Dear Readers, when I was visiting my parents’ house in Dorset this week for my mother’s 80th birthday, the peace of the autumn was disrupted by the whine of the hedge-trimmer. My parents have the most spectacular beech hedge surrounding their little bungalow, fully twelve feet high and three feet thick, and every year Ian the tree surgeon comes to cut it for them. This is a two day job, involving standing on scaffolding to reach the top, and trimming the sides with meticulous care, for Ian is a perfectionist, and by the end the hedge would grace any stately home. However, I think even Mum and Dad’s hedge will have to wait a while before it can match the Meikleour beech hedge in Blairgowrie, Scotland. This one was planted in 1745, and is said to grow towards heaven because the men who planted it were killed at the Battle of Culloden. It is the longest and tallest hedge on earth, reaching 100 feet tall and 1/3rd of a mile in length. Furthermore, unlike my parents’ hedge, this one is only trimmed once every ten years.
Beech is one of the few deciduous trees that carries its leaves all year, a phenomenon known as marcescence ( how I love finding a new word – I shall be trying to slip this one into the conversation for the rest of the week). It’s thought that the retention of these leaves may make the spring buds less palatable to grazing animals, and indeed beeches which are pruned (an act which must surely feel to the plant like particularly heavy browsing) are most inclined to keep their leaves. Whatever the reason, one of the distinctive sounds of November for me is the gentle rustling of the browning foliage as it clings to the twigs and interstices of the hedge.
Birds love the beech hedge. It is a valuable roosting place for them, providing more cover during the cold winter nights than a leafless haven might do. Indeed, the noise of sparrows was positively deafening today as I left Mum and Dad’s house to travel down to London. In the spring, the sparrows, wrens and blackbirds all nest in the branches, safely tucked away from predators.
When Mum and Dad first moved into the house, their first thought was to cut the hedge down. It makes some parts of the bungalow quite shady and secluded. But a neighbour advised them against it.
‘The prevailing wind comes right down the hill’, he said. ‘I’d stick it out for the winter and see what you think in the spring’.
The hedge stayed.
In my garden, I also have a mixed hedge, with beech as a large component. In the spring, I love the way that the new leaves unfurl through a gossamer-like covering, as if they were wrapped in cobwebs. I love the deep chocolate brown of the leaves, and the way that they fade to copper, and yellow, and lime-green. My sad little hedge has not yet produced any nuts, nor will it for a while: a beech may produce some beechmast, as the fruits are called, at ten years of age, but will need to be at least thirty before they are produced in any quantity. Even then they will be occasional, rather than regular, events: the production may be related to hot, dry summers, but even so the beechmast is rarely produced for two years in a row. When it does appear, however, it is a bonanza for everything from badgers to squirrels, tits to finches. Some of the seeds will, of course, be buried, leading to the development of new beech seedlings in the spring.
There is some debate about the origins of beech in the UK. Some think that it arrived in the south of England about 2000 years after the English Channel was formed, and that it was carried here by Neolithic people, who probably used the nuts for food. Others suggest that the plant predates this. Officially, the plant is described as native in the south of England and south-east Wales, and as ‘widely planted’ elsewhere. The nuts can be pressed to make oil, although this doesn’t seem to have taken off in the same way that Hazelnut oil has. The leaves, when young, can be eaten, and can also be turned into an alcoholic drink called Beech-leaf noyau. If you fancy having a go, there’s a recipe for Beech Leaf Gin here, though my dad, an ex-gin distiller for Gordon’s Gin, would no doubt be horrified.
The timber from beech trees was largely used for firewood – in Roman times, it was used to supply the fuel for ironworks. However, one specialised use of the wood was for the manufacture of chairs, and a specialised company of these carpenters, called bodgers, existed in High Wycombe right up until the early years of the twentieth century. These men lived in hovels in the beech woods, and made the chair legs for the Windsor Chair, so-called because it was sold by dealers in Windsor. The bodger felled the beech trees (he would buy a stand of trees from an estate), cut it into chair leg sized pieces, and turn the wood on a lathe to produce the part required. The legs would then be left to stand, or season, until ready to be turned into furniture. Each man could turn out 144 legs a day. However, for working six days a week, ten hours a day, he was likely to earn only £1.50 per week. I wonder if this combination of high productivity and low wages led to the use of the word ‘bodger’ as a description for someone with more enthusiasm for DIY than ability.
A beech tree was often seen as a safe haven in storms, because it was protective against lightning. It was also said that no harm would come to anyone sheltered under its branches, and that any prayers uttered there would ascend straight to heaven, unhindered. How appropriate that, when turned into a hedge, beech becomes the protector not only of houses, but of all the small creatures who might otherwise be buffeted by wind and weather. It seems to cradle all things, big and small, in its rustling, brown-leaved branches.
Meikleour Hedge – “620-250 Year old Beech Hedg” by MichaelDFowler – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:620-250_Year_old_Beech_Hedg.JPG#/media/File:620-250_Year_old_Beech_Hedg.JPG
Beech mast – “European Beech” by photo en:User:MPF – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:European_Beech.jpg#/media/File:European_Beech.jpg
Windsor Chair – “Windsor Chair Sack Back Armchair cr”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Windsor_Chair_Sack_Back_Armchair_cr.jpg#/media/File:Windsor_Chair_Sack_Back_Armchair_cr.jpg
All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer