Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Great Trees of England #4: King of Limbs

M Porter
As the Joshua Tree is in the USA, and the Porcupine Tree isn't real, I guess this is the only British tree with a rock album named after it.

Thom Yorke doesn't like the album being called 'experimental', but to my folk and metal attuned ears that's what it sounds like. A native of neighbouring Oxfordshire, he said he chose to name it after a tree over the border in Wiltshire as "environmental worries in my head have become this weird obsession."

King of Limbs is one of several 'significant' trees in the mighty Savernake forest. This wonderful place, on the edge of the almost equally wonderful town of Marlborough, is four and a half thousand acres of oak and beech forest. It is the only ancient woodland in England in which you can really lose yourself.

M Porter
There is history here. A Roman road crosses it, it is mentioned in an Anglo-Saxon document of 934AD, it was given away as war booty by William the Conqueror, Henry VIII met one of his father-in-law's here and in World War II it was an ammunition dump.

The forest is owned by the Earl of Cardigan, descendant of him of Light Brigade fame. In 1985 a convoy of New Age Travellers camped there before heading off the next day to their own Valley of Death in the Battle of the Beanfield.

This recent heritage sits lightly on the forest. Under the canopy of great trees I think of Roger Deacon's phrase that being in a forest is like being under the ocean, with the tops of the trees the surface. Immersed in this great inland sea of green it is just about possible to imagine a time when the trees really did stretch across this land from ocean to ocean.

Thanks to a smart little Forestry Commission run camp site you can stay virtually in the wood itself. If you are lucky to enjoy a clear night and a full moon then you can explore the forest by night and enter a truly magical world.

The sentinels of this night realm are the mighty oaks. All told there are close to a hundred important trees here. Indeed, it is thought that there is nowhere else in Europe you can find so many grand old veterans as in Savernake.

c. Zachariah Wildwood and Donald Twain.
According to local legend Merlin is buried next door in the grounds of Marlborough College. The Victorian designer and socialist William Morris was a pupil there and explored the woods in his spare time. Along with the other forests of his youth; Epping and the New Forest, the spirit of Savernake infused his writing.

In his later life, his socialist dreams in tatters and his marriage a sober ménage a trois with the Pre- Raphaelite painter and poet and Dante Gabrielle Rossetti, he escaped into a literary fantasy world. In The Wood Beyond The World the hero, betrayed by his wife, is haunted by the vision of beautiful woman who the hero eventually meets beyond a primeval forest.

M Porter
The quest for the King of Limbs is an enchanting walk across the length of the forest. On the way I
pass through the Arboretum and find myself rather incongruously standing next to a coastal redwood tree from California. I've campaigned to save these trees, but never expected to meet one in person.

Awesome though these foreigners are, they don't compare with the mighty oaks and beeches of the forest. The former outnumber the latter as they tend to fall over in storms. With wonderful names such as Spider Oak and Old Paunchy each old tree is a character in itself. To get to King of Limbs though I need to leave the broadleaf forest behind and enter the coniferous plantation that is the east of Savernak.

M Porter
Eventually the distintive profile of King of Limbs comes into sight through the fir trees. It is not the tallest or the largest tree in the forest, but it has the most dramatic profile, a great fan of limbs, and being set amongest short lived evergreens gives it the air of a venerable elder amongst juvenile trees. Like many of the older oaks it is also hollow, a place a to shelter from the English weather.

We are now on the edge of the forest and the real world of intensive mono-crops is starting to intrude. Just beyond the edge of the wood, in its own grounds, is Tottenham Court House, an "old country pile ... crumbling at the seams." where Radiohead recorded part of their album In Rainbows.

Perhaps Radiohead's music is not the first thing that comes to mind in Savernake Forest. Trad. instruments round the fire or the singing of distant harps would at first seem more appropriate,  but just as William Morris found an inspiration here that helped him transcend the ugliness of Victorian England and enter a proto-Middle Earth, the other-worldliness of these trees takes you to places in your imagination that you never expected to go, and that can include progressive indie rock.

No comments: