When I was a young girl I used to play beneath two mature beech trees at the bottom of my Grandmother’s garden, foraging and collecting bags of nuts and husks and fallen leaves in the autumn as if it were treasure. My own children do the same now whenever we go for a walk in the woods – always on the lookout for that perfectly shaped twig, the brightest leaf, the biggest hazelnut; driven by that innate instinct passed on by our hunter-gathering ancestors. Our sometimes forgotten intuitive self, quietly encouraging us to remember how vital our relationship – our connection – to nature really is.
And that spirit of nature is never more awake in me when I stand beneath the boughs of a majestic beech tree. There is something simply ethereal about being in its presence. The pale-grey, smooth bark of each trunk and branch reminds me of a wise, ageing elephant, and the shallow, often exposed roots serpentine along the woodland floor like untold secrets.
It seems I’m not the only one to be cast under its spell – associated with femininity, the beech has long been known as ‘Queen of the Woods’, sharing place of honour beside the ‘Kingly Oak’. She is considered protective and nurturing, offering shelter and shade beneath a dense crown – one that heralds the arrival of spring with an abundance of burnished bright green leaves, bursting from elegantly pointed coppery buds, before darkening and finally burning a fierce golden in the autumn light.
Widespread across Europe, the common beech loves loose soils and a temperate climate, and when allowed to grow to full form its wide-spreading, cathedral-like branches make an impressive and stately sight. Its leafy crown creates a shady woodland carpet of reddish brown leaves and husks, so that only rarer, shade-loving plant species can survive beneath its canopy. As one of our longer-living British trees, it matures to provide gnarled and rich habitats for many species dependant on deadwood such as insects and hole nesting birds.
As a lover of stories and books I was more recently interested to learn of the beech tree’s strong association with writing and lore. The Norse people of Scandinavia carved out their runes in its bark and called it ‘boeki’ – from which our English word for ‘book’ is derived, and it is said that the thin leaves of beech wood were once bound together to create the very first book.
I distinctly remember the day my Grandmother had her two beech trees cut down, simply because their shady crowns and dropping foliage interfered with her meticulously tended lawn and borders. Whether this childhood memory has played a part in my continuing soft spot for this tree I’m not sure, but I can’t ignore the pull I always feel towards it – that enchanting, and timeless sense of place I experience when pausing within its space. Growing as a solitary tree, or together in a woodland, it remains for me one of Mother Nature’s finest masterpieces in our British landscape.
National Trees Week – marked this year from 26 Nov to 4 Dec – is the UK’s largest annual tree celebration.
For more about tree and woodland habitats in the Yorkshire Dales National Park and the species they support, visit our website.