On the last weekend of June, to escape Glastonbury while Pilton festival was in full swing, I ventured down to Dorset for a long weekend. The trip was to incorporate an excursion to an old family holiday haunt at West Bay, as well as lesser known tourist spots dotted around Weymouth’s peninsula. A good deal of well needed relaxing was enjoyed, and as usual, some special encounters of the arboreal kind.
I stayed in a caravan at a Haven holiday site called Littlesea. The site is located behind the Fleet, the raised area of shingle and pebbles that stretches up the coast towards West Bay and becomes Chesil beach. Behind the Fleet lies the Fleet lagoon, an area of water trapped behind the raised beach. The campsite sits at the edge of the lagoon, the little sea. The water in the lagoon is shallow, it rises and falls slightly with the tide, but it’s not terribly inviting, and certainly not suitable for swimming mainly due to the risk of becoming stuck in the thick mud beneath the water. To reach the beach proper, or any other place of interest, one has to either head into Weymouth or travel up the coast towards the West.
Saturday’s excursion led me to St Catherine’s Chapel, in Abbotsbury, a village about 8 miles up the coast. I spotted the intriguing chapel up on a hill while driving the day before, it’s the sort of place I am drawn to, and being in an open frame of mind, I was happy to let this little curiosity guide my Saturday morning.
Google maps led me down winding country lanes, through the old buildings of Abbotsbury’s village and abbey, the ways growing gradually narrower with each turn. When nestled suitably in between the hills where tarmac turns to track, she spoke plainly, “you have reached your destination”.
I parked the car up next to an old stone wall, and sat for a moment to get my bearings. I could feel something was up, the green otherworldly light seeping into the car hinted at some dense foliage cover, but it was not immediately apparent who was causing the mood to be enhanced in such a way.
As I stepped out of the car I was struck by a sudden feeling of grandiosity, a large circular room with a lofty ceiling opened up before me, like I had just walked into the Chapter House at Wells Cathedral.
At first I was a bit disorientated, I saw the canopy, but could not locate the trunk. I had to step up over the gap in the old stone wall to investigate. And there she was, waiting to greet those who chose to climb this chapel’s path, the busty central arbour of a grand oriental plane tree. A tree of this size, with a 6m+ girth might be aged at approximately 250 years.
The awe that struck me in that moment chimed upon at least fifty different feelings, felt all at once, while all five senses fell into one. Sat upon a plinth of her own making, roots exposed and lower trunk heavily fluted, this regal plane presided over a considerable area of land. Such was the immensity of her presence that she created what felt like an entire planet all of her own.
Nothing grew within her halo, her elephantine boughs, as thick as most plane trees, imposing and assuring in their purpose and strength, boasted verdant foliage which was penetrated by a very subtle green gold light, the full extent of the midday sun must not have reached the ground around her for decades.
With utter ease, I had been led directly into the open arms of the largest tree for miles around. I pondered that perhaps I had not come here to meet St Catherine at all, but this tree, then on second thought, maybe I was to meet St Catherine’s spirit through this tree!
I made the short walk uphill to visit the chapel, a 14th century church which survived ruin due to its use as a beacon. It seemed to be maintained by the town or nearby village church. Outside was an information panel placed just inside a kissing gate providing access through the wrought iron fence surrounding the chapel.
The chapel itself was half kept, it had large wooden doors attached, and its windows were in place. Its interior, undecorated and without fixtures, was empty except for a roughly arranged altar in the main windowsill and piles of handwritten prayers surrounding dried bouquets set in the dusty alcoves.
There was an uplifting stillness about the place, a shelter upon an exposed hilltop next to the coast. This building has seen some weather in its time, and sheltered some people! A sign reminded visitors to close the doors on the way out.
From on top of the hill, I could see a swathe of dense forest which I assumed was my next destination, Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens. I set off back down the hill, stopping again to spend time with the plane before hopping in the car to travel down the road to the gardens.
Abbotsbury subtropical gardens consist of 20 acres of tree lover’s heaven. A good three hours was spent wandering around these gardens, and I could have easily lost a few days in there. Of special note were the eucalyptus gums, prickly castor oil trees (Kalopanax septemlobus), the Chilean myrtle, cork oaks and the massive Tree of Heaven. I include some of these trees in the visual diary below.
I especially enjoyed the following little treat from the gardener, a discreet sign post that read, “What do you see through the trees?”. Through a very small hole, pruned purposefully in the dense foliage, was St Catherine’s chapel staring back at me, nestled in the same forest I had just peered upon (image below).
A flat tyre on Saturday evening left me without wheels on Sunday. I decided to venture out on foot heading for Weymouth seafront and harbour, a 45 minute walk from Little sea. On the way, I came across Weymouth cemetery.
In my experience, cemeteries often house old trees and I find it very hard to resist having a look around.
There was a small unused chapel present and of course I expected to find yews, but instead I found that this particular cemetery, almost invisible in the centre of Weymouth’s suburbs, was guarded over by colossal Monterey pines, two of which appear to be some of the fattest Monterey pines in the UK.
In fact, these two are listed on one website as pines with some of the largest girth in the world, behind a 9m pine in Ireland an and 8+ metre specimen in New Zealand (see table below). It turns out that all these trees are also listed on the Ancient tree inventory, which I had not checked prior to my visit.
I often wonder why, wherever I go, I seem to so easily stumble upon these giants. I could explain it by saying that I have trained my eye to look for key signs as I walk, prime locations, patterns in the land, and hints on the horizons.
That said, I am very content in entertaining the idea that there might be something else at work here. It can certainly be said that on numerous occasions throughout this weekend I felt like I was receiving a personal tour of Weymouth, guided by the trees.
I leave you with a photo diary that includes some of the other veteran trees I found on the wooded hill behind the caravan park, including a number of notable ash trees and a strangely formed beech.
Until the next time, we walk To The Trees x
Girth sizes, pinus radiata
|1||Ireland||9.14 m||Collis Sands House, Tralee||TheTreeRegisterOwenJohnson||2010|
|7.98 m||Emo Court, Emo||Maarten Windemuller||2013|
|7.80 m||Coole Park, Gort||Han van Meegeren||2015|
|2||New Zealand||8.80 m||State Highway 79, Geraldine||foomanz||2012|
|3||United Kingdom||6.64 m||Lanhydrock house, Bodmin||smal65||2014|
|6.53 m||Weymouth cemetery, Weymouth||Aidan||2021|
|~6.50 m||Knowle, Station Road, Sidmouth||EdinSidmouth||2014|
|4||France||5.55 m||Sportvelden, Plourhan||smal65||2015|
|5.33 m||Jardin Public Commandant Billot, Guingamp||FredT||
|4.40 m||La Maison de la Baie, Hillion||Wim Brinkerink||2021|
|5||Italy||3.90 m||Giardino Botanco Maidopis, Sinnai||Saro Sciuto||2017|
|~3.80 m||Via Giolitti, Santa Venerina||Saro Sciuto||2018|
|3.10 m||Villa Salice, Milo||Saro Sciuto||2019|
A Visual Diary – June / July 2022
Upcoming Tree Walks + Woodland Fires
Public Tree Walks, Glastonbury – By Donation
Sun 24th July – Sunday Tree Walk, Glastonbury – 11am – 1pm
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Abbey Tree Walk & Talk
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Bishops Palace Walk, Wells
Gentle walk and talk with tree ident, songs, and poetry in the grounds of Bishop’s Palace.
Sat 6th Aug – Bishop’s Palace Tree Walk – £14.50pp – 11am – 12.30pm
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Woodland Fire Folk Sing-around
Paddington Farm Woodland – call Matt for directions.
Thu 14th July – 7.30pm – 10pm – by donation
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