I have just been reading Rowan’s blog about the storms, where he referred to The “Queen” – a magnificent beech pollard in Frithsden Beeches, and it’s fall in June 2014. The National Trust put up a notice nearby saying that the famous tree had entered the next stage of it’s life. And they were, of course, right.
I had been discussing with Rowan for some time an idea I had for a blog article about what had happened since it fell, to the extensive area it had occupied . I often walk in that area, and over the following four summers I have been noticing and photographing the changes to the tree, the woodland floor and the surrounding trees. When still standing, nothing grew in the dense shade beneath it and the ground was covered with a carpet of leaves. The felling of trees along the nearby woodland margin of Broad Walk by the Trustees of Berkhamsted Golf Club in November 2013 was allowing more light in – but before that could change anything, the tree fell.
During the next summer it fell, the leaves slowly died and fell from the tree, but they still excluded sunlight from most of the ground. Plants had not yet had the opportunity to grow, with just a bit of grass in a few places where the light allowed. Sap still oozed from the above-ground roots near the tree. Green beech shoots were starting to grow along the exposed roots and from the stump.
The next year, 2015, Spring brought signs of life to only one small branch – one thread must have still connected the roots to the branch, but this soon died. Along the roots and on the main stump more green beech shoots appeared. The now bare fallen branches allowed light through, and the woodland floor began to “green up” with grass, small brambles, foxgloves, willow herb and nettles taking advantage of the increased light. Other life took its opportunities, and fungus of numerous sorts appeared, and at times there were showers of sawdust falling as invertebrate life ate the dead wood.
In the following summers of 2016 and 2017 the plants colonising the area continued to thrive. Brambles climbed over the fallen branches, initially the bare shoots reminiscent of the famous illustration of Gulliver pinned to the ground by the numerous tiny ropes of the Lilliputians. One of the first trees to colonise a newly opened area like this is birch, and the wind has sown many, with the tallest ones already five feet tall. But the green beech shoots coming up from the roots and growing on the stump have all now gone.
The fall of the big beech affected its old neighbours – some trees were knocked over, some scarred. A young beech near the tree miraculously managed to survive the falling branches. The remaining trees surrounding the now bare space have benefited from the additional light. Their branches are starting to grow into the space, and shoots are appearing on the light side of their trunks.
The tree’s life as a film location has drawn to an end. It appeared in Harry Potter, Les Miserables, Sleepy Hollow and many more. Even the stump appeared in London Spy in 2015. But its future looks quieter. A thicket of bramble will be less photogenic than the original magnificent tree, and the area is becoming overgrown and less easy to access.
I go back to remember my old friend, and watch as the tree rots, digested by fungus and invertebrates, and the trees and plants fight for their share of the light. Brambles seem to be winning now – but I expect they will be shaded out as the birch trees grow. Maybe then the birch will then take over for the next hundred years or so. Then perhaps the young beech that survived the fall will have its chance.
The changing scene of life goes on.