Tuesday 20 November 2012

Trees: Elms, Poplars, Oaks

Nothing stays the same and this is never more true when considering how much Kingsley and its landscape have changed over the years since I was a boy in the village.
The most dramatic and, indeed, speedy change occurred as a result of Dutch Elm Disease. This wiped out twenty million elms within a decade in the UK. As far as Kingsley was concerned there had been a large and healthy elm tree presence before the disease struck. The mature elms, of which I speak, were nothing if not magnificent. They were huge both in girth and height and, of course, provided homes for a vast range of wildlife. The trees were scattered all around the vale between Kingsley and Worldham, over into Oakhanger and across the fields towards Buckshorn Oak and beyond. They were an integral part of the landscape, huge and gentle upon the eye.
Readers might recall an earlier article regarding the pond which was filled in beside Alice Holt Forest where I used to go and watch various wildlife. On the east of that pond the, raised up, causeway had a whole row of huge elms upon it. The road out of Kingsley from Dean Farm towards Bakers Corner had lots of huge elms on either side,and beyond where the railway bridge once was,there were some of the biggest specimens. On the right hand side up to the Bakers Corner junction the bank had a large elm every few yards and on the junction itself and up the old lane towards St Nicolas church there were many of them. I suppose the most staggering thing about Dutch Elm Disease was just how quickly it hit those trees and caused their destruction. Much was written about the disease in the press and those of us who lived in Kingsley were well aware that it was around. But, somehow, those huge trees seemed almost invincible to me and I really did not believe they could be wiped out as was being stated widely.
How wrong I was. First of all their leaves began to wilt and then discolour and gradually the whole tree was in a sorry state. Once the tree was infected there was no hope for it and before long it was cut down. I have no idea if the timber of an infected tree was still useable. I suppose the trees had to come down as a large dead elm would probably have been a major danger. Any way down they came and in a few months the face of Kingsley had changed and probably changed for ever. I recall that a great deal of research was carried out into the disease at the Forestry Commission’s Alice Holt research station but I have no idea if healthy elms will ever grace our countryside again. Anyone not knowing what a mature elm looked like or the impact it made upon the countryside can get a pretty good idea by looking at the many Constable prints that exist and feature elms. The Haywain being just one of them. It is probably the fact that elms were so wide spread and impressive,(before the disease), that Constable featured them in his work.
The other trees which played a major part in the lives of small boys in Kingsley were the poplars which were on either side of the railway line in both directions and in varying lengths between Bentley and Bordon stations. Our particular group was between Kingsley Halt and the Kingsley Mill bridge. The railway authorities pollarded the poplars at about six or eight feet of height and this caused them to clump. From that point the new growth that followed would send up thin new stems which were left to grow for a few years before being cut back again to the original pollarding point. I have no idea why the railways went to so much trouble when the trees could have been left to do their own thing. However, I am sure there must have been a reason I just don’t know what it was. From a boys point of view there were many benefits which, no doubt, the railway people were just as unaware of. These benefits came in the form of providing wonderful nesting sites for a number of birds. Where the trees had been pollarded the clump that followed and the new shoots sprouting from it provided good cover and a secure location. As the trees aged many of them developed hollow areas which attracted other birds which preferred to nest in holes. Little Owls for example. In addition Stock Doves and Pigeons with an occasional Jackdaw also used the poplars for their nesting sites. The trees themselves were not without beauty as their leaves were a dark green on one side and a silver colour on the other. This resulted in an attractive rippling effect when the wind was blowing and also a characteristic rustling noise.
After the loss of the elms, the most significant trees in the fields around the village were, of course, the oaks and these gnarled giants provided sanctuary for a whole host of life forms, birds, insects, butterflies and moths. Our attentions centered primarily upon the birds and those were predominately crows which nested high in the branches of the oaks. There were a number of old oaks on the right hand side of the old lane beyond St Nicolas Church,towards Binsted,which had hollow areas in them and these, (still there), usually housed owls and or jackdaws each season.
Other trees of importance to us were Hazels and Chestnut each provided nuts, and as previously mentioned, the Hazel all manner of implements for little boys.
Since beginning this article the Ash tree has come under attack from some foreign virus and the predictions for its future are gloomy. The Ash in and around Kingsley provided us with sticks to make into walking sticks, this, because of its great strength. Ash had traditionally been used for wheel spokes and tool handles, again because of the strength of the wood. It would appear that yet again our wonderful politicians have done nothing and the problem is now at an advanced state. I suppose our rural areas will once again be subjected to dramatic change as the Ash tree follows the Elm into obscurity. I started this piece by writing, nothing stays the same, having written the last couple of sentences, it occurs to me that, actually, there is one thing that remains pretty constant. Our politicians remain just about as useless and ineffectual as they always did!

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