Sunday, 2 December 2012

Tree time

The first weekend in December, ringing in Advent, and with it, winter. The Christmas tree was bought from the nursery up the road, crammed into the car and – thanks to the help of the good friends we’d invited over – hung with baubles and lights. This is clearly the way to decorate your tree, and I can heartily recommend the following method: assemble the necessary equipment (one tree, one set of LED lights to avoid traditional bulb faffing, one quantity of decorations of dubious taste and unashamed cheer), provide food and drink, and stick them all in a room together with some cheesey music. And Robert, I predict you’ll find, is your Auntie’s signifcant other.

Not for us the practical choice, the non-drop Nordman fir Abies nordmanniana with its soft, generously clothed branches and symmetrical outline. We prefer the traditional Norway Spruce, Picea abies, and all that that entails, from the refreshing smell of pine wafting through the house throughout the festive season to the inevitable carpet of dropped needles beneath the tree. It’s just a part of Christmas; our Christmas anyway. Others are welcome to their artificial trees, I’m sure they are the sensible, economic choice and very realistic these days. But I reserve the right to waste my money and hop barefoot and swearing into the kitchen, another sharp green dagger piercing the sole of my foot.

But big as the tree is, and warm and snug as the stove had made the house, come Sunday morning we were craving fresh air and bigger trees, and so drove to Friezland Woods in Tunbridge Wells, our nearest wood under the care of the Woodland Trust. A dramatic place, notable for the outcrop of massive sandstone rocks at the top end of the woods, over which huge yew trees tower, their roots grasping monumental boulders with iron intent. It’s an impressive sight and the closest thing to Angkor Wat you’re likely to find in darkest Kent.

And a wood is a good place to go for tall trees. While a lone tree out in the field will grow stout in girth and hearty in leaf and bud, its cousins in the woods will grow taller and straight, each in close proximity to its neighbour, drawing one another up in search of the light. Tall, straight timber is to be had from woodland trees, but not on the side nearest a clearing, where the light encourages the growth of the sideshoots and branches that will cause knots in the plank.

Below, the ground in spring is a rug weaved with bluebells, celandine and close relatives buttercup and anemone. Above is yew and holly, birch and hazel, oak and, for the moment, ash, and tall alder trees down by the stream where the steam train to Groombridge startles us and has us all scrabbling for cameras, resulting in a collection of appalling photographs. Then we too go in search of the light, heading up hill towards the edge of the wood, where we emerge to a newly ploughed field in the sunshine to drink coffee from flasks and eat donuts for Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, as we have a friend with us from Jerusalem and he’s come with provisions. Even Bill gets some, though not the coffee. You don’t want to give a terrier coffee.

After which home for lunch and to split some more apple and oak and chestnut for the fire, which has burned low since we’ve been out. A woody, tree filled, friend filled weekend in all.

Everything feels right. What a great start to winter.

Photograph at head of post by kind permission of Grant S. Rogers