Coggeshall, Open Gardens and the love of trees

Have you got a favourite tree that you look at every day? (pic Richard Kinzler)

These pages have gone way too long without the writing of Anne Boileau. This particularly beautiful piece will surely touch us all.

One of the striking features of Coggeshall is the surprise of the back gardens, which are often larger and more leafy than you would expect on seeing the front aspect on the street.
My house fronts on West Street and is unquestionably a townhouse. But come in and go through the kitchen to the back door and you look out on to shrubs and trees as far as the eye can see, reaching down to the river. These unexpected back yards make our town’s Open Gardens such a pleasure.
I like to sit at dawn or at dusk by the back door in winter when the trees are naked and at their most honest. They have nothing to hide. This is who I am. This is my frame, my bare trunk, boughs, branches and twigs.
First tree, to my left going clockwise, is an ash tree, Fraxinus excelsior. Its trunk is clothed in ivy and it holds up its straight shoots from the pollarded bole like a large besom. It doesn’t know that Ben Hazell is coming next week to pollard it again. Last time we did it, the ash seemed to have taken offence; it sulked without any sign of regrowth until June and I was worried it had died. But it did grow back eventually and with vigour.
The next tree is a silver birch, Betula pendula. I love this feminine, delicate tree with its fine twigs, catkins and fissured trunk, contrasting white bark and grey stretch-marks. Sometimes our neighbours ask us to prune it back at the top because it robs them of light, but it always responds to pruning with renewed vigour.
Then in my other neighbour’s garden stands a tall, proud beech – Fagus sylvaticus. Its winter shape seems to depict the capillary pattern of a human brain, the details of which are hidden as soon as the new pale-green leaves open.
Next to the beech is a tall gum tree, Eucalyptus. It has a haphazard, random silhouette, some of the leaves hang on in winter, the bark peels and falls off like rags, the branches are untidy and irregular – it’s a messy, water-guzzling alien from Down Under. But when an evening breeze wafts across the fragrance of its essential oils, all is forgiven.
Next we see an oak, Quercus robur, roughly 200 years old. The oak is the best host for wildlife of all our native trees. There’s a saying about the oak: it spends 300 years growing, 300 years living and 300 years dying.
Living so near Marks Hall, we can’t help but be aware of the disgraceful felling of the Honywood Oaks in the 1960s. At 1,000 years old, they must surely have had Tree Preservation Orders (TPOs) because these were introduced as part of the Town and Country Planning Act 1947. But perhaps the Forestry Commission felt able to justify its action because of the perceived need to plant conifers for pit props and building.
The final tree I see from my back door, also in my neighbour’s garden, is a lime tree, Tilia europaea, last pollarded two years ago and doing well. In eight short weeks all these naked trees will wake up, become coy and clothe themselves in fresh green raiment and their branches and twigs will be concealed. They will breathe sweet fragrance into the evening breeze.
Trees have nothing to hide. Trees speak to us. They were here yesterday and they’ll be here tomorrow – long after we have shed our own leaves and sunk back into the good earth.
Have you got a favourite tree that you look at every day?

Anne Boileau
March 2024