A jay swoops through the trees in silence, landing on an oak branch, an acorn held in its bill. A friend and I have a running gag. Wherever we see a jay we send a text or voice recording to eachother:
It originates from a trip to the White Carpathians mountains in Czechia one September. The bird we saw again and again was the jay. Always travelling around with or for acorns. As is now commonly known now, jays scatter-hoard thousands of acorns every year. They have helped pioneer Europe’s great oak woodlands along with squirrels and other smaller caching mammals.
Here in the Sussex Weald I find a fallen acorn split down its centre. The tannin red catches my eye. The shell is cracked because the acorn is shooting, seeking soil to establish itself in.
I’m tracing an old ditch or woodbank looking for fungi to photograph. There is an almost comical halt to the woodland where the heathland and its diminishing ranks of pine begin and the broadleaf oaks end. Marking that edge is an astonishing beech tree. Let me explain.
Part of the tree’s root plate has lifted. The lignified roots have become hardened like a drystone wall. They have developed into a lattice-work of branches, their function forever entangled by their appearance above ground.
The tree must have fallen about fifty years ago. But it has not died. Where the old trunk hit the other bank of the ditch it has made a sharp turn towards the sky to grow anew. Trees can teach us that to fall is rarely to fail.
I stand on the long, straight track that cuts through the heart of St. Leonard’s Forest. I recently looked for it on a map from the 1870s. I thought it might have been a 20th Century addition to ease forestry operations. To my surprise, it was there cutting through what today remains a heavily wooded landscape.
Looking around, it’s probably even more wooded now. In the 1870s, the woodland was likely oak and beech with holly underneath. Where pines now stand abandoned to nature, heathland probably expanded over more open areas.
The name ‘forest’ actually denotes open land where laws once controlled gathering of natural resources and the hunting of animals, with brutal consequences for rule breakers. ”Aforestation’ was the implementation of Forest Law on more land, often at the expense of entire vilages of people.
At one point in history, a third of England was subject to Forest Law. It was a landscape of oppression, violently enforced by England’s Norman conquerers after 1066. The management and control of deer was a key part of the Norman forest landscape.
The track is endless in this crepuscular light. At the edges ditches are stuffed with bracken which has yellowed in the August heatwave. Sudden explosions of heather interrupt the vertebra-like leaves of the bracken.
Ahead I can see two people or animals. The light is fading, the sun has slipped beyond the pines. As I get closer I can see one is a roe deer. The other figure has gone. The deer are grazing the edges of the ditches, stopping to check on my progress. I’m moving slowly, but hurrying with my hands to change the lens on my little camera to one with more reach. I get closer but it doesn’t fear me. It turns and walks away into the dark woodland.
Walking further down the old track, a pathway, broad and green appears on my left. Two fallow deer are looking at me. They must have been grazing with the calm roe I have just passed, but they are less accepting. They scarper, one zig-zagging and leaping to distract what is a would-be predator.
Then, from the bushes, a roe deer has been startled and lurches across the path into the undergrowth that the fallow deer has disappeared into. Squashed into that small green lane, that burst of animal limbs felt almost like watching a stampede.
The last day of autumn. The final patches of beech, oak, hazel and birch leaves are all that resist the darkest greens and browns of a winter wood. The green leaflets of an elder dangle out across the path, the only ones left on the entire tree.
Grey squirrels round the trees in small groups, like people wrapping a maypole in its ribbons. They are elf-like in a place where little else moves. I stop to take a photo of a biscuit-brown pine tree and a woman waits alongside me.
‘I thought you’d seen an animal,’ she says when I look, her dog carrying on ahead of her.
‘Just squirrels,’ I say.
She laughs: ‘Oh, yes. Plenty of those!’
The gill is full as it slaloms down through the woods. In a pond at the edge of the path fallen oak leaves rest in perfect stillness.
At the foot of the heath, golden mushrooms grow in the soil amidst the remains of bracken. They are so easy to miss. They’re trumpet chanterelles, a species as edible as the original. Like all the mushrooms I photograph, I’m not here to pick or eat them. Their trumpets curve out like gramophones, their stipes sinuous, yellow and tapering like a birch trunk.
These are autumn’s final moments. The frosts are creeping in, our breaths stolen away on the air as they leave our lips.
Cowdray Park, West Sussex, South Downs National Park, February 2019
Leaving work at five o’clock in the dark is never nice but it depends how you look at it. Inspired by the Dark Night Skies initiative, I made a stop off on my way home to see some stars. I have been photographing trees in the dark since about 2008, mainly of trees under street lamps in south London. It was something to do in those long, drawn out winter evenings. Since then I have started photographing trees in the daylight, too. Having had the chance to volunteer and work in woodland conservation has taught me a lot about trees and their ecology. Having moved away from practical woodland conservation in the day-to-day sense, though still leading the odd tree walk, I am reveling in photographing some of the trees that are found throughout Sussex. One of the trees I have had the pleasure of spending some time with is the Queen Elizabeth I sessile oak in the South Downs National Park. This tree is completely hollow and has perhaps been around for 1000 years.
Photographing the same tree again and again isn’t always interesting for you or other people. A recent interest in the night sky (the fact I can now see it, being away from a city, rather than knowing anything beyond the moon and the plough) gave me the idea to use the early nightfall to try and photograph this amazingly old tree under the stars.
The photos were taken with a wide angle lens and a tripod. I used my mobile phone torch to light the tree. The bright light above is the moon, something that plays havoc with night photography due to the fact it outshines many of the stars.
The problem with my phone torch is that it goes off after a while so I had to trot back and forth to keep the light on. In this light the tree looks fleshy and bulbous, quite animal-like I think.
When the mobile phone torch light did go out, this is how it looked. I like how the branches reach out to the stars and the astronomically-illiterate thought that they might get snagged in them.
There are many ancient trees at Cowdray Park in West Sussex near Midhurst. It is almost a point of pilgrimage for people who love old trees and feel some kind of emotional connection to the eldest we have left. This oak has lost almost all of its heartwood and has sinewy remnants decaying inside the bark. I love the purple hue in this photo and the way the distortion of the 10mm wide angle lens warps the trees in the background. I love the rawness of the tree in itself and the stars touching the outstretched twigs.
This is an expanded version of an article published in the winter 2017-18 edition of London Wildlife Trust‘s Wild London magazine
As autumn draws to a close, the bare branches of trees stark against wintry skies, we find ourselves on the tail-end of a mast year for London’s acorns. Mast is another name for nuts or seeds, with beech nuts often referred to as ‘beech-mast’. It means a time when the weather and temperatures in spring and summer have created the right conditions for a bumper crop.
Oaks are wind-pollinated, one of nature’s first reproductive mechanisms for plants that evolved very early on land with the arrival of spore-bearing mosses hundreds of millions of years ago. Trees like cherry and others in the rose family, are pollinated by bees, butterflies, moths and flies.
Though cherries are far tastier than acorns, the oak’s fruit is one of the most important to us for several reasons. When acorns fall many of them will simply fail in the leaf litter or decay away to feed the soil. Birds like jays will stash acorns and plant thousands of them to keep them alive over the winter. Grey squirrels do exactly the same.
If you think about it, and scientists have been, this is one of the most important vehicles for woodland creation on Earth. It’s also one of the reasons that oak woods were able to recolonise the Northern Hemisphere after the end of the last glacial period some 12-14,000 years ago.
If any of those jays died or forgot some of their acorns, they sprouted into trees and woods, many of which would eventually form great woody landscapes adapted and exploited to what we now know as the Great North Wood, Epping Forest, the Weald and the New Forest.
In North America there were entire cultures of Native Americans who built their lifestyles on a diet of acorns. Beneath their shells acorns are nuts that can be ground down for flour, coffee or even jelly.
In Britain the hazelnut is one of the single most important food sources for our species, especially before the advent of farming when hunter gatherers relied on foraging to survive. Archaeologists have found regular evidence of hazel nut shells at prehistoric settlement sites, sometimes in vast numbers. There is also evidence that our ancestors cooked hazel into a paste that could be taken on long journeys.
But perhaps the most fascinating cultural impact of the acorn is when it is missing, and in its place a parasite. In the spring tiny parasitic wasps appear from galls, a growth (sometimes referred to as a tumour) that has prospered in the place of an acorn, and lay their own eggs in an acorn bud. A chemical reaction takes place in the tissue of the plant and a gall is formed.
There are many species of gall, and many of them are not instigated by solitary wasps, but one of the most significant for human civilisation is that of the oak apple gall.
The oak apple gall was imported to Britain over a 1000 years ago for its prime use in the creation of ink. The galls can be ground down and mixed with chemicals to make a black ink. It was this ink that was used to write almost all of the major doctrines and political agreements in the western world.
The Magna Carta and the American Declaration of Independence are but two of them and, indeed, that sylvan scripture known as the Forest Charter of 1217 will also have been transcribed in oak ink. Amazingly, it was only in the 1970s that the German government stopped using oak gall ink for use in all official documentation.
London’s other notable seeds are those of horse chestnut, beech and sweet chestnut. Horse chestnuts, named after the horseshoe-shape at the base of the leaf stem or petiole when plucked from a branch, are not related to sweet chestnuts. Neither of these trees are deemed native to the United Kingdom, and sweet chestnut sits in with the oaks in the beech family.
If you roasted chestnuts on an open fire at Christmas it will be those of the sweet, not the horse chestnut. Sweet chestnuts are the fruit found inside painfully spikey shells, very similar to the horse chestnut.
For the more childish among us, the horse chestnut is really known as the conker tree. The sight of a glossy brown conker in roadside leaf piles in autumn is a thing of wonder. The maple family’s seeds may not be palatable, but the game of ‘helicopters’ was one of great pleasure for school children before the arrival of smartphones.
Though we often focus on the edibility of plants and their fruit and seeds, the crops of trees like rowan, oak and beech have an impact on the activity and behaviour of birds in autumn. In October there can be seen large movements of jays, with birds acting quickly to secure seeds and plant them in a suitable location.
A jay massaging its way high across an open field, heading to and from an oak or beech wood, is a common sight in the early autumn. Redwing, a winter arrival in the UK, rely on rowan’s bright red fruit. Changes in the Scandinavian crop can trigger the movements of this species south as winter draws in.
Where old, fruit-packed hedgerows still exist in the UK, heavy with rosehips, haws and holly berries, redwings can be found feasting. From places as far apart as rural moorland and urban London, their distinctive but subtle tseep calls can be heard overhead at night.
Those nocturnal calls can be a pleasant reminder of the changing season, of the fundamental need for fruit and seed for the wild and civilised alike.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.