have flooded it. Leaf and branch jetsam was tangled around tree roots, and here and there patches of smooth surface stone had been rinsed clean and exposed to the air, so that they lay glowing in their first sunlight in nearly 200 million years.

At some point in the history of the road, hedging trees had been planted to either side of it, partly to make wayfinding easier in poor weather, and partly to provide shelter from the winds and sea storms that beat in off the English Channel. Over centuries, these hedges had grown, died, reseeded, and grown again, and now, unchecked, they had thrust up and out and over the holloway.

One thinks of hedges as nothing more than bristly partitions—field Mohicans. But these hedges had become linear forests, leaning into one another and meshing above the old sunken road to form an interlocking canopy or roof, turning road into tunnel.

Near the summit of the western horn of the half-moon of hills, the road became so overgrown that we had to leave it. We scrambled up its steep eastern side and into the pollinous air of the flower meadow that bordered it. I looked back over my shoulder to where the sea lay blue. The heat bred mirages out over the water—false promises of islands and mountain ranges. A few hundred yards farther along, in a gap in the hedge by a towering ash tree, we found a way back into the holloway, and descended into its shadowy depth, abseiling down the sandstone sides using ivy as a rappel rope. It felt as though we were dropping into a lost world.

Time and again, wildness has been declared dead in Britain and Ireland. “Two great wars demanded and bequeathed regimentation,” wrote E. M. Forster in 1964, “science lent her aid, and the wildness of these islands, never extensive, was stamped upon and built over and patrolled in no time. There is no forest or fell to escape to today, no cave in which to curl up, no deserted valley.” For Jonathan Raban the extinction of the wild happened far earlier: by the 1860s Britain was “so thickly peopled, so intensively farmed, so industrialized, so citified, that there was nowhere to go to be truly alone, or to have . . . adventures, except to sea.” John Fowles, writing in 1985, was grimly adamant: “We are now, in hard fact, on the bleak threshold of losing much of the old landscape. We have done unimaginably terrible things to our countrysides. It is only here and there along our coasts and on the really high hills and mountains that the ancient richness of natural life is not yet in danger.” Five years later, the American author William Least Heat-Moon described Britain as “a tidy garden of a toy realm where there’s almost no real wilderness left and absolutely no memory of it.” Repeatedly, the same lament, or the same contempt.

An abundance of hard evidence exists to support these obituaries for the wild. Over the last century in particular, disaster has fallen upon the land and the seas of Britain and Ireland. The statistics of damage are familiar and often repeated, more as elegy now than as protest. In England, between 1930 and 1990, over half of the ancient woodland was cleared or replaced with conifer plantation. Half of the hedgerow mileage was grubbed up. Nearly all lowland pasture was plowed out, built on, or tarmacked over. Three-quarters of heathland was converted into farmland or developed. Across Britain and Ireland, rare limestone pavements were cracked up and sold as rockery stones, peat bogs millennia in the making were drained or excavated. Dozens of species vanished, with hundreds more being brought to the point of crisis.

In Britain, over 61 million people now live on 150,000 square miles of land. Remoteness has been almost abolished, and the main agents of that abolition have been the car and the road. Only a small and diminishing proportion of terrain is now more than five miles from a motorable surface. There are nearly 30 million cars in use in Britain, and 210,000 miles of road on the mainland alone. If those roads were to be stretched out and joined into a single continuous carriageway, you could drive on it almost to the moon. The roads have become new mobile civilizations in themselves: during rush hours, the car-borne population across Britain and Ireland is estimated to exceed the resident population of Central London.

The commonest map of Britain is the road atlas. Pick one up, and you see the meshwork of motorways and roads that covers the surface of the country. From such a map, it can appear that the landscape has become so thickly webbed by roads that asphalt and petrol are its new primary elements. An absence also becomes visible: the wild places are no longer marked. The fells, the caves, the tors, the woods, the moors, the river valleys, and the marshes have all but disappeared. If they are shown at all, they appear as background shadings or generic symbols. More often, they have faded out altogether like old ink, become the suppressed memories of a more ancient archipelago.

Certainly, these islands possess wild places on massive scales—the Cairngorm massif is greater in area than Luxembourg, and its weather systems can be polar in their severity. But the idea that a wild place has to be somehow outside history seems improper in an English context. English wildness is there, if carefully looked for, in the bend of a stream valley, in the undercut of a riverbank, in copses and peat hags, hedgerows and quicksand pools. And it is there in the margins, interzones, and rough cusps of the country: quarry rim, derelict factory, and motorway verge. I had not expected to find this.

That margins should be a redoubt of wildness, I know, is proof of the devastation of the land: the extent to which nature has been squeezed to the territory’s edges, repressed almost to extinction. But it seems like proof, as well, of the resilience of the wild—of its instinct for resurgence, its irrepressibility. And a recognition that wildness weaves with the human world, rather than existing only in cleaved-off areas, in national parks, and on distant peninsulas and peaks; maybe such a recognition is what is needed “to help us end the opposition between culture and nature, the garden and the wilderness, and to come to recognize ourselves at last as at home in both,” as American philosopher Val Plumwood has put it.

An artistic tradition has long existed in England concerning the idea of the “unseen landscape,” the small-scale wild place. Artists who have hallowed the detail of landscape and found it hallowing in return, who have found the boundless in the bounded, and seen visions in ditches.

William Blake perceived the world in a grain of sand. John Ruskin was captivated by the growth of lichens and mosses on trunks and rocks. Dorothy Wordsworth kept a series of elegantly attentive journals—the Alfoxden Journal, written when the Wordsworths were living in Somerset in 1797–1798, and the Grasmere Journal, kept at Dove Cottage from 1800 to 1803, whose precision of observation supports William Wordsworth’s allusion in “Tintern Abbey” to his sister’s “wild eyes.”

The late-Victorian writer Richard Jefferies spent much of his life studying and describing the rural southern counties of Wiltshire, Sussex, Gloucestershire, and Somerset: counties that were, to Jefferies, teeming with wildness. Jefferies had no interest in the nineteenth-century North American idea of wilderness on a grand scale—a phenomenon to be experienced only amid the red-rock citadels of the desert or the glacier-ground peaks. For Jefferies, wildness of an equal intensity existed in the spinneys and hills of England, and he wrote about those places with the same wonder that his contemporaries were expressing in their reports on the Amazon, the Pacific, the Rockies, and the Rub‘ al-Khali. He found wildness joyful, but also minatory; the vigor of natural wildness was to him a reminder of the fragility of human tenure on the Earth.

Then there was Stephen Graham. Graham, who died in 1975 at the age of ninety, was one of the most famous walkers of his age. He walked across America once, Russia twice, and Britain several times, and his 1926 book The Gentle Art of Tramping was a hymn to the wildness of the British Isles. “One is inclined,” wrote Graham, “to think of England as a network of motor roads interspersed with public houses, placarded by petrol advertisements, and broken by smoky industrial towns.” What he tried to prove in The Gentle Art, however, was that wildness was still ubiquitous.

Graham devoted his life to escaping what he called “the curbed ways and the tarred roads,” and he did so by walking, exploring, swimming, climbing, sleeping out, trespassing, and “vagabonding”—his verb—around the world. He came at landscapes diagonally, always trying to find new ways to move in or through them. “Tramping is a straying from the obvious,” he wrote. “Even the crookedest road is sometimes too straight.”

That July day, as Roger and I dropped into the hazy light of our Chideock holloway, one of Graham’s remarks came back to me. “As you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged by a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens.”

Down in the holloway, the bright hot surface world was forgotten. So close was the latticework of leaves and branches, and so tall the sides of the holloway, that light penetrated its depths only in thin lances. Roger and I moved slowly up the bed of the roadway, forcing a way through the undergrowth, through clumps of chest-high nettles, past big strongholds of bramble, and over hawthorns that had grown together, enmeshing across the roadbed. Occasionally we came to small clearings in the holloway, where light fell and grass grew. From thorn thickets, there was the scuttle of unseen creatures. Any noise we made thudded into the banks and was lost. A person might hide out undetected in such a place for weeks or months, I thought.

Lines of spider’s silk crisscrossed the air in their scores, and light ran like drops of bright liquid down them when we moved. In the windless warm air, groups of black flies bobbed and weaved, each dancing around a fixed point, like vibrating atoms held in a matrix. I had the sense of being in the nave of a church: the joined vaulting of the trees above, the stone sides of the cutting that were cold when I laid a hand against them, the spindles of sunlight, the incantations of the flies.

I would like to see a map that represented the country only according to these old ways, and that was blind to the newer routes, to the roads that take so little notice of the shape of the land through which they pass. These old ways, these trade-worn cantons, tended to work around woodlands, to follow the curve of a valley or the surge of a hill. They existed in compromise with the land through which they passed. Many of them had evolved from footpaths that had, both for ease of movement and ease of orientation, attended to the twisting courses of streams and rivers, or the natural curves of rising and falling land. This relationship of accommodation between way and landform has now been largely abandoned: bypasses and motorways strike through old woodlands and hillsides.

After our first exploration of the main holloway, Roger and I set out on a wider reconnaissance of the area. Back at the old ash tree, using exposed roots for handholds and the ivy again for a rope, we climbed up out of the road and emerged into the lush meadow. After the greeny dusk of the roadbed, the meadow was startlingly bright. The grass blades flashed like steel in the sunshine. We stood blinking, wringing the light from our eyes.

That afternoon, we walked along the curved ridge of the hills that extended east and south of the holloway—Copper Hill, Denhay Hill, Jan’s Hill. Sunlight skidded white off every surface. Everywhere we saw evidence of creatures taking refuge in the soil: mason bees, wasps, and rabbits. Where the sandstone was exposed, it was riddled with burrows of different sizes, with piles of ochreous silt marking the tunneling work. There were networks of burrows through the gorsy undergrowth, too: miniature green holloways, no bigger in cross section than a croquet hoop, which had been made by badgers. Following one such tunnel down into a steep copse, we found a badger metropolis. The animals must have been there for many generations, for the earthworks they had thrown up were substantial and long-term: ramparts, tumuli, barrows. I counted ten separate setts.

Hours later, as the air was hazing up, we returned to our holloway hideout, dropping down by the old ash tree again into the near darkness. We cleared nettles and briars, moved loose trunks to make seats, and then Roger built a fire to cook supper on—a pyramid of small sticks with a hot center of tinder that produced an intense and almost smokeless fire. We ate a spicy tagine that Roger had made in advance and carried up with him. Firelight flickered off the walls of the holloway and on the hedge canopy above us, and set complicated shadows moving in the leaves. As we sat there in the thickening dark, talking, the day seemed to convene itself around the furnace-point of the flames.

Campfires prompt storytelling, and Roger, never slow to start a story, told me how he had once been shot at by a hunter in the Polish woods because the hunter had thought he was a bear. The conclusion of the story, it turned out, was not Roger’s outrage at having been fired on, but his delight at having been mistaken for an animal. Then we each read out bits from a copy of Geoffrey Household’s classic 1939 novel, Rogue Male, in which the hero, pursued by Nazi agents, goes to ground in a Dorset holloway almost identical to our own. “The deep sandstone cutting, its hedges grown together across the top, is still there,” Household had written. “Anyone who wishes can dive under the sentinel thorns at the entrance, and push his way through. . . . But who would wish? Where there is light, the nettles grow as high as a man’s shoulder; where there is not, the lane is choked by dead wood. The interior of the double hedge is of no conceivable use to the two farmers whose boundary fence it is, and nobody but an adventurous child would want to explore it.”

Iin so many landscapes I have explored, I have found testimonies to the affection they inspired. Poems tacked up on the walls of bothies; benches set on lakesides, cliff tops, or low hill passes, commemorating the favorite viewpoint of someone now dead; a graffito cut into the bark of an oak. Once, stooping to drink from a pool near a Cumbrian waterfall, I had seen a brass plaque set discreetly beneath a rock: IN MEMORY OF GEORGE WALKER, WHO SO LOVED THIS PLACE. I loved that “so.”

These are the markers, I realize, of a process that is continuously at work throughout these islands, and presumably throughout the world: the drawing of happiness from landscapes both large and small. Every day, millions of people find themselves deepened and dignified by their encounters with particular places.

Most of these places, however, are not marked as special on any map. They become special by personal acquaintance. A bend in a river, the junction of four fields, a climbing tree, a stretch of old hedgerow, or a fragment of woodland glimpsed from a road regularly driven along—these might be enough. Or fleeting experiences, transitory, but still site-specific: a sparrow hawk sculling low over a garden or street, or the fall of evening light on a stone, or a pigeon feather caught on a strand of spider’s silk, twirling in midair like a magic trick. Daily, people are brought to sudden states of awe by encounters such as these: encounters whose power to move us is beyond expression but also beyond denial.

It seems to me that these nameless places might in fact be more important than the grander wild lands that for so many years have gripped my imagination. Taken together, the little places would make a map that could never be drawn by anyone, but which nevertheless exists in the experience of countless people. I recall what Ishmael said in Moby-Dick about the island of Kokovoko: “It is not down in any map; true places never are.”

See also

  • Common Ground: Robert Macfarlane’s series of Guardian essays on the relationship between writers and landscape
  • Where the wild things were: Robert Macfarlane on great classics of British nature writing
  • 4x4s are killing my planet: Robert Macfarlane argues that classic works of nature writing can help us rediscover values that are not commercial, but local and hopeful