Sunday, January 28, 2007

The beech tree

click photo to enlarge
In the south of England pollen from beech trees can be detected in remains dating back to 6000BC. No longer restricted to its southern fastness, the beech is now widespread in Britain, introduced in the midlands and north for its beauty and its unique qualities.

The sturdy, tall beech tree has long been used as a windbreak around exposed farms. In Yorkshire, on the chalk Wolds, and in the limestone Dales, lines, "L" shapes and squares of trees can be seen serving this purpose. They mark the location of farms in the valleys, on the hillsides, and standing against the sky. As well as giving shelter the beech trees provide kindling, and add a background sound to the day's toil and the night's rest, as the wind rustles the leaves and moans in the branches. Throughout the country beech trees can be seen planted in copses on hilltops, in small groups or single specimens at crossroads, in churchyards, or in woodlands. Lowland areas often have carefully manicured beech hedges, thick, green and impenetrable in summer, their brown leaves of autumn clinging on deep into the winter. Country houses frequently planted avenues of the tree along roads and tracks, and grew plantations to provide wood for estate joiners and carpenters.

The iron industry of the Weald used beech trees, as did the furniture makers of Buckinghamshire, turning the wood for the legs and spindles of Windsor chairs. The largest group of beech trees in the world is to be found in this county, at Burnham Beeches. Pollarded examples here are known to be five hundred years old. Wildlife thrives in beech woods. The "mast" that the trees produce is eaten by mice, squirrels, and a variety of birds, and the massive trunks and long, spreading branches provide homes for creeping and flying creatures. I photographed these beech trees in the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire, on a sunny January day. The shallow soil and outcropping rock had been no impediment to the growth of the trees on this hillside. But it had meant that the root system was, of neccessity, near the surface. It is said that the spread of a tree's roots matches the spread of its branches, and, looking at these beech trees you could almost believe it. I took my photograph with a wide zoom lens at 22mm (35mm equivalent), with the camera set to Aperture Priority (f6.3 at 1/200 second), ISO 100, and -1.0EV.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen