Tuesday, 10 February 2009

JUGGLED BETULICIOUSNESS - was A Betulicious Excursion.

THIS post is now in the right order.  Huge thanks to Victoria and Joanna for showing me how to juggle posts.  If' you've already read the original, sorry to clutter you with a repeat!  But at least the blogsite is now tidy - sort of!

I can't tell you how good and virtuous I feel! Gardening was out of the question, this week end, everything being covered by snow or frozen slush, so I set about cutting up the remnants of our three, recently felled whitebeam trees.

With a simple bow saw, that was blooming hard work, but Oh the sense of virtue and satisfaction at the sight of a beautiful heap of logs, all split, stacked and stored! They'll be ready for burning in 2011 and I tell you, I've derived more joy from that than from putting down a case or two of Bordeaux!

Open woodland at Holme Fen Nature Reserve, Cambridgeshire.
BUT. . .
now for something more profound. No more jokes, please. No rants, no wisecracks about effete southerners or dysfunctional transport - just a note or two, with piccies, of a rather wonderful recent experience.

My good friend and critically acclaimed blogger recently asked why we seldom visit spectacular places if they are on our doorstep. We keep on saying, ' must go there one day,' but for some reason that day never comes. Well, over the recent Christmas break, along with the few members of the family who could be unglued from the festive decanter and dragged from the log-crackling stove, we bucked the trend and explored an absolutely mega local spot. OK, so it was a walk in the woods - but these are not just any old woods

Holme Fen, which contains England's largest natural birchwood, is a place I've had the best intentions of visiting these past 33 years! If you ever travel on the Edinburgh-London railway, look out of the port side windows (left hand side facing the direction of travel) about five minutes after leaving Peterborough. The billiard-table flat, industrially farmed fenland gives way, all of a sudden, to an impressive forest of our native birch, Betula pendula which runs along the railway track for a mile or so.

I know those woods from the outside because I frequently travel down that line. Every time I pass them, they look different.

Green and silver - the pattern of trunks rearing up from a carpet of mosses and ferns.

In winter, the silvery trunks catch the low sun and shine vividly above the tawny bracken; in early summer, bright, fresh young leaves shade a diverse and special range of fenland plants as well as foxgloves and more familiar woodland flowers. Come the autumn, and toadstool nutters would freak out at the diversity of the fungi – some edible, others deadly and many of ambiguous identity, just to keep them on their toes!

Birches, drawn quickly skyward, in a race to the light.

The quality of light, even where the trees are densely packed, is extraordinary. In typical British woodland, grey-barked ashes and craggy oaks tend to have a darkening effect, bringing twilight forward by an hour. But birches are different. Their pale, reflective trunks bump up the ambient light and the branches and twigs in the woodland canopy, are so thin and wiry, that daylight penetrates far more easily than with other trees.

In wide view, a ghostly quality results; when viewed close-to, each trunk is marked with fascinating patterns. On old trees, dark fissures and cracks contrast with the silvery skin, often dusted with algae or crusted with lichens and mosses.

The bark, on aged trees, becomes fissured and cragged;
colonies of lichens and mosses make harmonious colour schemes.

These woods are more dynamic, than any I've seen. Fallen branches lie everywhere and it is soon obvious that the life cycle of the birch is shorter and more intense than for more mighty forest species. Growth is fast, seed production copious and each tree seems to be on borrowed time. Even the fenland ground feels unstable, here. Peat, on a high water table quakes as you walk, almost as if the earth was a giant waterbed but more subtle and slight in its movements. This is not a little unnerving! Carpets of mosses reinforce the sense of unreality - a soft quilt, tempting to lie on, though not in January!

Birch Bracket Fungus, Piptoporus betulinus on silver birch trunk.

Holme Fen is managed by Natural England and you can find more detail about it here. As well as birchwood, there is acid heathland - a rarity in these parts - and fragments of sedge fen.

Interesting wild plants include climbing corydalis Ceratocapnos claviculata, an annual which we found as moribund winter dregs, but which, in summer, is pretty enough to encourage in any garden. You can find pictures and details here.

Natural England has worked hard, but with a light touch, to preserve and manage these remarkable habitats. It's hard to believe that they are bordered by Britain's most intensely farmed agricultural land and could so easily have been lost, a sacrifice to food production.

A felled ash - too alien to be allowed in a birchwood?
Tree and scrub management is carried out by Natural England.

This nature reserve is part of a magnificent plan to restore 3,000 hectares – almost 7,500 acres – of a unique landscape to its original, pre-drained state. Known as the Great Fen Project , it will connect Holme Fen with a second great reserve, Woodtwalton Fen.

Common reed, Phragmites australis,
crucial for the survival of so many fenland species.

At almost 3 metres below sea level, this is also Britain's lowest point. A place of reeds, dykes - the local word for ditches - unstable, blow-away peat soils, complex drainage systems and staggeringly rich wildlife. When the Great Fen Project is completed and the area known as Whittlesea Mere is 'un-drained,' we can expect breeding bitterns to be commonplace, in the vast reed beds. Ospreys will hunt over the open water and a substantial part of the pre-17th century fen character will return.

It's good to feel that although I won't be here when the project is completed, wildlife will benefit for future generations.

And what on earth, you ask, has all this to do with gardening? Well an awful lot, actually. The colours, shapes, textures, smells, natural harmony and downright eeriness of this place would inspire even the most lumpen horticulturist. Birches are widely grown, as garden trees, though many gardeners go for the more spectacular Asian or American species. Whatever your tastes, it is inspiring to see this splendid genus in a natural habitat, and to derive inspiration from that.

So if you ever pass that way, pay Holme Fed a visit. You will find yourself in a strange but exhilarating and exciting world.

But enough! Enough! Desist! Stop, now!! As ever, far too long a post and I thank you deeply if you have read this far down.

I'm listening to . . . my wife playing a clip from the film Doubt with Meryl Streep - apparently about naughty things in a convent. (I always thought it was a given that naughty things happened in convents.) Her computer is drowning Beethoven's Trio in C minor Opus 9 on mine.

I'm reading . . . Martin Chuzzlewit. Still!

This day last year I was . . . In the garden with my 5 year-old granddaughter who staggered me by recognising and naming witch hazel. She shows all the signs of becoming a keen gardener, poor love.


  1. I want to go there! If immediately were possible, I'd go there. Immediately.

    I haven't, previously, been a birch fan. Now I am - growing (and dieing) like this.

    The pictures are fantastic. Soon I'll have trouble not thinking I've really been there.


  2. I agree with Lucy - I'm not particularly a birch fan either but your photos are fabulous. I particularly love all the colour and texture in the one with the green mosses.

  3. An amazing post.
    Actually it reminded me of Dan Pearson's inspiring talk at Vista where he was tackling that same question of how to blend a garden into a wild (in this case Japanese) landscape.
    Really beautiful photos and lovely, lovely prose, thank you

  4. Looks very much like a troll forest I saw in Denmark, great fun, eerie and pretty.

    BTW 3 meters below sea level? Don't know how its inhabitants (human or otherwise) can stand it.

    I've cracked the problem of not going to interesting and/or beautiful places nearby by inviting friends from abroad as they always want to go there and I just tag along and see everything that's on my doorstep.

  5. Lovely to see Betula pendula growing in the wild. It is used here as a lawn ornament - and because of the birch borer must be completely drenched with Cygon yearly (it's illegal, but folks have held on to their supplies). Betula papyrifera is our better choice - far more resistent to the borers. Surprised they felled the ash - our B. papyrifera grows best in woodland communities & removing the other trees (as fancy cottage folks do - so they can see the nice white trees) is often deadly.

  6. Luvverly pictures Nigel.
    One of the things I remember about walking through birch woods is that some of the dead trees remained standing post mortem and would crash noisily to the ground when kicked.