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Summer sounds of scuff and scrape have long been replaced with Winter’s squelch and squidge as earth becomes sodden under the fall of recent storms. As I wade across the fields-come-lake that surround the hills of Glastonbury I find the ground in places ever so slightly submerged so as to make it appear as if my soles walk upon the water’s surface!

The standing water brought so abruptly by November’s storms filled up the flats to form flooded swathes framed by the raised walkways and the bulwarked banks of the river Brue. Ditches over-filled and invisible; it is only the immersed solitary trees, scrappy veteran thorns and pollarded boundary willows that indicate where one field turns to the next. From the mirrored waters rise the hills-come-isle of Avalon, a sculpted enclave that reflects into the lake as clear in these moments as it might have a thousand years ago as the earth of the surrounding land is once again returned to its rightful place – underneath the water.

These soggy excursions out onto the moors inspired me to take a closer look at our magnificent Willows – trees that surround us on every side, but which I must say I am guilty of having not granted adequate attention. Given that we live in the land of willows, Somerset being home to one of the few remaining commercial willow farms, there is a distinct lack of Salix registered locally on the ancient tree inventory – perhaps a testament to a collective ignorance of these trees, or else a logistical issue, as the willows aren’t the easiest trees to access and measure and even more tricky is the verification of their estimated status; notable, veteran, ancient.

It might be that willows are such quick growing trees, we tend not to admire them in their vastness, as we might do an English Oak. Maybe it’s that they are so remote and inaccessible, located as if they wish not to be bothered, or that they seem so temporary, as if they might lazily pick up sticks and appear tomorrow drinking at the river bank a few miles downstream. We seem less inclined to grant the willows admiration for their stature, appreciation for their presence, and due acknowledgment for their contributions to our culture, which, at its depths, is a weaving of the fates of Sapian and Salix that stretches back millennia.

“Remnants of coiled baskets have been found in the middle East, dated at about 10,000 BC. In Africa parts of pots with the imprint of basketry patterns on them have been dated at 8,000 BC… Wicker work fragments have been unearthed from the Glastonbury Lake Village,100 BC. And Pliny, AD 23-79, an early historian, specifically mentions the cultivation of osiers.” 1. Willow Basketry, an introduction to work 

The pollarded willows of the Glastonburuy moors and the wider Somerset levels are its most significant and culturally rich arboreal feature, a window into our more recent past and the lives of the people who lived on the levels. Following the drainage of the Levels and the planting of trees that followed, withy farming became one of the means by which locals would make a living. I suspect that most of the trees we see today are the remnants of more numerous pollarded rows planted to produce tree withies.

2nd November 1932: Two men gathering withies (willow branches) in the flooded withy beds at Wickmore, Somerset, following the overflowing of the River Parrett. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

“One way of making a living round here was on withies. That was a given thing round here. Most of the women were on withies, stripping with a hand brake… and of course the children, so ever they were big enough, they had to lend a hand after school and at weekends.”2. Len Meade Basket Maker, Burrowbridge 1981. Life on the levels, by Tony Anderson

While the acres of withy beds served the needs of wicker weavers, the pollarded trees were farmed to produce timber for other purposes. Tree withies were often left for longer before pruning to provide boughs of adequate size for chair legs and other furniture.

“A tree withy is different from the ones we grow in the withy beds, they were used one time for chair legs because going back, I suppose possibly over 80 years they had no end of these people here making wicker chairs, that really started off here. So many of them were chair makers they days, and then you had to have a three year old tree withy for the legs…” Len Meade Basket Maker, Burrowbridge 1981.

Some of the old trees worked in the late 1800s and early 1900s, may have been retained later into the 20th century to provide timber, fodder for cattle, or firewood, but largely their farming died out during the mid part of the 20th century as the demand for fuel changed, plastic products replaced withy baskets and central heating removed the need for logs, many pollards were left to deteriorate. Fig 2 shows continued withy farming into the 1940s.

Two men paddle a boat filled with bundles of cut willow rods harvested from willow trees lining the banks of a waterway on the Somerset Levels in Somerset, England on 1st April 1942. Willow rods, also referred to as whips, withies, wands or stems, are used for weaving and fencing. (Photo by James Jarche/Popperfoto via Getty Images)

A modest exploration of the moors surrounding Glastonbury brings one into contact with countable willow pollards of 3-4 metres in girth. These old timers can be identified as veteran trees by features such as hollowed or partly missing trunks, large burls, cracked limbs, holes, cavities, scars, fungal growth and bare exposed heartwood. The ancient willows, even more deteriorated than the veterans, are said to be trees of 150-200 years, and these might be girthy managed pollards, bowing and collapsed trees or their successors, almost unrecognisable as the proud upstanding pollards they used to be.

A willow tree of approximately 150—200 years old would represent an ancient tree for its species’. Then, according to ‘Veteran Trees: a guide to good management’ (1999, p148), ‘The oldest willows are likely to be pollards or their successors i.e. bollings that have fallen apart.” – Willows in the farming landscape: a forgotten eco-cultural icon

Some of the veteran pollards that still stand around the moors of Glastonbury are maintained by the local farmers mostly for their heritage status as well as for aesthetic appeal, many have also been long lost. In many cases their stability is compromised and so they undergo regular pruning to ensure they remain upright and intact. At this stage of their life they have come to appear less like trees and more like the amalgamated relics of bygone beasts pieced together to form Chimaeras that are difficult to recognise as arboreal. Exposed, hollowed hearts with open wounds exposing the timber bone and tendon of some great lumbering giant, but with no flesh and with nothing bloody.

The hulked heads of these creatures are maned like water dragons, they bow towards the water as if intending to take a drink from the rhynes and as they do so they appear also to be part horse, part rhino, part whale, part pachyderm, part unfathomable half fossilised megaflora-fauna, but not extinct, instead, aggressively adaptive. Immense creatures of the rhynes and droves, their roots smell water and breathe it in. They wallow half in earth and half in water, seeping into and out of the ditches, ridge backed, horned, tusked and toothed, “gert” cracked movers of current, static yet apparently flowing and mutable.

Where the pollards have been left alone, unmanaged and allowed to grow as they please, they quickly become top heavy and if not taken care of they are at risk of being snapped in half, turned over by the wind, crushed under the weight of their own pollarded heads, or else sinking slowly into a horizontal position and becoming submerged. Yet, somehow, they continue to live, apparently becoming more complete as they are broken further apart.

Besides this rich cultural heritage and the practical human uses, the trees serve to stabilise the moveable watery land of the levels, in places not only supporting the banks of the rhynes against the footfall of cattle but as good as becoming the rhyne banks themselves.

“…there were so many of the withy trees grown along the ditches and rhynes. And ‘twould help to keep the bank up, the back of the ditch, that roots would help that because the cattle tread the ditches in pretty bad where they go to drink.” – Len Meade Basket Maker, Burrowbridge 1981.

Willows can improve irrigation and assist with drainage of waterlogged fields, though it must also be mentioned that if left to run wild they can also cause blocking of water ways. Willow flowers, particularly of the goat willow, offer a valuable source of nectar early in the year, and willows also attract aphids, an important food source for other insects. Deteriorating trunk, exposed roots and snapped limbs, provide valuable habitat for all sorts of creatures, ground for all sorts of fungi and new earth from which other plant species grow. They are especially valuable in a landscape that is very sparsely populated by large mature trees, a landscape that would be considerably less interesting without its willows.

Avalon is encircled by Sallow, they watch you from a distance as you enter the Isle. They are keepers of the rhynes, earth sprouted yet waterborne, windows to the underwater, coaxing us into submersion. The willows weep roots, they seep like springs into the water, creep like water into the earth, forever seeking saturation.

There is perhaps no tree more deeply elemental – no tree more at home on the cusp of water and earth. Whistling, cracking and creaking in the wind while in the Winter their withies burn like lit beacons. What’s more, in a firm juxtaposition to their watery nature, the willow’s wood makes for fine fire.

Mother Willow cradled us in infancy, comforted us in old age, carried us in death, and in the meantime eased our load, lifted our pain and light our fires with her willowy ways. There are many humans present in today’s landscape who might not have lived at all if not for the crafts and industries born of the Sallow and Osier, and the same goes the other way around.

MW 27/11/23


Visual Diary


Autumn Tree Walks – Sat 11th Nov – Event link
Abbey Tree Walk – Sat 18th Nov th 11am – 12.30pm – Details and tickets

Winter break is from 18th Nov – Sat 3rd Feb – There will be no public tree walks during this period – Private walks can be booked any time.

Matt Witt

Author Matt Witt

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