Small-Leaved Lime – Tilia cordata
As a child, I was sent away to a boarding school deep in the folded valleys of the Welsh Marches. It was not an experience that I look back on through a fog of nostalgia, for the harsh brutalities of English public schools still chafe at my psyche. Yet the welcoming woodlands and wetlands which drew me away from the more traumatic episodes of that time remain etched in my memories as oases of innocence that I still cherish, and which instilled in me a life-long enchantment with the ancient, living forest.
Beyond the boarding school, with its twentieth-century jumble of outbuildings, the classrooms, dormitories, and gymnasia – bordering the mowed and manicured cricket and rugby pitches – were forty acres or so of dark primaeval forest that, for years, became my refuge from the monotony of a classical English education.
The forest was not really anything like primaeval of course – hardly any features of a landscape that has been lived on, farmed, and fought over for two thousand years could be. The estate, having survived in the hands of one family from before the time of Henry Tudor, had been altered many times to suit the changing tastes of the landed gentry. Landscape gardeners had introduced trees that ranged from huge, painterly horse-chestnuts, to voracious swaths of rhododendron, to a pleached avenue of lime trees that had grown into a fused, interwoven canopy of green that framed the long formal drive.
However, with neither the inclination nor funds to maintain such formal features, the school allowed these exotic additions to run as wild and unsupervised as the feral boys that they sought to educate; for those feral boys, this only added to the variety of objects, or obstacles, to explore.
The lime trees were a marvel of old-fashioned horticultural perseverance. Hundreds, even thousands of trees, planted eight feet apart, were allowed to grow to twelve feet or so, before being pleached – brutally pruned and trained to grow horizontally – their only remaining branches woven and grafted together with their neighbours until they came to resemble an arcade, a living architectural feature that some ennobled heritor probably thought brought a civilizing formality to the backdrop of the pastoral Welsh countryside.
By the twentieth century, that sort of formalism had either gone out of fashion, or the talent to maintain the arcade had passed on. The powerful, and altogether natural, urge to grow skywards took hold of this vast, composite being, which sent out vertical shoots and risers from up and down its inosculated length, wilding, and wildly abandoning its former formality. From this greening nursery, twelve feet in the air, new trunks became new trees, often between the uprights of the trunks below, showing little regard for what structurally supported their growing bulk.
The first time I travelled up the drive, in the back of my father’s car, watching for a glimpse of my new school, the Lime trees had probably lived through a century or more of harsh tutelage under estate gardeners before enjoying the better part of another century to re-wild themselves. They looked, at first glance, to be just an avenue of trees – a dark and dense abundance of green foliage – doing their job, framing the view of that monstrous neo-classical house, as it grew in our field of vision. But later, left to explore this new environment, I discovered the secret within the trees that kept me in a state of arboreal wonderment for those years of my childhood.
I found, once I could shinny-up those first twelve feet of bare and inhospitable trunk to reach that first low-hanging or newly sprouted branch and pull myself up into the enclosing canopy, that a strange new world opened up to me.
The usually vertical adventures of tree-climbing – of which I had in my ten years of life become expert (having never experienced a fear of heights, or the sobering effects of a fall), opened up another dimension here in the Lime trees – where horizontal travel, albeit high above the ground became possible, along these lines of Lime, an arrow-straight path hidden among the dappled green of those heart-shaped leaves. They were aerial obstacle courses without compare – offering narrow paths of interwoven, fused branches from one tree to the next – for a quarter of a mile down one side of the driveway and back up the other. Yet, this arboreal pathway, released from its pleached constraints, set thick vertical challenges with new growth that both blocked my progress and also offered me options for scaling these scions to new heights and broader vistas.
The avenue of Lime trees took up much of my time and attention in those days – planning campaigns that marked success by the number of trees traversed, finding precarious ways to manoeuvre around the densest growth – slowly expanding my knowledge of arboreal life as I expanded my territory among the network of branches. Eventually, the path through the trees was completed, from one end to the other, and back again. It had become an all-consuming quest, a distraction, a sanctuary, but eventually its novelty receded and I found new trees to conquer, new distractions, and discoveries that led me away from the avenue of Limes.
The love of the old woods has stayed with me though, and even forty years on, I am still occasionally drawn to the challenge of an ancient giant, which of course I have to climb.
Author: Jeremy Blunt
For more on hedges, read the post “Dad’s Privet Hedge.”