Oak timbers: Palace Street, Canterbury

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Buckle up, there’s a lot of timber coming! This post concludes the series of posts (literally) showcasing Canterbury’s timber framed buildings. Of course there are many more for you to see and explore if you ever visit.

Palace Street must be one of Canterbury’s most interesting historic parts of the city itself. Some of the buildings on this small road are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years old.

Number 8 (above) is approximately 800 years old! So the oaks it’s built with were growing at least 1000 years ago in Anglo-Saxon woodlands (pre-Norman invasion of 1066). There’s more detailed information and images on this site.

I overheard the man pictured here giving a guided city tour. He pointed out that the sun emblem was how people once showed their house to be insured – the original Sun Insurance company logo, now the RSA group.

Buildings insurance was created in London after the great fire of 1666 when the city of was devastated. You can imagine that a lot of timber-framers were lost then, part of the problem really.

That demon carving is actually really weird. I believe they were used to ward off bad luck. Life will have been incredibly hard in the 1200-1800s so you’d do what you could, I suppose. Then again, this website quotes dates much later than the building itself. The plaque belongs to the Historic Buildings of Kent CPRE group.


In the windows of the house you can see the cathedral’s reflection. A little further down the road was Conquest House, another Historic Buidling of Kent:

Peering in through the windows it was possible to see a plan of the interior. Check it out below:

Looking further into the room there was a rather old fresco (I think) above the open fireplace. The red signs on the wood below reads: “Please do not touch the painting. It was drawn circa 1625 and is very fragile”.

I wasn’t the only person peering through the glass to try and learn more about this intriguing building.

Down at the bottom of the street, but in no way at the bottom of the pile, is the The Catching Lives Bookshop. It’s famous for its crooked doorway.

Charles Dickens visited Canterbury and is quoted (in the doorway) as describing the house as follows: ”..A VERY OLD HOUSE BULGING over the road…leaning forward, trying to see who was passing on the narrow pavement below…” (1849)

Built in around 1615, the dodgy doorway is said to have been caused when a chimney was altered.

The bookshop is run by volunteers and sales go to homelessness charity Catching Lives.

Thanks for reading.

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Oak timbers: All Saints Lane, Canterbury

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All Saints Lane is a residential cul-de-sac (apologies to anyone living there who saw me peering in) which has one incredible stretch of timber framing. Turns out you can rent one of the cottages and they have their own website. Possibly the least information you’ll find on any website, however.

All Saints Cottage is dated to the 1500s and is described on the Historic England website as an “L-shaped timber-framed range.” According to this TripAdvisor review, it “was a pilgrims’ rest associated with Eastbridge Hospital. It later became cottages. At one time, a school of dancing operated on its upper level, which comprises one, very long room.”

I hope those dancers didn’t bang their heads too often on those low-hanging oak beams! Looking at these these buildings from the outside, it’s the squiffy-ness that can give a sense of their age. This is not a technical term, but if it’s neat and tidy it’s probably from the 1900s.

I think a lot of people consider all doors in England to look like this. They don’t.

These are the other demons I mentioned in a previous post. The one on the left hand side has hoofs, the one on the right seems to be a lion with a mane. It seems the hoofs are indicative of a demonic or devilish nature.

In this photo from the AirBnB page you can see how it’s been swallowed up by a side extension. Poor timbers.

If you’re not staying for the night, All Saints Lane is a dead-end, so your only option is to head back out onto St. Peter’s Street.

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Oak timbers: St. Peter’s Street, Canterbury

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A really good guide for buildings in Canterbury can be found here.

I recently visited the English city of Canterbury, encountering many, many timber-framed buildings. I photographed so many that I drafted one post and found it was far too long and complex for this blog. So I have broken it up to focus on a couple at a time.

St. Peter’s Street on a busy Saturday morning. You can see the diversity of building types which show how old the townscape is. Right in the distance the tower of Westgate can be glimpsed, dating to the late 1300s, it’s the largest surviving city gate in England. That is obviously a building I didn’t manage to photograph!

On St. Peter’s Street you can see number 13, a building that houses a charity shop and a barbers. It’s got lots of signs of renovation with a few old elements standing out. The building dates to around the 1600s.

Note the beautiful carvings of the wooden ‘barge boards’ in the gables.

At the side you can see an old entrance way outlined in black. It’s a very small door.

These demons are designed to protect the building’s inhabitants from, well, demons I suppose. More of them to come in a later post. You can see where smaller, older windows have been filled in between them.

The Old Weavers’ house A.D. 1500. This is a well-photographed spot as it’s clearly visible from the bridge over the Great Stour where the boat tour company wait for business.

Here you can see the river. It has the feel of something out of Bruges, situated along a waterbody in this way. Interestingly it is thought to have been built to house weavers fleeing religious persecution in Flanders (i.e. Belgium)!

This is an possibly early 20th Century image of the building with a better view of the river, technically.

Thanks for reading.

More timbers

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Oak timbers: St. Mary’s Churchyard, Horsham

24-26, The Causeway, Horsham, West Sussex

This post is a bit misleading (hello, Prime Minister) as it’s about a house at the edge of St. Mary’s Churchyard in Horsham, West Sussex. Apologies if you’ve navigated here expecting something more numinous. Here a beautiful old house resides. The problem is it’s name is not exactly blogpost title worthy, and I can’t think of anything snappy. It’s at the end of the famous Causeway, a road that’s renowned for its colourful timber-framed and weather-boarded buildings.

The house is simply called 24-26. It’s dated to 1615 and has since been broken into three properties and extended along the churchyard’s edge. The trees to the right hand side are lime trees that form an avenue along the Causeway, illustrated below at a younger stage:

The Causeway, Horsham, page 112 Book about the Highways and Byways of Co. Sussex, England (via Wikimedia Commons)

There’s no doubt it will have been built with oak timbers from the oak woods of the Sussex Weald nearby, likely from the extensive, pre-modern range of St. Leonard’s Forest.

It is currently covered by hanging tiles and plastering on the street-facing side, meaning no typical black timber frontage can be seen from the outside.

Here’s the Historic England official listing.

Thanks for reading.

Daniel

Oak timbers: new post series

Hi everyone. This year I’m starting a new blog series alongside my regular macro, fungi and Sussex Weald posts.

This series focuses on the use of oak trees in the construction of old buildings in England, mainly in Sussex where I live.

I’ve also launched a Ko-fi page if you want to support my work through a donation of some kind. Thank you to everyone has been so generous. The main aim of this is to help cover the £200 annual costs of hosting this website and also my podcasting platform.

Oak as a tree species is a key area of research, creativity and learning for me. This comes from the general love we nurture towards oak trees in England, but more from my time working in an oak woodland and the subsequent understanding I gained from teaching myself about the cultural and ecological significance of the species around the world.

The Chesil Rectory, Winchester, England

Oak trees were once a key resource in Britain and Europe, in the production of timber for construction and the other uses of the materials that arise from an oak tree. Here I mean bark used for the leather tanning industry.

Timber-framed cottages have become sought after by some of the wealthiest in society, when once they were the main timber used by some of the poorest in European society. The aim here is to draw a link between the landscape and human civilisation, not to promote expensive properties for estate agents in SE England!

The Lavenham Guildhall in Suffolk, eastern England

With this photographic research project I want to document these buildings but also to tell their stories.

The first post will be arriving this month. I would really appreciate comments, information and suggestions around these subjects as the point here is for me to learn but also to share any knowledge and nice images.

Wishing you all the best and I look forward to sharing the images and research with you.

Daniel

The Sussex Weald: Happy 800th autumn to you, old oak

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Cowdray Park, Sussex Weald, September 2019

It’s a grey and dark September evening. Robins sing solitary from trees in their autumnal fashion. Cars wash nearby on the A272, to and from the village of Easebourne. The bracken rests in stages of green, yellow and brown. In Cowdray Park a sign warns of the bull in the field, but there are no cattle. The only beasts are the trees sat across the undulating hillside of parkland. Here lives the 1000 year old Queen Elizabeth oak and the Cowdray Colossus, the biggest sweet chestnut in England.

I pass creeping thistle still in flower and others with their leaves thinning to a translucent yellowy green. Walking under one of the ancient oaks, it looks like a rabbit’s head, its heartwood torn out and lying on the ground. An alcove has become of its bark, like a doorway to another place. It’s a fair metaphor, the word oak derives from an old name for door.

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The second oldest oak sits on the hill, its heartwood also lost, mainly trampled out by cattle and people. But now it has a fence around it. In front of the fence stands a roe deer. It watches me in complete stillness. I approach one slow step at a time, taking a photo each time I get closer. Soon it turns on its heels and disappears off behind the tree, springing into the air. I see it rising up and down beyond the fence like a merry-go-round.

I approach the oak and see it is producing acorns. How many millions of acorns has this sessile oak tree produced in its 800 or so years of life. How many autumns has it lived through? Perhaps as many as 800. Our lives seem so small and precious, fragile in comparison to this natural treasure.

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Free guided walk: trees in Dulwich Park, August 2019

Dulwich oaks 2016-4

I’m very pleased to share this invite to a guided walk I’m leading at Dulwich Park in south London on Saturday 10th August 2019. The walk will begin at 11am and run for about 90 minutes to two hours, meeting at the Court Lane Gates.

The walk is free and there is no need to book.

I would encourage anyone who wants to donate to support London Wildlife Trust in their work at Sydenham Hill Wood and the wider Great North Wood and/or become a member of The Dulwich Society.

The walk is general interest and is open to all. It will be a way to learn how to identify common British trees and delve into their natural and cultural history.

I have lots more info about woods and trees on this page.

Please share the poster on social media if you want to!

Dulwich_Park_tree_walk_2019

My previous posts about oak trees in Dulwich Park can be read here. This story of the historic Great North Wood (which Dulwich Park is a part of) will also be of interest.

Hope to see some people there(!).

Daniel

 

Land of the lousewort: healing a broken landscape in the White Carpathians

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In September 2017 I visited the White Carpathians on the Czech side of the Czech-Slovak border. The White Carpathians hold wood pasture meadows with the highest plant diversity on Earth per square metre. This is a landscape heavily impacted by people but may be fairly close to the pre-human ‘wildernesses’ of Europe. Here conservation efforts have yielded great success in preserving part of a once international wildlife corridor.

The White Carpathians, Czechia (a.k.a Czech Rep.), September 2017

The sun beats down on the village of Vápenky and in the trees high winds blow off from over the White Carpathians. The sky is a deep, summer blue but in the orchards the colours of autumn are appearing. The meadows are dry and grain-coloured, red apples and green pears drop into the cropped grass.

We follow the forestry road through tall beech woods that stand like the framework of a cathedral incomplete. The wind lashes them but some stillness rests in the opening low between the silver-grey trunks. The limestone quarry track bends up and over into a clearing where the forestry machines have deeply rutted the road. They have also cleared the trees but for one long, thin beech that stands alone, its bark bleached by the sun.

The landscape of a recently deforested area is shocking, wreckage. But this industry is one of the most important in the whole of Czechia. Many lives are sustained by it. Still, I wish we could find a way for horses to still remain an integral part – something I’ve seen in Romania – and that its culture was not so macho, chauvinist and driven by putting profit above good ecological stewardship.

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The clearing of trees has opened up views of the valley, showing forested mountains and peach rooftops. For a country that is nowhere near as pious as neighbours Poland and Germany, each village or town has it church, climbing above all else.

We are looking for a nature reserve called Porážky but our map failed to show the road we were taking some time ago. We speak to a Czech woman heading down a track with freshly picked parasol mushrooms in her hand. She points us back up the trackway, fingernails cut and painted indigo, her hair dyed reddish-brown.

The end of forestry land is always marked by a boost in tree diversity. Here hornbeam, a tree of no forestry value, grows. So too hazel, oak and small-leaved lime – the Czech national tree. These are all species of the pre-industrial forestry age, wildwood species of great use to human hand and hearth, but not the modern machine.

Light breaks through the edging of broadleaved wood to reveal grasslands and the sky atop the hill. Again the wind gusts. Reaching its top we enter Porážky, the protected area of wood pasture we had hoped to find. The landscape is cropped grass and single oaks. You would have not the slightest idea that these are the richest meadows on earth.

They are a man-made and exploited habitat, but they are the truest symbol of harmony between people and nature. In fact, they may even be closer to what the pre-human woodland landscape of Europe was like, due to the cropping of large, roaming groups of wild grazing animals we have now made extinct. ‘Rewilding’ in its purest or most puritanical form wants that world back.

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The White Carpathians are the lowest lying, most westerly extent of the Carpathians massif, stretching east to Romania where they reach their zenith. It is a landscape that holds great mystery, wildness and fascinating human cultures. What a life it could be to travel back and forth across the range, witnessing its wildlife and spending time with the people making a living from its soils, woods and meadows.

Eddie, my hiking companion, and I, have been to their furthest point, and there, too, are found meadows of great diversity. In Romania ancient traditions are dying out as people move to cities – what contrarily is thought to be the driving force behind the return of wolf, bear and other megafauna – the rewilder’s dream. In the White Carpathians conservation initiatives have led to the protection of the meadows and their continued management.

Two days ago we visited the headquarters of the Bílé Karpaty protected landscape area or CHKO in Veselí nad Moravou where we learned that one of the great successes for the organisation has been the return of orchards to the landscape. Vast tracts of this landscape have been returned from arable farming to species-rich grassland, righting wrongs of the post-war Soviet era. Fruit trees have returned because they offer something in return to local people – fruit.

Here in Moravia the Czechs have achieved great things. Grasslands are the most threatened habitat in the world, due to intensive agriculture, afforestation and development, and they have succeeded in both conserving what remains and bringing it back in other areas.

I have recently taken an interest in the Twitter account of Tibor Hartel, an ecologist in Romania whose work includes the mapping of ancient wood pasture. Unlike Czechia, Romanian wood pasture is poorly protected and local groups and individuals must act independently to save these amazing places often, it would seem, without government help. Imagine that this landscape once ran across the Carpathians, from Moravia, through the Ukraine, to Transylvania in the eastern corner of Europe. Even Prince Charles has taken an interest.

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Walking through Porážky it has the feel of an English parkland, the single oaks dotted amongst the green. I first visited here in 2014, hiking over the meadows with Libor Ambrozek, the former Czech Environment Minister and then head of the White Carpathians protected landscape area, or CHKO. I was blown away, the sheer abundance of orchids and the fact of its singular richness. In May 2014 a storm blew in and we were drenched in the open pasture. Today the wind overwhelms and the sun bears down, the glare intense.

Jays pass almost every few seconds, back and forth to stash acorns. They are in the process of ‘scatter-hoarding’the act of burying acorns in places that may well one day grow into the new oak trees of this landscape. These are birds in an autumn-pique. Beyond them buzzards soar but the wind deters the smaller species. In the grasslands clouded yellow butterflies feed on knapweeds and dandelions, red admirals bolt from the dark plantations. We find a single aspen, its trunk crooked, whipped north by decades of strong winds. Half its canopy shows red in its leaves.

To many this kind of landscape is at odds with the contemporary ethic of rewilding, or ‘allowing land to return to its natural state’. If that were to happen here many species would become extinct. One plant clinging on, Pedicularis exaltata, a species of lousewort, is only found in this area away from other localities in Belarus, Ukraine and Romania. Its presence suggests a once-continuous wood pasture landscape across the Carpathians between the Czech-Slovak border and eastern Romania. It can’t be seen today as it flowers in spring and summer. Instead the ground is dotted with meadow saffron, a pink crocus.

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The wood pasture as it looks today was created and ‘refined’ thousands of years ago by people clearing woodland – likely of oak, ash, hornbeam and hazel – to allow their domesticated cattle and goats and Mesopotamian sheep to graze. At least that is the common understanding, for could the presence of large, roaming groups of wild horses, bison, elk and other herbivores have meant a landscape more open than the idea of coast-to-coast closed canopy woodland? Compared with today’s measure, the deforestation work of our species was sustainable deforestation due to the population sparsity, moving a possibly more dense wildwood to something more open in places.

The current management and conservation of wood pasture relates to the belief that habitats which are species-rich are the ones which are most important and valuable. But they need to be maintained. If their management involves local people, provides sustenance and perhaps employment, it will work, especially in a place like Czechia. This may lack the perceived poetry of rewilding, but its practicality brings results: the continued existence of the world’s most important wildflower meadows and all the other chains of life which depend on them.

With thanks to my travel companion Eddie Chapman, friend and guardian Zuzana Veverkova, Ivana Jongepierova and everyone at the CHKO office.

 

Oaks of London: Bexley and Beckenham oaks on the edge

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This is an update on my Oaks of London photography series. The photos have been taken with DSLRs, compact cameras and my phone camera. Rather than trying to put together a glossy array of ancient oak photos, I want to draw attention to the unseen trees fighting it out with modern London, many of which are teetering on the margins. Lack of funding to protect and manage London’s oaks is biting, as is a lack of understanding and appreciation of their heritage and wildlife value. These trees have stories to tell.

Photographing the oaks of London is a fairly impossible but very slow and enjoyable project. South-east London is, quite literally, a walk in the park. Such is the extent of green space south of the river that there are many oaks to be found and some very closely concentrated, especially in Dulwich or Honor Oak, which I covered last year. But moving into new areas can be tricky, London’s oaks are on the margins now, they no longer form the central, spiritual role of Celtic or event recent times, when gospel oaks held prominence in settlements or when the Druids (the knowers of oak) made sacrifices before them, something I am not suggesting we bring back in 2017. One of the things I’ve learned this year, also after having read some of Aljos Farjon’s new book Ancient Oaks in the English Landscape, is that old parks and estates are key to the survival of oaks.

In March 2017 as part of a walk with London Wildlife Trust, we were led by Mathew Frith around Danson Park and Bexley Woods. Two oaks stood out in this walk, an area I would not have known about without the connections I have with the Trust and exposure to knowledge of people like Mathew. One oak, the Bexley Charter Oak, can be found in TimeOut’s The Great Trees of London, and it has a lovely fence around it protecting its root plate. The tree is some 200 years old and reflects the treatment that all these oaks deserve to have, if they stand in similar surroundings.

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Another oak is not faring so well and is not treated with the same level of affection, or perhaps simply a different kind. Walking through Bexley Woods and following the river Shuttle east brings you to an oak quite unlike one I’ve seen.

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The oak is entirely hollowed out until about human waist-height, with charred sapwood that shows it has had fires lit inside. It is a stunning tree, wild and exposed on the edge of the river and a footpath. It is a symbol of London’s oaks on the edge: unprotected, vandalised but fighting on. The tree still lives. In many ways the actions here of what you can only expect to have been children or ‘wayward’ teens, is a process of veteranisation. The only difference is that rather than being undertaken by arboriculturalists, it’s the unintended work of the public.

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Shifting south-west to the boundary of Lewisham and Bromley is Beckenham Place Park. This old country estate, fit with a mansion house very similar in style to that of Danson Park, has open parkland and many fine veteran trees. On the hill is a remnant of the Great North Wood, the typical oak-hornbeam and hazel mixture that can be found in chunks all the way up to Dulwich. Thanks to Lucy Mitchell for showing me round.

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The oak featured here is a lapsed pollard, meaning that it was likely once cut back higher up but has, like many old oak and beech trees across London, been left to restructure itself. This oak is somewhere between the two Bexley oaks mentioned above. It needs the care of the Bexley Charter Oak as it is experiencing stress and strain from its exposure to footfall. Looking closely at the buttresses you could see that dogs had been digging holes, pooing on the roots, and that the collective trampling was exposing roots in some places. It’s a tree you just want to hug and climb, but its spot right there in front of the house leaves it open to quiet, unintended harm.

Oaks of London archive
Oaks of London Flickr photos

Oaks of London: Clapham Common oak

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This English oak is easily missed, to the point where I didn’t notice it was an oak until looking at the photo later. This early spring sunshine is the kind that brings people to sit underneath trees, like the man in the distance on Clapham Common. His bike is resting against the trunk behind him.

Oaks of London