It is a gray, damp winter’s day in the heart of the New Forest. Pillows of limp copper bracken fringe the edge of a muddy track. Two men dressed in simple forester clothing, wearing heavy hobnailed boots, stand to one side of the trail. The first leans on a tall, straight-handled shovel next to a freshly dug hole. His companion kneels next to a bushy four-foot-tall sapling lying at his feet. Its root ball is wrapped in hessian sacking tied with string, which he removes to reveal a compact clod of dark earth containing the young tree’s soft, fragile roots. Lifting the sapling by its stem, he brushes some of the soil free to expose the root tips. The sapling is then gently lowered into the waiting hole and held straight as the first man backfills it, gently bouncing the shovel to help break the dense loam to evenly fill the gaps between earth and roots. He gently heels in the surface soil, compacting it just enough to hold the sapling steady, but leaving it spongy enough to allow air and rain to penetrate.
As the two men move off to repeat the process with a second identical sapling, which is resting on bracken on the other side of the track, a third man carrying two pails of water approaches from the direction of a stream. He kneels next to the newly planted sapling, and his rough hands sculpt a crude moat in the soil around its base, before slowly filling it with water. He waits for the soil to suck it all down and the moat to drain, before filling and refilling until the water sits on the surface of the earth, and he can see his face reflected against the sky.
By the time he returns again with replenished buckets, the others have finished planting the second sapling. He carefully waters it while his companions carry bundles of cleft chestnut palings from a nearby cart. Within a couple of hours both saplings are circled by five-foot-tall fences, protecting the soil at their feet and shielding their foliage from winter-hungry deer. The men know all too well that the first few years will be crucial for these young trees, and satisfied that they have given them the best chance they can, they collect their tools and head back to the cart. The sound of their voices and the crack and lurch of the carts gradually fade away, and the two trees are left alone in silence to guard the track.
Behind them lies an enormous plantation of young English oak trees. But unlike the anonymous, leafless rank and file stretching away into the drizzle, these two saplings are New World ambassadors fresh from California. Nurtured and raised from seeds collected in the Sierra Nevada six years earlier, they hail from an exotic tribe of giant trees that will change the face of the British landscape for hundreds, if not thousands of years to come.
The drizzle soon turns to rain but as the skeleton army of young winter oaks grows dark in the wet, the verdant emerald foliage of the young evergreens begins to shine.
It was back-to-back AC/DC and Aerosmith on the stereo as we sped round the single-lane bends of the New Forest in Paddy’s beaten-up old Vauxhall. I was sixteen years old and feeling pretty rough. It was too early in the morning after the night before, and Steve Tyler’s singing wasn’t helping, nor was Paddy’s driving. Apart from the occasional pony standing in the middle of the road, the empty tarmac seemed to demand that Paddy gun his long-suffering car as hard as he could. Matt was crashed out on the backseat behind me. I turned away from the road ahead, opened the window, and gazed out at the trees flashing by. The closest were moving too fast to focus on, but behind them, in the depths of the forest, I could see the huge, silver-smooth pillars of ancient beech.
Paddy was in his element on these roads, but just as I was about to ask him to slow down, for the sake of his car’s interior, he spun the steering wheel to the right, yanked the handbrake, and catapulted us across a cattle grid. The car’s back end slid out before gripping suddenly on the tarmac of a small side road. Dropping the speed, Paddy rested his chin between his knuckles atop the steering wheel. The stereo was now off, and he was gazing up at the sky through the windscreen. Matt had been woken by the cattle grid and now had his head completely out of the window. All three of us were peering skyward with awe and excitement. We were here at last.
I leaned out through my window and breathed deeply. We were curb-crawling through a straight avenue of the tallest trees I’d ever seen. Rows of huge, straight trunks lined either side of the narrow road, their dark bark deeply fissured and corrugated with the rough texture of ancient cork, and their branches holding up the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral of dappled leaves. Light was filtering through in slanted shafts of heaven, almost as solid as the tree trunks themselves. After a few minutes we pulled over to the side of the road.
The air was heavy with the spicy citrus smell of conifer resin. It was early but the thermals on the surrounding heath were rising, sucking cooler air in from the nearby coast and filling our nostrils with the smell of the sea. High above, invisible in the deep green, I could hear a chorus of goldcrests. The living colonnade we had passed was a double row of tall ?— ?very tall ?— ?Douglas firs imported from Oregon. These were probably some of the oldest in Britain, judging from their size. A noble species of tree, true aristocrats. But not the trees we were here to visit, apparently. Paddy and Matt had other plans.
Both of them were looking across the road into the timber-dense forest, trying to see something deep inside. Peering in, I caught a glimpse of two giant hulking shadows in the green twilight. Before I could get a better look, Paddy had popped the car trunk open with a clunk. I looked down into a tangled nest of old rope, metal buckles, and leather straps. Both Paddy and Matt were climbers. But whereas Matt was in his element on rock, Paddy was training to be a tree surgeon and was all about the trees. Matt had his own gear, pretty Gucci-looking rock-climbing kit: a brightly colored rope, slippery and smooth like an oiled snake, accompanied by a bunch of shiny metal bling.
But the kit Paddy had brought along for us couldn’t have been more different: two skeins of ancient hawser climbing rope, two ragged harnesses, and a motley bundle of jangling carabiners ?— ?some of them clearly homemade. The ropes were stained dark green by algae, tree sap, and chainsaw oil, their twisted strands rubbed smooth and shiny by the friction of countless hands. Hand-me-down kit, too old and knackered to be used for work anymore.
We were still years away from government legislation designed to ensure that climbing kit was maintained in good condition. So in 1991 when a tree surgeon retired a climbing rope from service, it was generally for very good reasons. Chainsaws and ropes don’t mix well, and as I ran the loops through my hands I felt the frayed puffs of saw-damaged fibers, an accumulation of nicks and cuts that gave the thing a moth-eaten appearance. But if the ropes were bad, the harnesses were far worse. They each consisted of two wide belts of tattered canvas and leather. One belt to go round the waist while climbing, the other to slip under the backside like a swing seat. Neither harness had leg loops, and both stank of hard work and fear, a heady mixture of stal...