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Ancient Oak at Pagan’s Hill

View of willow, Holywell lane

Most of the trees’ leaves have now senesced, lost if not to the gusts then to the cold, but despite Winter’s reign, deep within the coombes, tiny pockets of Autumn still linger. Stubborn oaks burn orange, and field maples, bright yellow, visible through the thicket of bare branches, like embers nestled in tinder.

At this stage it’s not clear if the very last leaves are clinging on for dear life or frantically trying to cut their own tether. A leaf born to Spring and enjoying all the heat of Summer and added light of a sunny Autumn, has no business or desire whatsoever remaining on the tree in the cold and windy conditions of Winter. Perhaps the wind highlights not the leaves’ battle to remain on the tree, but a fierce desire to leave it. The leaves’ pleas unheard as they wait impatiently for that decisive gust’s whip.

At eye level, the loss of tree foliage coupled with hedge trimming has opened up new views across the Glastonbury landscape. Bare branches now provide picture frames for views that were previously hidden behind their greenery. Where hedgerows have been left to grow, the lanky new branches of elder, ash and blackthorn stand upright, holding on to a few leaves and waving them vigorously at their recent victorious joust with the high winds.

View from Holywell Lane

Soggy Collages

Downwards, debris litters the lanes, gathering in the gutters and gullies, branches encased in landscapes of lichen, leaves of all kinds edging the roads with soggy collages, the smell of wet earth and the squelch of leafy mulch under foot.

Upwards, bare twigs scrawl their unique scripts across the white sky. In the photo below, Ash, on the left, with its knuckled branches, beckoning us with fingery upturned ends. On the right, the more angular oak.

Ash (left), Oak (Right)

In contrast, the dainty end branches of beech are like feathery brushstrokes across the sky. Our silver birch (below) looks like purple rain falling from the clouds, while Linden’s language is more zigzagged, with a bud at each change of direction. The pollarded willows, without leaves, are giant brooms turned upwards, their bare branches glowing yellow and orange, like distant bonfires dotted across the Levels.

These observations are useful when identifying trees in Winter as each tree creates its own pattern in the sky. Once we learn these patterns we can start to identify trees from a distance and with no leaves.

Silver Birch Winter branches

Twisting Blackthorn (mossy) and coppiced hazel.

A recent walk led me to some far coombe’s corner and into what I can only describe as a blackthorns’ dungeon.

At this time of the year, the route along Holywell lane and into the fields toward Paddington farm gets waterlogged and can be difficult to pass.  My continued progress eventually led to a wet foot and a bloody run in with a hawthorn. It could have been worse, the water I was attempting to skirt around was wide enough to swallow me whole.

Hazel Gateway

Wounded and wet, I decided to head onto the higher ground to investigate a bright orange oak in a distant hedgerow. Before I could reach the oak I was compelled towards a gateway formed by two old hazel coppices. I entered and was led through a narrow coppice corridor that opened out into a grand blackthorn dungeon. An area of bare earth, uninhabited by undergrowth, pillared by giant blackthorn trunks, and roofed by a dense layer of thicket that even without leaves, allowed little light through. This is blackthorn territory and has been for decades. No sapling may find its way to the light, not even one of its own.

Blackthorn and hazel

Here lie the blackest thorn, all mossy, twisted, and tall as I’ve ever seen. Some lay horizontal across their sloped landscape, contorted and partially uprooted yet still thriving, their trunks reaching to the hedge line, like giant snakes writhing out towards the light. It’s as if they know that death lies in the shadows.

A row of old coppiced hazel stands untouched for decades, reaching their long arms over to provide this great hall with grand arched windows, while statues of gnarly hawthorn stand guard at each entrance. The huge decaying trunk of a long dead thorn creates a centrepiece to this grand hall, while the remaining thorns stand heads bowed beside her, forever held in mourning for their long deceased ancestor.

Blackthorn mourning

Blackthorn Down

This blackthorn cathedral, this dark fairy tale thicket, a grand gothic hall, a slightly creepy place where the ever encroaching blackthorn has formed monuments to its species. And there, at the end of the hall, between the blackthorn pillars, past the hawthorn guards, through the hazel archways, the golden oak that I had set out to see, shining in like the sun’s rays through a stained glass window.

A variegated holly growing perfectly white leaves.

The ancient oak at West Pennard

Stone Down Lane – Oak (left), Ash (right)

For the next 6 months, the Sun will slowly creep back up into the sky and encourage the emergence of Spring. Solstice, whether Summer or Winter, always seems to come too early. We still have a good chunk of Winter ahead of us, yet we spend it with ever increasing light, for which my heart and posture lifts slightly in knowing.

It is with this thought in mind that I have led recent walks, following the light through the tunnel of Winter, giving thanks for this opportunity to slow down, rest, recuperate and hope that our food stores last through the deep Winter.

Personally, the tree walks continue to be so valuable, providing a point of contact with like minded others, providing opportunities to learn, enhance our relationships with nature and provide a steady routine during tumultuous times.

In 2021, over thirty tree walks took place in various forms, from Abbey walk and talks, to private walks for group retreats, from long walks out to the Avalon Oak, to more intimate affairs in and around Bushy coombe, not to mention the series of outings to the cemetery to enjoy the copper beech trees. We also held the woodland fire folk for a few weeks in Summer. It’s been a busy and satisfying year despite the slow start.

I’d like to thank you all for your support this year, to all who attended walks in 2021, and to all those who were unable to make it to Avalon, but instead supported the project from afar, and with great fervor. Thanks also to the trees without whom this wouldn’t have been possible.

The To The Trees project is soon to start its fourth season. I am really proud of what we have achieved so far, this is a unique activity that fosters connection between people and with nature. To see familiar faces and to meet new people in nature on a regular basis is invaluable and something that we can all take away from the tree walks.

Wishing you all the best for 2022!


A Visual Diary – Dec 2021

Matt Witt

Author Matt Witt

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