Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Three yews

When I was little and I went to the village school, the walk there from home was full of fascination.

To describe it in detail would require many pages but for now I just want to tell you about one element of this walk. This is a group of three yew trees, the Triangle Trees, which stood about half-way along the path that cut off a big bend of the road between the level crossing (or, after 1964, its site) and the road/drive junction just near Lady Pease's house. The cut-through was probably only a couple of hundred yards long, but very useful.

The left-hand side of this path (heading towards school) wasn't very interesting. There was a tidy fence and beyond it the tidy grounds of the (rather grand) Hall. On the other side, though, was an intriguing wonderland. Towards the station end were some quite tall trees, then some lower scrubby wooded stuff, and then, before a more open (and hence less interesting) area, the three yews standing at one edge of the wooded part.

These three trees were very different in character.

A friendly, unchallenging tree stood right by the path, maybe just a yard or two off it. I cannot possibly convert into adult measurements my child's perception of its height, but it was really, by any standards, a pretty short kind of tree, like the runt of the litter or perhaps the baby in this little family. Being close to the path, and short, and friendly, this was a much-climbed tree, and its highly-polished limbs, glossy and smooth like artshop woodwork, or perhaps something sculpted or moulded, bore witness to this. Oddly, I can't remember ever seeing kids there apart from my own group of friends or my brother and his, but they must have been there or else the limbs would never have acquired that expensive bronze-cast look.

You could be up this tree in a couple of seconds. You couldn't design a quicker tree to climb: it was more like a particularly easy kind of ladder. Once you were up there, you couldn't really do much - there were no other positions to change to, no alternative branches to sit on, because you were either up it, or down, and that was about it. Nevertheless, it was quite a pleasing thing to have climbed up: you got a minor sense of accomplishment at merely being off the ground; you had started a climbing session, and therefore warmed up and reasserted your professional skills. You were up in something which might be a gatehouse or outlying fort, guarding the approach to the larger trees behind. You had a bit of a view, up and down the path. The flattish top was almost a comfy chair. This was an OK place to be.

Come down now from this first tree and stand by it, with your back to the path. You're facing the railway embankment which is maybe sixty yards away. Right in front or you, roughly fifteen yards off, are the other two trees of the group. They're equidistant from you and very close to each other so it's a long, thin isosceles triangle. A small path leads from the single, gatehouse tree to this pair, and once there you see a little, worn area between the trees, like a rather underused meeting place. In practice it's probably only there because that's where you climb from - there are better and more exciting places round here for a den, so I don't think it's that.

Arriving in this tiny clearing you might think you have a choice: the tree of the left hand or that of the right. Like so many seeming choices this is an illusion: only the right-hand tree is for climbing. I don't know how the left-hand one got so unclimbable. Was it the result of some biological accident, or did it decide decades or longer ago that it just didn't like kids? For whatever reason, it's become a perfect example of feedback: it's horrible to climb, so people don't bother to try, so it doesn't get smoothed and shaped by climbing the way the others do, so its unfriendliness is reinforced by new (awkward, spiky) growth - and so it goes on.

I've only climbed this tree a few times and it was no pleasure - you'd do it for the challenge or for the feeling of defiance, but not because you were going somewhere nice: far from it. Your dirty, tricky, painful climb is rewarded by, well, nothing much - suddenly you can go no higher and you're just left clinging uncomfortably to the trunk, a sense of arrival markedly absent. You're here but you're nowhere and the density of growth round you means there's almost no view. It was time to climb down before you even got here, you unwelcome visitor, and when, very carefully yet still covered in scratches, you reach the ground, you can't really see why you bothered with this tree at all. Face it: you hate each other.

The remaining tree, the one on the right, is a very different proposition. This friendly tree wants to be climbed. It's not as worn as its little relative by the path, but it does have some of the same patina, the evidence of generations of kids finding their way up it. It's not huge, but it is a proper climbing tree. There are enough good branches and enough gaps that it's an easy, interesting climb, and when you reach the top it opens out into a space like a living room, with maybe four or five places to sit. You're left in no doubt: you are here. You have a nice view too: the path, the little welcoming gatehouse tree, your hostile prickly neighbour, the woodland around you. It's a very fine place to be, and sitting up here you suddenly become rather adult and important, as if you should start calling meetings and discussing strategy. Actually, you should just enjoy being here.

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