As you may have heard, the Woodland Trust has, once again, launched its prestigious Tree of the Year competition. The contest, returning in 2017 for its fourth year, designed to celebrate the best of Britains trees: the most beautiful, iconic and historically significant, or simply those that mean the most to each of us on a personal level. Nominations for the competition can be submitted via the Trust’s website (here), with the most successful trees – those that score well in the popular vote – receiving up to £1000 in tree care awards designed to help said trees grow and thrive long into the future. If you have a particular tree in mind, it really is worth taking a moment to nominate, I have.
For my own Tree of the Year nomination, I had considered going mainstream, and in doing so, nominating one of the more famed and fortunate trees that grow within my local area. Perhaps the towering Sycamore that lends its name to Sycamore Gap on Hadrians Wall, or one of the myriad awe-inspiring specimens chestnuts that persist within nearby arboretums or country estates. Ultimately, however, I decided this would not do, and that for my nomination, I would have to go with something a little more sentimental in nature. My final pick – a tree I have known (if indeed, you can know a tree) since childhood.
My own favourite tree is a Yew: not a particularly old one, at least by the standards set by its churchyard brethren, nor one with a particularly colourful past. Growing in Half-Penny Woods – a stand of semi-natural woodland lining the banks of the River Blyth near the town of Bedlington – this is a tree I see most weeks. The bottle-green conifer standing in sharp contrast to the surrounding broadleaves that dominate the wood – representing the only yew that grows, to the best of my knowledge, in the entire woodland. A pleasant anomaly, of sorts, this tree certainly looks the part: gnarled, twisted and leaning, with its surrounding roots bursting out of the forest floor in places where the substrate has eroded due to the incessant footfall of visitors over the years. It is, in all honesty, a rather appealing tree; though this is not the reason I have come to look favourably upon it over the years.
No, for me, the ascetics of the tree play second fiddle to the memories entombed within its tangled branches: the conifer growing on the very site where I first discovered my love of the natural world. In the very wood where – under the careful supervision of my Grandmother – I ran, played and explored as a child. The Yew marking the central point of the wood where, as a boy, I caught minnows in the murky depths of the river, gathered wildflowers to press and gnawed on the overpowering leaves of fresh Ramsons. Easily memorable by its locally unique appearance, this is, in fact, the first tree I learnt to identify as a boy which, spurred on by tales of toxic leaves and historic relevance courtesy of my Gran, ignited a fascination for woodland realm that continues, undiluted, to this day. This Yew – my Yew – standing as a recognisable figment of carefree years past which, now, over a decade later, has taken on a whole new level of significance.
Now, the Half-Penny Yew serves as a place to remember: not just childhood antics but the lady who inspired and facilitated them – my Grandmother sadly having passed away a few years back. Now, in the present, the Yew stands tall as a place to reminisce and remember. A fitting monument to the lady who, through hours of diligent mentoring in the field, propelled me towards a career (and life) in nature, but who, personally, was also quite fond of its twisted limbs and glossy red berries.
It may seem odd to some that a humble tree can embody so much of the past: that a mass of peeling bark and deep green needles can inspire so much thought and devotion, though for me, it does. This is why I will be championing the Half-Penny Yew in the Tree of the Year 2017 contest. Of course, to others, this choice will not generate the same level of sentiment – that is fine, but I feel it demonstrates incredibly well what individual trees can mean to each of us. I sincerely a hope that a Yew wins the contest – they really are marvellous trees.