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The woodcutter’s song (The story of a lost orchard – Part 3)

Cutting down a tree is a big decision.  If you get it wrong, it might take 50 years or more to put it right again.   And anyway there’s a nobility and permanence about a mature tree, that can somehow make it feel a bit of a crime to cut it down.

When I was young, we had a children’s record – I think it was the story of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, where the woodcutter had a song that I can still remember:

Every little oak has a heart.

You gotta know the place to start.

I’d leave them standing if I could.

But things being how they are, we need the wood.

Red Riding Hood

But I had to leave those romantic ideas behind when I was later involved in the decision to cut down a row of magnificent Horse Chestnut Trees lining the Promenade in Cheltenham.   They’d been planted in 1818 and become part of the character of the town.  There was of course a storm of protest when it was suggested they should be cut down because of the risk of falling branches, but as a member of the Council I voted for them to go, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.  Apart from the safety aspects, it brought light into a street that had become rather gloomy, and allowed the smaller trees between them some space and some light to grow, so that 30 years on, those younger trees are now quite venerable themselves.   One day someone else will be faced with the decision on when to cut them down.


The Promenade around 1900. 80 years later the trees had got a lot bigger!

That episode convinced me that not cutting down a tree can be just as bad a decision as cutting one down.   And if we wanted to do anything other than create an unmanaged wood in our field, some of the trees had to go.  It wasn’t so much little oaks with hearts that were the problem, so much as a ruddy great Christmas tree.  I’ve called it a lost orchard, but in reality most of the trees there, including some of the largest and most prominent ones, were not fruit trees.  The field was rather dominated by an enormous conifer that looked as if it had been replanted after Christmas and then forgotten about.   Alongside it were two large ash trees, there were other mature trees around the edges, and scattered over most of the rest of the site were a lot of self-seeded saplings, many of them elder or ash.

As you might guess, we made saving the fruit trees a priority.  It clearly had been an orchard at some stage and although the trees were overgrown and smothered in brambles and weeds, they still seemed to be producing fruit.   We might end up having to replace them, but we’d give them every chance to redeem themselves first.

The next decision though was that the Christmas tree really had to go. Despite a certain grandeur, it looked totally out of place and was overshadowing the fruit trees, not to mention blocking the view of the neighbours.  The larger ash trees were reprieved, at least until we had a better vision of how we wanted the site to look, but several of the smaller trees needed clearing.

I’ve done a bit of chain sawing before, but enough to convince myself that in the interests of keeping all my limbs intact, it’s probably a job best left to someone else.  I’ve also put up a fair bit of fencing in my time, without ever quite cracking the best way of doing it.   So for a couple of days in the spring of 2014, I brought in Nick and Rich, two guys with much more youthful energy than me, much more skill with a chainsaw, and much better knowledge of how to put up a decent fence and gate.


No picture ‘before’, but this is the ‘after’

They got the Christmas tree down, which made quite a striking difference, and helped me to clear some of the bigger brushwood and obstacles at the top of the site.  Whatever the dangers and the drawbacks of a chainsaw, it’s certainly a lot quicker at some jobs than a handsaw and a pair of secateurs.   Between us we cleared enough room to get in a gate at the top of the steps up from the road and a first section of fencing running down from it.  It was only a first small stage, but for the first time in many years, it started to look as if someone might actually own the site and be interested in it.

This is the third post in a series about the restoration of an old orchard.  You can see the earlier posts at the links below:

The story of a lost orchard – part 1

The story of a lost orchard – part 2