Not the best picture I can find. But roughly 50% of the canopy trees in this wood are ash. Imagine.
This summer, I became acquainted with ash trees for the first time. By which I mean that I noticed I was seeing them all the time. I always knew such a tree existed, of course, and was probably very common – think of the number of place names rooted in ash – but somehow they slipped under my radar. Oaks I knew, of course; some others were obvious, like weeping willows or silver birch. Chestnuts I could just about identify, especially in the autumn when their fruits are conveniently scattered about all over the place in parks and on pavements. When I first had the idea for this (admittedly sporadic thus far) series about trees, I was therefore greatly looking forward to expounding my newfound love of the ash.
I was going to write about the attractiveness of their gently cracked, pale grey-brown bark. The way their leaves, such delicate appendages, shimmy and shimmer in the breeze and glow of a summer’s morning, letting a spellbinding tapestry of light permeate the canopy to the woodland floor. How their solid boughs seem so sturdy, timeless, everlasting, stoic survivors rooted deep in the soil even as their leaves arrive and depart in the blink of an eye, hurrying into existence if rain threatens in spring (‘ash before oak, in for a soak’) and rushing down with a great, overnight ‘whump’ at the first hint of cold in autumn.
Two species of chestnuts are common in the UK. Sweet chestnuts are considered ‘honorary natives’, according to the Woodland Trust, since they’ve been here over 2000 years. Probably longer than most of my ancestors, so I think native seems a fair description. The Romans favoured chestnuts for the nutritious seed, of which more later. But it’s their ‘secondary’ use that I’ve noticed this year, finding huge blocks of woodland in Kent especially dominated by young coppiced chestnuts – an almost concrete-tough hardwood that sports almost unnaturally smooth, grey-brown bark when young.
Horse chestnuts followed just a few hundred years ago and swiftly became the tree of choice for grand, ornamental plantings. It’s easy to see why. A mature chestnut is a big, imposing, stolid organism, densely packed with long, pointed leaves. Their bulk offers both shade and, when planted in city parks, a visual counterweight to the otherwise complete dominance of manmade structures. Despite the much more recent establishment of horse chestnuts, these striking examples in Knole Park, Sevenoaks (pictured above), planted amongst the oaks, don’t seem to have harmed the park’s mix of birds. A flame-bright redstart was singing from the same line of trees when I walked beneath them on a warm afternoon in May – not a common species in Kent.