Thursday, 24 November 2011
Seeking the Queen Beech
It's been quite a week for soul-food even outside the musical sphere: Durham, Rome (more anon) - and, by no means least on the list, the Chilterns. I've been wanting to go and gawp at some of the biggest, most awe-inspiring trees in the country since reading Richard Mabey's Beechcombings, but a succession of dull or busy Saturdays got in the way. Then, after it had seemed, as Eliot put it in Murder in the Cathedral, as if golden October had well and truly declined into sombre November, we had a patch of brilliant late-autumnal weather. And so, perhaps a bit late after Saturday lunch, we took a half-hour train journey from Euston, got out at suburban Berkhamsted and, armed with Ordnance Survey Explorer Map, headed for Frithsden Beeches.
We were there to enjoy the beauty of Berkhamsted Common on the Chiltern ridge, one of those free-for-all stretches of land which miraculously escaped enclosure over the centuries, and rather more specifically to search for a gigantic tree that rather paradoxically is a needle in a forested haystack, one I'd expected to be signposted, especially after its transient spell of fame in one of the Harry Potter films. It isn't, praise be, but we certainly happened to be in the right vicinity when I asked one man and his dog the whereabouts of the Queen Beech.
I can't do better than Mabey in his page two description of this 'antic and indomitable matriarch':
It seems elephantine, an impossible mass for a living thing. It is, I guess, between 350 and 400 years old: two centuries of being repeatedly beheaded for firewood, two more as a picturesque monument. It grew up in the open, unrestricted by other trees, and its long low branches trail out like the arms of a giant squid. Its trunk is vegetable hide, a mass of burrs, bosses, wounds, flutings, fields of scar tissues congealed around the points where the branches were lopped.
There's more - about what lives within and on it, about the extraordinary attempts by forestry professionals at a misguided recent era in tree history to fell this 'insult to the forester's craft', this health hazard and nuisance; an 'epic local uprising' saw that one off.
Now, unlike then, there are no notices other than footpath or bridleway signs - and since there are so many options, it's hard to know which way to turn. We came straight out of the north side of Berkhamsted Station, walked past the ruined castle
and headed to the ridge past a farm, fields of horses and the odd lovely oak
towards the south entrance of the wood
which was still glowing in the late afternoon sun
and rich in mushrooms.
Yet once we headed towards what we were explicitly seeking, Frithsden Beeches, rather loosely marked on the map, the sun barely snuck through the high treetops. There was one splendid glade of beeches to the right of the path, with clear signs of nature's gnarled reaction to all that coppicing
and J thought due north was the solution
until the man and his dog put us right and led us to the spot. Nearby, slightly less pachydermal sisters of the Queen like this one
bore some monstrous black fungal growths well worth viewing
but Her Majesty was indeed the one to stop and wonder at, for a good half-hour.
Could nature and necessity between them, not art, really have created this? Even her mossy roots against the bed of shed leaves are impressive.
The sun was quickly setting, so we proceeded some distance along the Hertfordshire Way on the ridge before doing the circuit back via Northchurch
the last bit in a very magical, damply autumnal dark. But here's another resource on London's doorstep which we really ought to discover much more. For easy-access country walks we've always headed to my old stamping-ground of Surrey, or the Sussex Downs; but the Chilterns are no less unique.