A Claylands Diary, March

Crow Green, an almost triangle of common land, half a mile south of my home, is wooded with ash and sycamore and an impenetrable tangle of blackthorn.  A black and white aerial photograph from 1946 shows the common more open and grassy and my father remembers cattle here, a few years after the photograph, when he crossed it each morning, heading for school.

Beneath the tall trees are a few stout pollards of holly and hawthorn, the knobbly, twisted trunks telling that when they were young, these trees were severed at head height and allowed to re-grow, possibly year after year. The holly would have been cut for animal fodder; the spineless evergreen leaves at the top providing scant sustenance for cattle in a desperate winter. The hawthorn pollards are rarities, something I’ve seldom seen anywhere else. They might have been cut for faggots – bundles of sticks used for bread ovens and fires. Cutting small timber from pollards as once the right of commoners, perhaps from the nearby cottages and local poor houses, such as the one that is now a house to the north, often used faggots for heating and cooking.

The wooded common ends in a seasonal stream, running with late-winter rainwater, forming a parish boundary since Saxon times. Beyond, a complex of ancient woodland and derelict wood pasture has twisting hornbeam pollards, like sentinels along the boundary, leaning out to the light over a deep, dark water filled ditch. These trees, with their hollows and cracks, once had some importance as markers between different landholdings, but now are mostly prized for the home their fissured bark gives to insects and bats. Deeper into the wood are small-leaved lime, oak, silver birch and hazel trees heavy with catkins.

Much of the land here is damp, cold clay, so flowers often come late, yet this year, in sheltered spots, dog’s mercury has been in flower since mid-February, its coy green petals nodding in the breeze, beneath the still bare branches. Winter has taken its toll here, with one of the two black poplars having crashed to the ground in an early February storm. This was a favourite tree of mine, towering above the others and I am saddened to see it down, the splintered, empty trunk revealing that its demise must have been coming for years. This is a tree of hedges and open spaces, so its presence in a wood is an oddity and must hark back a generation or two, when this woodland was a mosaic of pasture and coppice wood. Black poplars have been declining across England for several decades, but they grow well from rooted cuttings, so I remind myself to speak with the landowner and find a suitable place to plant a new sapling or two. In my lifetime, they would only ever be young trees, but someone else, one future day, might also stop to look up at the tallest tree in the forest and run their hands intothe bark’s deep, rough crevices.


032aHornbeam pollard in summer

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