Our trees are our roots
Tuesday 23 July 2013
Thousands of Britain’s precious ancient trees could be at risk from pests and diseases such as ash dieback and acute oak decline. Yet David Cameron and Nick Clegg who promised us our greenest ever government are cutting the budget of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
All over Britain ancient and historic trees are facing the threat of various diseases.
These trees are as important and valuable as our historic buildings. They have stood for hundreds of years, some playing their part in monumental events.
One such tree is the famous Tolpuddle Martyrs Sycamore, which will be centre-stage in this week’s Tolpuddle Festival.
National Trust tree experts have aged the tree at over 320 years, meaning it was quite big when the first British trade unionists met under it nearly two centuries ago.
Dorset farm labourer George Loveless, his brother James, James Hammett, James Brine, Thomas Standfield and Thomas’s son John should be named among our country’s greatest inventors. They gave us, and the world, trade unions.
Their invention cost them dear. They were charged with having taken an illegal oath. Found guilty, they were imprisoned and then transported.
In the 1830s life in English villages like Tolpuddle was very hard and getting worse. Then as now austerity was the name of the game. Working people were seeing their standard of living fall.
News from across the Channel from the French revolution had the ruling class trembling. Add to that the home-grown rebellion of Captain Swing, fresh in the minds of the British Establishment.
Just as today the rich and powerful fought back viciously.
Landowners were determined to stamp out any form of organised protests.
In 1834, those brave farm workers in west Dorset formed a trade union. Their demand was about yet another pay cut, the third in as many years.
In Tolpuddle local squire and landowner James Frampton heard about the meetings under the sycamore on the village green and moved against the labour movement’s pioneers.
For the heinous crime of forming a union the six leaders were arrested and sentenced to seven years’ transportation. The charge was for taking an oath of secrecy.
From his prison cell, George Loveless scribbled some words: “We raise the watchword, liberty. We will, we will, we will be free!”
It is a message that still echoes around the world and inspires generations of people to fight against injustice and oppression.
Transportation to Australia was a brutal punishment. Many didn’t even survive the harsh voyage. If they did the rigours of slavery often took their fatal toll.
The working classes took up the cause of the men of Tolpuddle.
A massive demonstration marched through London and an 800,000-strong petition was delivered to Parliament protesting about their sentence.
Eventually after three years the hard battle was won.
The Tolpuddle Martyrs returned home in triumph. Once again they were free to meet and talk beneath the shade of that sycamore tree in the quiet Dorset village.
In the Warwickshire village of Wellesbourne it was a chestnut tree that played its part in the rich trade union history of our nation.
The original chestnut tree has been replaced but every year workers, union activists gather under the chestnut to remember Joseph Arch and the founding of the Agricultural Workers Union here in 1872.
Joseph Arch was a well-respected and experienced agricultural worker. He was also a Primitive Methodist preacher and a firebrand when it came to defending the rights of his fellow agricultural workers.
A brave band of agricultural workers at Weston under Wetherley wrote to the local newspaper complaining about their miserly wages.
They suggested that farm labourers should be paid at least two shillings and sixpence a day.
To further their demand they proposed a meeting to form a union and asked Joseph Arch to be the speaker.
An initial meeting was held and agreed a further meeting for the following week on February 14 1872.
They hoped for about 30 people to attend and booked a suitable room in the Stag’s Head public house in Wellesbourne.
Despite the dark, wet winter night when Arch arrived he found over 2,000 agricultural labourers had arrived to hear him speak.
They moved the meeting to under a nearby chestnut tree with the farm workers holding flickering lanterns on poles to see what was happening.
On Good Friday, March 29 1872, farm workers from all parts of South Warwickshire met in Leamington to form the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers Union.
By May 29 in Leamington the National Agricultural Labourers Union was established. Arch became its president.
Members of the new union would meet under the chestnut tree at Wellesbourne and sing in praise of their founder.
“Joe Arch he raised his voice/ ’twas for the working men/ Then let us all rejoice and say/ We’ll all be union men.”
They still meet and sing Arch’s praises today.
At Crowhurst there is a yew tree reckoned to be as much as 4,000 years old.
The tree is as famous for its age as it is for the wooden door that has been cut into its trunk.
Inside, a cannonball has been discovered which was fired during the English civil war – our revolution.
The farm opposite the church was a royalist position. Cromwell’s New Model Army fired on the farmhouse, missed, and the iron ball was embedded in the already ancient yew.
Across the River Thames from Runnymede grows another ancient yew with a place in history.
This is the Ankerwycke Yew.
The huge and ancient tree has a girth of 26 feet.
Best estimates put its age at between 2,000 and 2,500 years. The yew is close to the ruins of St Mary’s Priory, the site of a Benedictine nunnery built in the 12th century.
On the opposite bank of the River Thames are the meadows of Runnymede and this tree is said to have been witness to the signing of Magna Carta.
Some experts believe the charter was actually signed on this bank of the Thames beneath the shade of what even then was an ancient tree.
In the age of enlightenment few names burn as brightly as that of Isaac Newton.
Visitors to the 17th-century Woolsthorpe Manor, near Grantham, Lincolnshire, can sit under or near the apple tree which is said to have given him the inspiration for one of his greatest revelations, the force of gravity.
Newton was said to have been under the tree in 1665 when a falling apple bought the notion of gravitation to mind.
The 400-year-old apple tree re-rooted itself in 1820 after being blown down in a storm and grew back in an inverted S-shape.
The tree is of the rare Flower of Kent variety, a green cooking apple. It stands in the front garden under the window of what was Newton’s bedroom.
Newton, in fact, never said he had been inspired by a falling apple. The story first appeared in a book by Voltaire in 1727, the year Newton died at the age of 84.
The Wyndham Oak, in the village of Silton, just North of Gillingham, Dorset, is named after Sir Hugh Wyndham, who bought the Manor in 1641.
In 1654 Sir Hugh became a judge of the Court of Common Pleas having been appointed by the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell.
Old stories tell that the tree was used for hangings after the Monmouth rebellion in 1685. The nearby village of Trister was a hotbed of opposition to James II.
Was Robin Hood real? I hope so – we need inspiration to rob from the rich and give to the poor more than ever today.
Certainly Robin’s favourite tree the Major Oak is real and still attracting visitors to the village of Edwinstowe deep in the heart of Sherwood Forest.
The Major Oak is a Quercus robur, the English or pendunculate oak.
This forest veteran is thought to be around 800 years old.
In a 2002 survey, it was voted “Britain’s favourite tree.”
The earliest recorded name for this remarkable oak, dating back to the mid-18th century, was the Cockpen Tree.
The hollow interior is said to have been used to pen cockerels ready to be used in the now illegal sport of cock fighting.
Even if they have no recorded connection with historic events all ancient trees provide an important habitat for a host of different species, bats, birds, animals, insects and fungi.
Trees die naturally. That is part of nature’s natural cycle.
But to lose so many of our precious ancient trees would be a terrible disaster for the countryside.
These huge natural monuments have taken centuries to grow and their loss would be devastating, not only for the landscape, but for the environment.
Thousands of ancient trees are at risk, including thousands of ash trees threatened by Chalara ash dieback, a fungus which kills ash trees and has arrived in Britain from the continent, where it has caused immense damage in some areas.
Ash dieback arrived in Britain because of short-sighted penny-pinching policies by Defra and the profit-hungry forestry industry buying cheap imports rather than healthy home-grown ash trees.
But it is not just ash trees which are under threat from disease, with ancient oaks at risk of acute oak decline and oak processionary moths, and Scots pine threatened by needle blight.
Juniper, oak, beech and sweet chestnut are all affected by Phytophthora fungi while invasive non-native pests are also a threat, including the Asian longhorn beetle which attacks most broadleaved tree species.
Grey squirrels and increasing wild deer populations also wreck havoc on ancient forests and woodland.
The government needs to act and ban imported sweet chestnut trees to stop the spread of sweet chestnut blight, which wiped out trees throughout the eastern US and is now infecting trees in France.