Country diary: Henry III’s charter helped this tree survive to a ripe old age


Epping Forest For centuries commoners were allowed to lop the beeches here for firewood. Now this ancient pollard is big enough to create its own microclimates

Centuries of sunlight have solidified into this beech’s massive presence, which creates its own woodland world. I stand beneath the grandeur of its shaded columns in veneration. But it was not always this way. This great beast was made to bend to the will of generations of commoners, lopped for the humblest of produce, a 10-yearly crop of firewood. It was a labourer, a working tree.

Until the mid 19th century, that is, when cropping ceased. Today, 20 poles, each the size of a mature tree, thrust skywards from the lumpen head of this ancient pollard. And around its great girth, in its crevices and creases, the microclimate changes with the compass. Dominating the trunk’s north-west curve, like a coral outcrop, the bracket fungus Perenniporia fraxinea fans out dramatically in three layers more than 120cm wide. For 20 years I’ve watched this veteran grow so large that its soft, skin-coloured underbelly is now punctured by a million tiny spore-producing pores.

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