Queen’s Diamond Jubilee beacon on the Wrekin

There’s not going to be a beacon on the top of Shropshire’s Wrekin hill tonight, even though there will be a thousand beacons across the UK for the Queen’s 90th birthday. But back in 2012 for the Diamond Jubilee there was, and like a few hundred other people I climbed the hill in the dusk to see it lit.

Chains of beacons were used to warn of invasion, with watchers camped out beside bonfires on the top of prominent hills, waiting to set them ablaze as soon as the light from the previous one in the chain was seen. One of Macaulay’s poems (The Armada) describes a wave of such lighted beacons spreading out from Cornwall across England and Wales as the Spanish Armada approaches, and the Wrekin gets a mention:

Till the proud Peak unfurled the flag o’er Darwin’s rocky dales
Till like volcanoes flared to heaven the stormy hills of Wales,
Till twelve fair counties saw the blaze on Malvern’s lonely height,
Till streamed in crimson on the wind the Wrekin’s crest of light

Tolkien, who rooted his mythology in real history, also employed a chain of beacons and Peter Jackson’s “Return of the King” includes the scene.

More recently, beacons have been used for celebration as we’re seeing across the country tonight and in 2012. So back on the Wrekin, here is a photo of 2012’s bonfire, ready to go.


Then the moment itself. I could see at least one other beacon on distant hills by this point.


The fire quickly took hold of the whole bonfire, and I took pictures from further back showing more of the crowd and the plume of smoke and burning embers going up into the sky like Macaulay’s “crimson on the wind”.

wrekin_beacon_3 wrekin_beacon_4

Then we started drifting away and heading off down the familiar path, but for me it was the first time I’d done it in the dark. On the open ground on the top of the Wrekin it was ok, and there was a full moon, but once into the woods that cover most of the slopes of the hill it was tricky. Quiet a lot of phones appeared as makeshift torches, but I kept away from them to keep my eyes adjusted. As always, it takes about half as long to go down the Wrekin as to go up, and then back to my car, roads, streetlights, and home.

And this last picture is just in case you don’t know what Shropshire’s most famous hill looks like in daylight!


Ancient woodland at PMQs

Rebecca Pow asked David Cameron to protect ancient woodland as heritage sites during Prime Minister’s Questions today:

The full exchange was:

Rebecca Pow (Taunton Deane) (Con): On a slightly environmental note still, woodland is much valued—not least for recycling much of our hot air—and ancient woodland is especially valued. With only 2% remaining, it is as precious as the rain forests and its biodiversity cannot be replaced. The Prime Minister has 331 ancient and veteran trees in his constituency; does he agree that this precious habitat ought to be protected in line with heritage sites and national monuments?

The Prime Minister: I am very lucky to have in my constituency an ancient forest, the Wychwood forest, which probably contains many of the trees that my hon. Friend mentions. I shall look carefully at what she says. Perhaps the most important thing we can do is to make sure that we plant more forests, trees and woodland, on which this Government have a very good record.

Which isn’t a yes, and might be repeating the mistaken belief that planting new forests in fields in any way makes up for destroying ancient woodland ecosystems that may be thousands of years old.

Plenty of people on Twitter get it though:



Root plates

I really love root plates. They’re the disc of earth, stones, and roots that you often see when a big tree falls over. They reveal something otherwise hidden: a snapshot of what was going on a bit underground, directly under the trunk itself. The most surprising thing is just how shallow they are. Twenty metres of substantial tree trunk laid on the ground but only a foot or two of substantial roots.

Root plates naturally have a mention in Oliver Rackham’s magisterial “Woodlands”:

“until 1987 few English people understood what a tree’s root system looked like; some thought roots went as nearly as far below ground as stems above it. As the great storms of 1987 and 1990 showed, most trees in England are shallow rooted. It may be argued that deep-rooted trees were never uprooted, but anyone digging holes in a wood seldom meet roots more than 3 feet (1 metre) down. A giant beech can have a root-plate only a few inched deep, much less than the diameter of the trunk.”

This month I took pictures of pine and birch root plates in the woods above Carbeth and in the Black Wood of Rannoch in Scotland.

First these pictures from a stand of trees near the top of the Carbeth hutting site. You can see a double root plate with two trunks and then a single root plate. The third picture shows how shallow the root plates are, and the final picture puts them in context: right on the edge of the wood by an area of marshy ground before the huts start.

carbeth_rootplate_3 carbeth_rootplate_2 carbeth_rootplate_1 carbeth_rootplate_5

These next four are from the Black Wood of Rannoch just to the south of the Cairngorms national park. I’m writing a separate blog post about the wood, as it’s an important survival from the ancient Caledonian forest, but for now, let’s just look at some birch root plates. It striking how similar they look despite pine and birch being completely different species.

rannoch_rootplate_4 rannoch_rootplate_5
rannoch_rootplate_2 rannoch_rootplate_1

Finally, another pine root plate, taken in the rain in Grizedale Forest in the Lake District national park:
Root plate of fallen tree in Grizedale Forest

Root plates are formed when trees are unstable and fall over. A storm can help this, especially one in summer when deciduous trees are in full leaf. Rackham explains that trees have a lot more roots than they need to draw water and nutrients, and the excess is there for stability. Trees that can grow fewer roots than they want are more at risk. So being up against a river bank, or a road, or other trees doesn’t help. Paradoxically, it is more often the trees inside a wood than on the edges that get blown over by the wind, especially if the wood has been planted with an artificially high density.

There are lots of videos of trees falling and root plates forming on YouTube. This compilation is “Trees falling in nature”, although mostly they’re in gardens or struggling to balance in the grass verge beside a pavement:


“Feral”, Rewilding, and Hutting

feralSome books I pick up and march straight through in a quick campaign, forcing short or long engagements at every opportunity until the matter is concluded. Others I pick away at in a form of guerrilla warfare. Now I mostly read on a Kindle app, the temptation to neglect one book for another is greater too. George Monbiot’s book “Feral” has been subject to my hit-and-run tactics since I started it last year, after the publicity surrounding the launch of Rewilding Britain in July. This month I devoted some proper time to it, and now I’ve finished it I thought it would be interesting to look at the book from the point of view of hutting.

You can get a flavour of Monbiot’s argument from a piece he wrote at the time for his Guardian column:

We are surrounded by such broken relationships, truncated natural processes, cauterised ecologies. In Britain we lack almost all large keystone species: ecological engineers that drive the fascinating dynamics which allow other lifeforms to flourish. Boar, beavers, lynx, wolves, whales, large sharks, pelicans, sturgeon: all used to be abundant here; all but for a few small populations or rare visitors are missing.

The living systems that conservationists seek to protect in some parts of this country are a parody of the natural world, kept, through intensive management, in suspended animation, like a collection in a museum. An ecosystem is not just a place. It is also a process. I believe their diminished state also restricts the scope of human life. We head for the hills to escape the order and control that sometimes seem to crush the breath out of us. When we get there, we discover that the same forces prevail. Even our national parks are little better than wet deserts.

“Feral” was published a couple of years earlier in 2013, and starts with four chapters describing experiences Monbiot has had in wild places (at least from the point of view of urban Britain) which have shaped his argument. My guerrilla warfare was conducted in these chapters, and that may be because they didn’t work so well for me: I knew where he was going and wanted to read about that.

Lynx photographed by Bernard LandgrafThe fifth chapter takes on the complete implausibility of hidden populations of big cats in Britain, and then turns the controversy on its head to explain that not only would Britain be a very suitable place for the introduction of cats like lynx, they were probably here into the early middle ages until finally removed by hunting.

There’s a whole chapter devoted to engaging with hill farmers whose sheep are the “White Plague” in Monbiot’s view and are suppressing the natural regeneration of scrub and then woodland, and providing the habitats that would encourage lynx and the other larger animals like wild boar and wolves that are on the agenda. There’s a description of the economics of hill farming, the subsidies that are needed to keep it going, and the management rules that are imposed to ensure uplands don’t become overgrown with “unwanted vegetation” – which is a euphemism for the progression back to woodland. It becomes clear that far from being a naturally barren landscape, there are seeds of local species all around waiting for opportunities to grow. Ritchie Tassell’s practical experience of reforesting in Wales bears this out:

They had planted trees, but soon discovered that, in much of the fenced land, this was unnecessary. Where they had turned over the turf, the exposed soil was colonised by birch seed, which blew in from a few surviving trees further down the valley, which had themselves returned, Ritchie explained, as a result of an agricultural depression around a century ago.

“Almost every tree we planted has now been overwhelmed by native birch. It grew so densely it looked like the cress you grow on your windowsill. Even when the trees we planted survived, the local birches did much better. They’re genetically suited to this site. Seeing the way the birch recolonized was a real awakening. I saw that nature is far more adept at doing these things than we are.”

But he’s very clear about the need to persuade landowners rather than to enforce rewilding changes: that we should be working to change the system of subsidies and remove the requirements to suppress natural regrowth, which will then give farmers and upland communities the option to rewild their land and their businesses.

A big part of the ecology underpinning rewilding is the trophic cascade: a chain of predators, prey, and plant species which together keep part of the environment in a stable equilibrium. A striking example is the way in which the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 led to reduced flooding: wolves control deer numbers and make them avoid open spaces, which allows trees to come back on hill sides and river banks which acts as a slowly-draining reservoir in heavy rain or snow melts. Riverside trees encourage beavers, whose dams in turn slow the rivers. Alongside these practical (and rather topical) benefits, wolves suppress coyotes which along with the increased tree cover encourages a wider range of smaller mammals. So one rather controversial species (the wolf) leads to a much richer ecosystem overall.

Monbiot’s motivation for rewilding isn’t rooted in any kind of naturalistic fallacy. It’s our shared human self interest:

If rewilding took place it would happen in order to meet human needs, not the needs of the ecosystem. That, for me, is the point of it. Wolves would be introduced not for the sake of wolves but for the sake of people. If rewilding happens it will be because we value a biologically rich environment more than we value an impoverished system which continues, with the help of public money, to support sheep.

And this is where, for me, rewilding starts to connect to hutting. A revival in hutting in the countryside has the potential to give many more of us the chance to engage more directly and more deeply with that enriched natural environment. Hutting is intentionally low-impact, and locating it in new native woodlands accentuates that. Hutting also allows people and their families to develop a continuous, long lasting relationship with a specific location and its surroundings – some Scandanavian huts stay in families for generations. This in turn allows people to learn how that environment works and that knowledge can then spread out through family and friends into wider society. We can dream that instead of having school children who don’t know where eggs come from, we can have school children who know wild boar won’t attack you (unless you provoke them.)

There’s also a kind of economic cascade, led this time by us. Instead of suppressing and eradicating the top predators, we would be introducing and encouraging them, and in turn enjoying them, either by seeing them, experiencing the richer ecosystem of other animals and plants they help maintain, or even just by knowing they’re there – somewhere. Hutting is another route for money to be injected into the rural economy, presumably in addition to increased conventional tourism as B&Bs and hotels, shops, cafes, and pubs – which are typically much higher impact than hutting. This all makes land uses with rewilding more viable. More politically viable as subsidised activities (instead of subsidising sheep) and more viable economically by persuading land owners to participate in rewilding schemes – perhaps so they can sell or lease land for hutting, convert a barn to a B&B, or become rangers or guides on their changing but familiar land.

But above all, since hutting in the countryside involves that deeper connection between ourselves and land in nature, I think it should be an important part of rewilding us too.

Watching the stove vs watching TV

Last week we were at the log cabin for Sunday and Monday, and I brought my computer which has a plug-in TV tuner so we could watch Episode 3 of Shed of the Year. It was good to watch it, but it felt very out of place.

Our log cabin is deliberately simple and it gets us away from the kind of urban, electronic environment we have at home. There are no electricity, water or sewerage services, and very patchy cell phone reception. So we have a wood burning stove, a sink with water from a water carrier,  and camping gas for lighting. Nearby is a composting toilet with another water-carrier wash hand basin. We do have a digital radio for the cabin which we can play music from our phones through too, and it runs off 12V batteries charged by a solar panel.

Once it’s getting dark after we’ve finished whatever forestry or tinkering or sitting in the sun we’ve planned for the day, entertainment in the cabin has been a mix of reading, listening to music, cooking and eating and drinking, listening to the radio, and above all talking to each other.

It’s hard to explain but really simple things like keeping the stove going and boiling a kettle become interesting: when it’s more than just flicking a switch and waiting for the click, because you have to split the logs you set aside a year ago, then keep an eye on how they’re burning, and wait for the slow build up of the whistle. Everything in the cabin is at a slower pace and we manage to enjoy doing nothing in particular for hours on end.

But as I said, last week we had television as a guest for an hour. It was like having one of the visitors that come to the wood, say hello, have a chat, and then head off  in their car as soon as they can. The ones that don’t want to get muddy and wander off through the trees.

So we finished watching “Shed of the Year” then put some music back on, and later the radio. Radio seems to “get it” somehow. It doesn’t expect you to look at it when you’re messing around with the hotplate from the stove for a start. It’s usually our only connection to the outside world while we’re there.

Sunday was the day of the Greek bailout referendum and we tuned in to hear what was happening. No fancy graphics and footage of leaders getting in and out of cars. Just one person at a time talking to you over the airwaves about what’s going on. Very fitting for the log cabin again. Before the midnight news on Radio 4 was Mark Tully’s “Something Understood” about “Desire Lines”. It included Peter Seeger singing “Little Boxes” in 1963 which starts:

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

Which is very much what we’re not about too.

Grizedale Forest

Grizedale log cabinThe log cabin photo that I use as the header image here and on Facebook is one I took at the Forestry Commission’s Grizedale Forest not far from the visitors’ centre. Grizedale is between Coniston Water and Windermere in the Lake District and covers two and a half thousand hectares. It’s one of the most wooded landscapes in England and even on the high ground you’re mostly looking out across trees.

Here are another couple of pictures. First showing a dead tree against the backdrop of forest going off into the distance. And then a windblown tree showing how shallow the root plate is and how near the surface the rock is.

Grizedale is a very accessible wood, with lots of provision for car parking at various points, and well mapped and sign-posted walking and cycling tracks. It’s also been the location for outdoor sculptures since the 1970s and there are now about 50 of them. You can track them down with the map of them you can get from the visitors’ centre or website, or you can just follow the tracks and come across them unexpectedly (but risk missing some of the harder to spot ones though!)

The Log Cabin in Old Copse Wood

The log cabin in Old Copse, Sussex: http://www.oldcopse.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/cabin (picture kindly provided by the owners.)
The log cabin in Old Copse, Sussex.

Old Copse is a 30 acre woodland in Sussex whose management since 2009 has been documented in an excellent blog by Sarah, one of its owners. In 2014 they built this Polish-style log cabin using Scots Pine trunks from the wood itself. I’m going to pick out some of the many interesting details about building the cabin, and link to her cabin posts and videos so you can dig deeper yourself.

Like many woodland owners, they wanted a shelter from bad weather when doing forestry work that would double up as a social space for themselves and visitors. In 2013 they obtained approval from the local council to build a cabin under their forestry permitted development rights. They wanted something sturdy and secure, and settled on a round wood design which is common in North America and Eastern Europe. Although they could find some Scottish and Welsh companies building them in the UK, they couldn’t find anyone nearer to Sussex and hit on the idea of looking for contacts through local Polish clubs, and were quickly put in contact with a group of log cabin builders from Poland itself who had the experience already. By February 2014 the 45 Scots Pine trees were felled and logged, and work had begun on removing the bark.

By mid and late March 2014 the logs were notched and put in place to make the walls, and the roof frame was up.

April 2014 saw the building of the roof itself. They had considered several options, including a green roof with self-seeded plants in soil, wooden shingles or “tiles”, birch poles over a waterproof membrane, and finally a “tin roof” of sheets of dark green corrugated iron. They went with this last option because they felt that it would be more in keeping with the look of a forestry building, especially once weathered, and also the least risky design. This video shows the state of the cabin in April, and it’s location in the wider wood environment:

Later in April 2014, Sarah made two posts about the process of “chinking” the gaps between the logs with little rolls of pine bark fibres to keep the wind out. This seems to have taken a long time, and she does mention some of the alternatives used elsewhere. The first post also has a picture of cast iron wood burning stove they installed and this video shows the process of chinking in more detail:

By May 2014 the stove and chimney were installed and working, and in June 2014 they were sorting out the odds and ends that make a cabin or hut more comfortable, including bits of furniture, shelve, and kitchenware. They held an official opening ceremony for friends and family, which is also shown in this video:

They seem to have got a lot out of the whole process of planning and participating in the build, and Sarah explains how having the log cabin has changed their relationship with the wood:

Already the cabin has given an idea of how managing Old Copse will be easier. BC (Before Cabin) each visit was a matter of arriving, un-packing, working like billyo, and then packing up and leaving – in a hurry if it’s started to pour down Either that, or having to stand under a dismal tarpaulin waiting for the rain to stop.

We appreciate the difference in pace now – we are visiting more, staying longer, getting a lot more essential work done, but also enjoying ‘cabin life’ – taking time to sit out on the deck with a sun downer, while listening to and seeing wild-life in the wood and on the pond.

The team of Polish log cabin builders are now set up to do more builds in the UK, and have a comprehensive website at www.sussexlogcabins.com.

Why Hopwas Wood matters

hopwas_woodsThere’s been a lot of coverage in the last day or so about Hopwas Wood near Tamworth, which Lafarge Tarmac is planning to take a chunk off and turn into a sand and gravel quarry. Lafarge promise to reinstate this piece of Ancient Woodland after they’re finished in about 2030, but the problem is they can’t. English Ancient Woodland is defined as land that has been wooded continuously since 1600 and is almost certain to have been woodland since the return of the trees after the last ice age. It’s not possible to recreate that ecosystem by planting from scratch, any more than it’s possible to build a copy of a historic city and expect the cultural life of the place to be just the same.

Lafarge claim the area they want to strip of trees was damaged by fire in the 1970s and so isn’t ancient. But that misses the point that the seed bank in the soil and the fungi that co-operate with the roots to fix nitrogen have built up over millenia. It’s not the individual trees that matter: it’s the ongoing continuity of the processes by which an ancient ecosystem renews itself. I can see there are some situations when there just isn’t a way to build essential transport links or new towns without harming some pieces of Ancient Woodland, but another sand and gravel quarry isn’t something like that.

The Woodland Trust seem have to been in the forefront of making the media aware. The Twitter hash tag is #savehopwaswoods . There are Save Hopwas Woods campaign profiles on Twitter and on Facebook.


Woodland cabin in C4 “Amazing Spaces”

amazing1This year’s series of George Clarke’s “Amazing Spaces” features a log cabin being built in a woodland clearing. In the first episode, shown tonight, George visits this larger riverside cabin in the Lake District, built with larch logs taken from the surrounding forest. This is the plan with the smaller cabin he’s going to build, and there was a mention of identifying diseased trees to take. (Ramorum?) This episode also has a house built around a wooden railway carriage, and a couple of amazing locations (pod on a mountainside) and recycling (private jet body turned into a living space.) People in the UK should be able to view the episode for the next month on Channel 4’s 4OD catch-up service.

Nick Gibbs’ “Le Shack” in France

img_19202Those of you who read “Living Woods” magazine may be familiar with the regular articles from its editor, Nick Gibbs, about his one room riverside hut in northern France. Google turns up some of his blog posts if you want a flavour of what they do and a few more pictures, and one of the best posts is from November 2011. Not really a substitute for reading the articles in the magazine though.

While searching around for this post, I found out that Nick had been in a serious traffic accident this summer and has been spending the months on his recovery. He’s blogged about it all and it sounds like he’s been through the wringer, but thankfully he’s coming out the other side now.