this week it is the beech tree’s apogee. everywhere in north norfolk beech trees are standing out as their leaves start to turn, blazing with copper and gold. the best place to see them round here is Felbrigg Hall, where there are native trees of huge size and age, relicts of a medieval or earlier wood pasture or wood commons.
in this avenue, one half of a v-shaped tunnel of beech planted to celebrate VE day after the second world war, the trees are only sixty years old, but behind the point of the v, and the tidy paths with the bench positioned so that you can see down both portions of the landscaped vista, there exist beech trees of a different sort entirely.
they tower above the underwood, massive trunks divided by ancient pollarding which has preserved them for double or triple the normal life span of a beech tree. the last time that they were cut was in the eighteenth century, so the subsequent growth is two to three hundred years old, the average age of a normal beech tree.
they are monsters whose stretched lives are accompanied by beneficial symbiotic and non-beneficial fungi. this is some sort of bracket, which does kill trees, but may be growing on a root, or a fallen branch.
their multiple trunks, smooth and serpentine, rear up a hundred feet or more and compete for the sunlight.
several have lost major sections and trunks splay out across the woodland floor, ripped off by their own weight, in various states of decay. this has happened in the last forty years – I found a photograph of them taken in March 1970 in Oliver Rackham’s book “Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape”, in which the massive boles stand intact and clear in woodland pasture, with none of the holly and probably none of the bracken, bramble and fern undergrowth that surrounds them today.
the remainder of the tree continues to live, apparently unaffected, but I suppose the fungal infection will spread through the entire organism in the end. several of these trees do seem to be in the later stages of life now
but there are younger trees here as well. much of the original timber planting on the estate in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries used naturally occurring seedlings (according to Richard Maybe in his book “Beechcombings”). unless the National Trust decides to start a pollarding programme they will never have the longevity of the ancient trees. grazing livestock and pigs feeding on beech mast would have kept the ground clear of new growth; the current policy seems to be in favour of allowing rotting trunks to deliquesce into the ground, providing habitat for a multitude of insects and thereby creating a species rich environment.
these fungi look like earthball, scleroderma citrinum, full of spores.
this dead giant has a young oak tree entangled in a fork.
the next generation, a delicate beauty.
two sections of trunk have collapsed, one leaning on a neighbour. we walk underneath it with some trepidation, but it is firmly wedged.
beech trees grow naturally on acid soils in Norfolk, especially on the Cromer Holt Ridge’s glacial sands and gravels, but most of the trees which this week are lighting up the roadside woodlands around Blickling and Thursford are planted. In Bale we had one mature hedgerow beech tree which was blown down in a March gale soon after the earthquake tremor in 2008; it turned out to be almost wholly rotten at the base of its trunk.
there is another on the road to Hindringham which seems to be suffering, this is the second year that its leaves have started to brown off much too early, with none of the mixture of healthy bright greens turning first to yellow and then to copper that the Felbrigg trees are displaying.
this bracket fungus looks a bit like Ganoderma sp. - Artist’s Bracket, and in fact the bracket on the ground in a previous picture might be the same – it is common on beech trees.
I found this quote on www.treeblog.co.uk – “This Ganoderma sp. is a saprophytic fungus: it will only attack the “non-living” heartwood and won’t harm the “living” sapwood. Infected trees may appear normally healthy in external appearance, but inside they can be a soft and mushy mess liable to collapse or fall over at any time.”
this is the biggest of the giants, and I didn’t see any fungus on it
four huge trunks soar upwards
carrying those sinuous beech branches way above the surrounding canopy. what magnificent trees; although their days are obviously numbered.
a postscript – Felbrigg also has wonderful spiral bark sweet chestnuts, also fairly ancient and some in a state of advanced decay, but truly lovely trees.