Tuesday 1 June 2010

Life and Death at Donington


To the north, the fields and farms of the Midlands stretched away to the Ashbourne hills and the start of the Pennines. Closer, the parkland sloped downhill to the deer fence bordering the woods, through which the sparkling reflections of the lowering sun betrayed the River Trent. A little upstream, two swans turned gracefully on the current, silhouetted black on shimmering gold. Water from much of the English Midlands flows gently past this point on its passage to the sea. To the west tributaries fan out to drain the Black Country, the Potteries, and the southern Peak. Just downstream they are joined by the Derwent, bringing both the acid waters from the high moors of the Peak, and the warm, hard waters that rise from the caves and springs of Buxton and Matlock. Together they turn and flow slowly north across the drained fens of Lincolnshire, to a muddy confluence with the Ouse in the broad valley of the Humber.

Running east along the ridge was the broad tree-studded grassland of classic English deer park, on which my companion, Guy, was conducting a bat survey for English Nature. Mentioned in the Domesday book, it has been been parkland as long as records have been kept. Strictly private too, with a concomitant style of gentle management that can disregard concerns of public safety, liability, and tidiness. Here perhaps a third of the great Oaks are classed as 'veterans' - some 250 in all - often huge, always gnarled, and left to grow into a state of majestic decay that would be deemed dangerous elsewhere. It is not a unique site, but certainly significant - the famous ancient pollard Oaks, or 'Dodders', of Windsor Park number barely 100.

The younger trees are typical oaks, with a neatly deer-browsed base supporting the full canopy that the open setting allows. As they settle in to old age - and great age it is, according to the old rhyme 'Three centuries he grows, and three more he stays, Supreme in state, and in three more decays'  - parts of the trunk begin to die, and the tree seems to slowly collapse in on itself. Trunks become great barrels, often hollow, whilst upper limbs typically die first, creating the classic 'stag-headed' Oak - bare, pale branches reaching up from a shrinking canopy. With the gradual decline comes great character. No two veteran trees are alike. Their charisma is impossible to resist, deeply individual but always with the same qualities of stately, regal bearing combined with a deep, aboriginal wildness. I climbed a little way up one, and it unnerved me. The thickened, ancient bark felt light and weak, and poorly bonded to the dry trunk that groaned hollowly beneath. It was as if the tree had gone, leaving only the husk.

Quietly approaching a huge oak with a great almond-shaped cavity high in its trunk, a pale shape resolved blinking amidst the darkness. Before I could raise my binoculars it was out; the sandy back and silent, buoyant flight of a Barn Owl. I smile at the presumption of our name in this ancient setting - trees like this would have been their homes long before barns were even an idea. Its flight takes it past another Oak, this one long dead, its barkless, bleached limbs reaching upwards still into the dusk, frozen in life like a figure struck by lightning. It was from such a tree, perhaps, that Herne, the great hunter and keeper of Windsor forest, hung himself in a tale that was old whilst this tree was young. As the last rays of the sun left its branches a perfect full moon rose pink in the east.

Our transect takes us back to the woods above the river, and a sudden scuffling in the undergrowth. The striped head of a badger nods as he squints at us. He seems unable to convince himself that we are not just deer, and dashes noisily away only to return once, then twice, to stare, snort and rush off again. By the woods the bat detector chirrups constantly - the steady chip-chip-chip of a Noctule, then the staccato rush of a feeding Pipistrelle. Earlier their dashing, twirling flight was visible against the sky, often close enough to touch, but here by the woods the darkness has collected, thickened and now they fly beyond our senses.


Gaz Marshall said...

That was beautiful, thank you Adam! It's nice to see a real (and successful) blend of subjects on a blog, not just the regular climbing spray (which I'm just as guilty of).

Adam Long said...

Thanks Gaz :-)

Very jealous of your Pabbay/ Mingulay trip - being trying to get out there for years!