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Holidays and field trips

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Birthday Tour (Part 3): Loch Tay & the Ardeonaig Sycamore - Killin

…Continuing from Part Two, in which I visited the Glen Lyon Ash.

I don’t think I have ever seen Loch Tay looking so beautiful as it appeared on my 27th birthday – the whole scene was absolutely breath-taking. This is the view west towards the Killin end of the loch…

…and this is the view east. The town of Kenmore (which I had just driven through on my way from Fearnan) can be made out at the point where the River Tay, the longest river in Scotland, exits the loch en route to Perth and Dundee.

Blue skies, snowy mountains, and reflections in a still loch… lovely!

This monster sycamore grows close to the hamlet of Ardeonaig, beside the road which runs just to the south of Loch Tay along its full length between Killin and Kenmore. I’m calling it the Ardeonaig Sycamore, although a more fitting (but probably misleading) name may be the Ardeonaig Plane Tree, as that was the common name for Acer pseudoplatanus once in common usage in Scotland. I discovered this tree last June, being immediately struck by its immense size as I walked by on the Rob Roy Way with a couple of friends (although I had driven along this road at least a couple of times previously without spotting it).

The trunk – and these photos don’t do it justice – really is enormous. It’s just a solid wall of wood. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a measuring tape with me and so can’t provide an accurate size. As you can see, before long the trunk branches into three major stems. Each one would be a respectable sycamore on its own!

When the trunk is examined from the lane, as in the above photo, or when the whole tree is admired from down the lane in either direction, the Ardeonaig Sycamore appears to be in exceptional health. The crown is full and healthy and the stem is flawless – for a tree of such outstanding stature, the expected depredations of age are surprisingly absent.

However… This time I climbed up the little banking / decrepit wall to get a look at the back side of the tree, only to be equally surprised at the amount of decay visible back there! The back half of the tree tells a completely different story to the front half. It appears as though the Ardeonaig Sycamore once had four massive stems, but at some point the back stem broke off completely, probably falling harmlessly into the field behind. In the photograph above, taken looking up at one of the remaining stems, the bottom half of the picture is almost all decaying wood and the associated new growth (the fourth wall of CODIT). The presence of this significant amount of decayed wood right at the base of this huge stem has worrying implications for the tree. I cannot envisage this stem remaining upright for long. In fact, with this amount of decay where all three major stems join the main bole, I would say that in all likelihood this tree is close to disintegrating, with one, two, or all three of the remaining stems falling outwards.

This photograph of the eastern side of the tree shows part of the old wound created when the fourth stem snapped out. Presumably decay was already present to cause that stem to fall, unless it was broken by entirely mechanical forces; however, a wound of this size has undoubtedly promoted further decay, and now the enormous bole is actually mostly hollow at ground level. This is a massive shame. When I came across the Ardeonaig Sycamore last year I thought I had discovered something really special: an enormous veteran tree enjoying the good health of youth. Now I know that it was only putting on a brave face.

And here is one more view of Loch Tay – I can’t resist!

Having left behind the Ardeonaig Sycamore (and Glen Lyon Ash and Fortingall Yew), I made my way to Killin and stopped for refreshment at the Falls of Dochart Inn. The Falls themselves were in low flow and very tame. Unfortunately, before long I had to tear myself away from this enchanting part of the country and make a start on the drive back to Edinburgh… Still, I trust it shan’t be too long before I’m back up at Loch Tay. I am well and truly under its spell!


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Coming soon: a long-awaited update on the Set A grey alders…


Posted in Holidays and field trips + Notable trees





Birthday Tour (Part 2): the Glen Lyon Ash – Loch Tay

…Continuing from Part One, in which I visited the Fortingall Yew.

Snow-capped Creag Roro (left) and the summit of An Stùc (1,118 m high) seen from Glen Lyon. Out of shot further right, the summit of Ben Lawers could also be seen - my third Munro, which I climbed in 2008.

Leaving Bridge of Balgie I retraced my route a little way until I came upon the Glen Lyon Ash, which I’d already driven past in the opposite direction. I would have stopped the first time but I knew that the Ben Lawers pass, the mountain road between Bridge of Balgie and Loch Tay, was blocked with snow and impassable by car (I’d walked up from the Loch Tay side as far as the Lawers Dam with friends a few days before and it was definitely blocked!). This meant Glen Lyon was effectively a giant cul-de-sac, so I’d have to backtrack as far as Fortingall to continue my tour.

The Glen Lyon Ash.

In the summer of 2008 I stayed with my parents for a week at Pubil, an absolutely tiny settlement at the far end of Glen Lyon. One day we were driving down the road when I noticed an ash tree of exceptional girth. I knew it was something special and had to get out of the car to have a look and take some photographs, which you can see in this vintage Treeblog post. That was the first I knew of the Glen Lyon Ash.

This Highland Perthshire website labels it the greatest-girthed ash (Fraxinus excelsior) recorded in Scotland, although it isn’t mentioned in my Tree Register Handbook. I wish I’d taken a tape measure along to see how it compares with the recognised champions. According to Highland Perthshire, “Close to the ash tree there is an ancient cross carved on a stone by the road. This is ‘St Adamnan’s Cross’ [shown on the OS map] and nearby is a stone with a deep hole where, so the legend goes, the saint banished the plague from the glen.” As if I needed an excuse to go back again!

The Ash grows but a field from the River Lyon. Here’s the view across the river and through the trees to Creag Roro and the summits of An Stùc and Ben Lawers.

The Glen Lyon Ash does get a mention in a Forestry Commission document titled Scotland’s Trees, Woods and Forests (available to download as a .pdf): “The Glen Lyon Ash can be found midway up this beautiful Perthshire glen. Ash trees are not noted for their longevity, but this tree is the exception. Thought to be 400 – 500 years old, this ash was once more than 100 feet high. It has recently been cut back to produce new growth, which should see it survive for another century or two.” You know, I would kill to see a photograph of this ash standing proud at its full height. The tree is also name-checked by the Woodland Trust’s Tree Disease website.

The Glen Lyon Ash seen with more of its surroundings. We’re facing north here, with our backs to the river.

You can clearly see that our ash was once a much taller tree. Its ‘pollarding’ was severe, but the Ash today is flourishing and it has already established a fine new crown. I hope the wood-rotting fungi take it easy on the bole and roots so the tree can live out the FC’s optimistic prediction of another century or two, but there are dark clouds on the horizon in the form of Chalara fraxinea - the dreaded ash dieback that has run rampant across Europe.

Anyway, after tearing myself away from this awesome veteran I made my way back down Glen Lyon to Fortingall, then hung a right to Fearnan… and Loch Tay!


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Continue to Birthday Tour (Part 3): Loch Tay & the Ardeonaig Sycamore - Killin.


Posted in Holidays and field trips + Notable trees





Birthday Tour (Part 1): Loch Rannoch - the Fortingall Yew – Bridge of Balgie

I woke up in a tent on my 27th birthday. It was early April, I had slept at the Forestry Commission’s campsite in Rannoch Forest, and it was as perfect a spring day as ever there was. I hatched a plan to photograph three big trees in the vicinity of Loch Tay while taking a motor tour through this part of the Highlands like a tourist of old: the Fortingall Yew, the Glen Lyon Ash, and a monster sycamore near Ardeonaig.

My campsite was just a short distance from both Loch Rannoch and the Black Wood of Rannoch, a remnant of the great Caledonian Forest, through which I’d walked the previous day.

Driving east along the road that follows the shore of the loch I passed the wee village of Kinloch Rannoch and soon met with the singular sight of a very shiny, snowbound Schiehallion. I climbed this mountain in November 2011 – my fifth Munro! – when I was lucky enough to see a faint Brocken spectre with double glory.

Following the Schiehallion road brought me up to Loch Kinardochy, which in contrast to the warmth of the day was still half frozen over. Back in the car I took the road south before turning right at Coshieville to follow the River Lyon upstream to Fortingall.

This is Fortingall parish church with the famous Fortingall Yew on the left. I’ve visited the yew five or six times over the last half-decade, but I’m now ashamed to admit that I never paid the church or churchyard any attention. Researching the church to say a little about it for these pictures has made me realise what I’ve been missing out on - antiquities that were right under my very nose half a dozen times! I only had eyes for the old tree, but my ignorance is inexcusable over so many visits… I must make amends on the next one.

The present church was built about 1900 on the site of its pre-Reformation predecessor. Three photographs from 1884, showing this earlier church and the yew (with a much smaller crown than today), can be found on the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland’s Canmore website.

According to this page on Undiscovered Scotland, the site may have been occupied by a monastery before the 1100s. Gravestones dating back to the 7th century, a stone font from around 700, and fragments of three Celtic crosses dating from around 800 were all found when the previous church was demolished in 1901. A 7th-century bronze-plated iron hand-bell is also on display within the church. As Undiscovered Scotland say, “Fortingall appears to have been an important Christian centre from a very early date.”

Today the Fortingall Yew is enclosed by a sturdy stone wall with sections of iron railings to allow a glimpse of the inhabitant’s trunks; only the healthy crown can be seen from farther back, a golden-green cloud resting upon a plinth. Peering between the railings, the uninformed would be forgiven for believing that they were looking at a pair of quite unremarkable trees. In fact these are but two fragments of a once immense trunk of almost unbelievable proportions, but being fully shrouded in healthy bark and showing no sign of decay, they could pass unrecognised as two yews of far less ancient provenance. The truth is nothing short of mind-blowing!

The Fortingall Yew is one of the oldest known trees in Europe. Allen Meredith (whose estimates according to The Tree Register Handbook “are as well-informed as anyone’s”) has suggested it could be as old as 5,000 years (along with the yews at Discoed in Powys and Llangernyw in Conwy), which is certainly something to think about. But what I find truly incredible is the gargantuan size it once reached. Forget the Yew as it stands today, so small, so utterly destroyed by ‘tourists’ in the 18th and 19th centuries, and try to wrap your mind around this: in the mid-1700s the Fortingall Yew had a girth of 56 and a half feet (17.2 m): a diameter of 5.5 metres (18 ft)! Consider that the thickest tree in Britain today is probably the Marton Oak with a dbh of 446 cm when measured around the three remaining sections of its trunk (although there are giant sequoias 7 m thick where their flared boles meet the ground). A five-and-a-half metre thick yew is phenomenal!

So how did such an enormous and enormously important tree end up looking like two smallish trees? I’ll let four old books tell that sorry tale (forgive a touch of overlap).

This sketch of the Fortingall Yew is taken from Thomas Pennant’s A Tour in Scotland; 1769, first published in 1771. The accompanying description runs: “A View of the gigantic Yew-Tree in Fortingal Church-Yard. The middle part is now decayed to the ground; but within memory was united to the height of three feet: Captain Campbell of Glen-Lion having assured me that when a boy he has often climbed over, or rode on the then connecting part.

In this book Pennant describes his visit to Fortingal on the 31st of July, 1769:

Rode to Glen-lion; went by the side of the river* that gives name to it. It has now lost its antient title of Duie, or Black, given it on account of a great battle between the Mackays and the Macgregors; after which, the conquerors are said to have stained the water with red, by washing in it their bloody swords and spears. On the right is a rocky hill, called Shi-hallen, or the Paps. Enter Glen-lion through a strait pass: the vale is narrow, but fertile; the banks of the river steep, rocky, and wooded; through which appear the rapid water of the Lion. On the north is a round fortress, on the top of the hill; to which, in old times, the natives retreated, on any invasion. A little farther, on a plain, is a small Roman camp†, called by the Highlanders Fortingal, or the Fort of the Strangers: themselves they style Na-fian, or descendents of Fingal. In Fortingal church are the remains of a prodigious yew-tree, whose ruins measured fifty-six feet and a half in circumference.

* This river freezes; but the Tay, which receives it, never does.
† It possibly might have been made during the expedition of Severus, who penetrated to the extremity of this island: it was the most northern work of the Romans I had any intelligence of.

Walter Johnson’s Byways in British Archaeology, first published in 1912, also mentions the Fortingall Yew. Johnson includes Pennant’s 1769 measurement (though mistakenly describing it as having been recorded “a few years later”, an error repeated from Loudon as you shall soon see) alongside another measurement taken in 1769 by Barrington, a judge – unfortunately there is a four-and-a-half foot discrepancy, perhaps accounted for by the measurements having been taken at different heights. Johnson writes:

From a long descriptive list of aged yew trees, slowly accumulated in a note-book, a few examples only need be extracted. At the head, in regard to antiquity, stands probably the yew in the graveyard of Fortingal (Fortingale, or erroneously, Fotheringhall), Perthshire. Sir R. Christison estimated this tree to be 3000 years old, and deemed it “the most venerable specimen of living European vegetation3.” De Candolle’s determination was about the same as Christison’s. The hollow stump, which has been carefully railed in, is now the merest wreckage. The Fortingal yew was measured by Daines Barrington in 1769, when the circumference was set down as 52 feet1. Pennant, a few years later, gave the result as 56½ feet… It is worthy of notice that a very old ecclesiastical establishment once existed near the Fortingal yew3. Loudon gives us a woodcut representing the tree as it appeared in 18374; beyond this we have to rely on the figures quoted, and on oral tradition.

Competing with the Fortingal yew for the premier position, there formerly existed that of Brabourne, in Kent. It was alluded to by Evelyn in his Discourse on Forest Trees (1664), as already “supperannuated,” and it disappeared about a century ago5. De Candolle put its age at more than 3000 years6, and while this was doubtless an over-estimate, yet, if the recorded circumference, 59 feet7, be correctly stated, the tree was actually more ancient than its Scottish rival.

A third claimant, from Hensor (Bucks), must be introduced with a wavering pen. Its circumference, according to Mr J. R. Jackson, of Kew, was 81 feet8, hence, if this measurement be accurate, the yews already mentioned are hopelessly out-ranged, for here we should have a tree 2000 years old. Unfortunately, this yew no longer remains to tell its own story, or to allow the measurement to be checked.

3 Life of Sir R. Christison, II. p. 264. Physiologie Végétale, t, II. p. 1002.

1 Philosoph. Trans. 1770, LIX. P. 37.
3 Notes and Queries, 5th Ser., V. p. 477.
4 J. C. Loudon, Arboretum Britannicum, IV. p. 2079.
5 Murray, Handbook for Kent, 5th edition, 1892, p. 37.
6 Physiologie Végétale, t, II. p. 1002.
7 Handbook for Kent, l.c., Black’s Kent, p. 143.
8 Notes and Queries, 5th Ser., V. p. 376.

So there once existed an even larger yew than the one at Fortingall! Later in his book, Johnson touches on one of the reasons for our yew’s present diminished state:

The Fortingal yew had its career shortened by the lighting of Beltane fires against its trunk1. The origin of Beltane fires is on all hands admitted to be at least pre-Roman. Another illuminating fact is that when this aged tree had become separated into two portions, funeral processions were accustomed to pass between the limbs2.

1 Naturalists’ Journal, 1895, p. 99.
2 Nat. Jour., l.c.; J. G. Strutt, Sylva Britannica, 1826, p. 28. Strutt gives a fine illustration of the Fortingal yew.

Jacob George Strutt does indeed give “a fine illustration of the Fortingal yew”. Here it is, taken from his Sylva Britannica; or Portraits of Forest Trees, first published in 1822 (an expanded edition followed in 1830). It is a far more life-like representation than the sketch made by Pennant in 1769, and I think we can safely consider it a fairly accurate likeness of the tree as it was in the 1820s.

Strutt provides us with an updated description of the yew:

THE FORTINGAL YEW is one of the largest and oldest trees in Scotland: it stands in the Church-yard of Fortingal, or the Fort of the Strangers, so called from its being in the vicinity of a small Roman camp; a wild romantic district lying in the heart of the Grampian Mountains, comprehending Glenlyon and Rannoch, abounding in lakes, rivers, and woods, and formerly inhabited by that lawless tribe of freebooters, who, setting the civil power at defiance in the intricacy of their fastnesses, laid all the surrounding country under that species of contribution so well known at the time it was exacted, by the name of Blackmail.

This prodigious tree was measured by the Hon. Judge Barrington, before the year 1770, and is stated by him to have been at that time fifty-two feet in circumference; but Pennant describes it as measuring fifty-six feet and a half. The same elegant tourist also speaks of it as having formerly been united to the height of three feet; Captain Campbell of Glenlyon, having assured him that when a boy, he had climbed over the connecting part. It is now however decayed to the ground, and completely divided into two distinct stems, between which the funeral processions were formerly accustomed to pass. It is impossible to ascertain its age; but judging from its present state and appearance, it is not too much to suppose that its date is contemporary with that of Fingal himself, whose descendants the Highlanders in the vicinity are fond of styling themselves.

Johnson, in his Byways in British Archaeology, also wrote that “Loudon gives us a woodcut representing the tree as it appeared in 1837”. Here is it, taken from John Claudius Loudon’s Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum, which was originally issued in sixty-three monthly parts from January 1835 until July 1838. Loudon’s illustration matches up nicely with Strutt’s.

Loudon gives our best insight yet into the appalling fate of the Yew:

The Fortingal Yew (fig. 1989) stands in the churchyard of Fortingal, or the Fort of the Strangers, so called from its being in the vicinity of a small Roman camp, lying in the wild romantic district at the entrance to Glen Lyon, in Perthshire. Its age is unknown, but it has long been a mere shell, forming an arch, through which the funeral processions of the highlanders were accustomed to pass. It was first described in the Philosophical Transactions (vol. lix.), in 1769, by the Honourable Daines Barrington, who found it 52 ft. in circumference; and some years afterwards, by Mr. Pennant, when the circumference had increased to 56 ft. 6 in. Dr. Neill visited the tree in July, 1833; and a notice of it by him will be found in the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal for that year, from which we make the following extract; premising that, when Daines Barrington measured the tree, he found one side of the trunk a mere shell of bark, all the interior having decayed. “Considerable spoliations,” Dr. Neill observes, “have evidently been committed on the tree since 1769; large arms have been removed, and masses of the trunk itself carried off by the country people, with the view of forming quechs, or drinking-cups, and other relics, which visitors were in the habit of purchasing. What still exists of the trunk now (1833) presents the appearance of a semicircular wall, exclusive of the remains of some decayed portions of it, which scarcely rise above the ground. Great quantities of new spray have issued from the firmer parts of the bark, and a few young branches spring upwards to the height, perhaps, of 30 ft. The side of the trunk now existing gives a diameter of more than 15 ft., so that it is easy to conceive that the circumference of the bole, when entire, should have exceeded 50 ft. Happily, further depredations have been prevented by means of an iron rail, which now surrounds the sacred spot; and this venerable yew, which, in all probability, was a flourishing tree at the commencement of the Christian era, may yet survive for centuries to come.”

This is the larger of the two fragments of trunk still surviving today.

According to Undiscovered Scotland, a wall was first built around the Fortingall Yew in 1785, “though as already noted this seems to have done little to prevent further damage. The wall was rebuilt with gaps for viewing protected by railings in 1842…” This protective enclosure still surrounds the tree, and without it I sincerely doubt that there would be anything left of the yew today. Fortunately, the regenerative abilities of the ‘immortal’ yew have allowed the pathetic remains of this once-gargantuan tree to flourish within their sanctuary, and today they could pass as two healthy but entirely separate trees, five metres apart. A ring of wooden pegs on the ground marking out the extent of the old trunk connect the two fragments, and the twin crowns blend together as one.

This is an old postcard of the Yew and the church from my collection. I’m not sure of the date it was taken. It is unused postally, which doesn’t give any clues, but the church is clearly the one built after 1900. The Fortingall Yew itself had a much smaller crown then, when its previous appalling treatment was a less distant memory. The gravestones are our best bet at fixing a date for this photograph. The bright white one on the right must have been erected only recently here: in my present-day photo below, it has been discoloured by the passage of time. There are other changes to the graves too.

A familiar scene, April 2013.

…So after bidding the yew a fond farewell I took the picturesque Glen Lyon road as far as the Bridge of Balgie, where I’d hoped to enjoy a birthday scone. Unfortunately, as I had very little cash on me and the wee post office / tearoom didn’t accept card payments… I had to settle for a tin of Irn Bru and a Double Decker instead!


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Continue to Birthday Tour (Part 2): the Glen Lyon ash - Loch Tay.


Posted in Holidays and field trips + Notable trees





MacCulloch’s Fossil Tree

The Ardmeanach Peninsula with Loch Scridain on the left.

I went on my own up to Mull for a few days at the end of March. On my first full day there I climbed Ben More, 966 metres tall and the island’s only Munro - my seventh. On my third day there I took the ferry across to Iona and visited the ruined nunnery and restored abbey, and the next day I had an eleven-hour drive back to Sheffield. On my second full day on Mull – the 31st of March - I went for a walk to see MacCulloch’s fossil tree.

I left the car at the National Trust car-park just past Tiroran on the Ardmeanach Peninsula and set off west along a Landrover track. It was a beautiful day, warm enough for shorts and t-shirt for the most part. The previous day I’d climbed Ben More in dense fog, relying on map and compass to reach the summit and descending in chilly rain. The day after, on Iona, the weather was miserably overcast and drizzly. But the day I chose to visit the fossil tree was absolutely lovely. Lucky me!

Looking back at the farmhouse at Burg, the last inhabited house on the peninsula and home to the only person I saw on my whole six-hour walk – an old man who stood looking after me once I’d passed by. Today this farmhouse and a small bothy are about all that’s left here, but over fifty people lived at Burg before the Highland clearances in the 1840s. East of Burg, there were also settlements at Culliemore and Salachry, but these too were cleared in the 1800s for sheep-farming. I saw a lot of ruins of small buildings along the track.

This 19th-century monument stands in the centre of a ruined iron age fort – you can see the thick, curved wall in the right of the picture. This “probable D-shaped semibroch or a sub-oval dun” is known as Dun Bhuirg. Archaeological notes are available at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland’s website.

It was also called Castle Dare at one time. A plaque on the other side of the monument, erected by Mr. John Hamilton Turner, reads:

DAISY CHEAPE
ACCIDENTALLY DROWNED IN THIS LOCH
15TH AUGUST 1896
”BELOVED”
”CASTLE DARE” HER FAVOURITE PLACE

Puir wee lassie. According to Walking on the Isle of Mull by Terry Marsh, Daisy’s family owned the Tiroran and Carsaig Estates. She died, aged twelve, when the small boat she was in with her brothers Ronald and Leslie was overtaken by a storm as they sailed to Carsaig. The boat capsized and sank with Daisy caught in the rigging; the boatmen and her brothers survived. Her proper name was Helen Margaret Cheape. [I found this further information here.]

Looking east, back along Loch Scridain.

At one point in my walk, I rounded a corner and was surprised by this sight: two stags (red deer or roe?), a family of feral goats, and a buzzard!

This mad wheel of basaltic cooling columns is in the sea close to MacCulloch’s fossil tree. I have read that this wheel itself was formed by lava cooling around a tree – we’re seeing a horizontal cross-section of the tree and the surrounding lava, whereas MacCulloch’s tree is seen in vertical cross-section. It seemed to me that this wheel was the terrifying maw of a gigantic kraken.

The wheel and a collection of more regular vertical cooling columns.

Even closer to MacCulloch’s fossil tree, the path takes you to a rusty old ladder that leads down onto this stony beach. The ladder looked very old and seriously corroded, so it was an act of faith to climb down it. An even older and rustier ladder still hangs on beside it!

And so, finally, to MacCulloch’s fossil tree – after a four hour walk which I reduced to two hours on the return leg simply by taking next to no photographs.

The tree was probably swallowed up by a lava flow from Ben More, then an active volcano, between fifty and sixty million years ago during the Paleogene period. Although the fossil today is mainly just an imprint, at the time its discovery by John MacCulloch in 1819 the imprint was lined with a two-inch deep layer of charcoal which has since been removed by souvenir hunters and unscrupulous geologists. The remains of the stump are capped by concrete to preserve what is left.

The best and most technical description of the fossil I could find was in a paper by Marsh, B. D. &. Coleman, N. M., published in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research (volume 182, issues 1-2, pp. 76-96) in 2009, entitled ‘Magma Flow and Interaction with Waste Packages in a Geologic Repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada’:

Perhaps a more pertinent example [of quenching] is MacCulloch’s Tree in Ardmeanach of the western Mull magmatic comples of Scotland. Here a large (~2 x 15 m) upright Eocence (~55 Ma) conifer (Taxodioxylon) has been encased in a columnar basalt lava flow. The clearly defined quenched margins are of a thickness approximately that of the radius of the tree (see Figure 7). In addition to the distinct quenched margins, also clear in this example is notable horizontal columnar jointing or fracturing due to contraction upon cooling. Columnar jointing is an indicator of the direction of cooling, with the trend of the columns being in the direction of the local strongest influence on cooling. This pattern of jointing shows the major effect of this tree in quenching massive flowing basalt.

I’ve annotated my photo to match Figure 7 in Marsh & Coleman’s paper, which they caption: ‘Upright Paleocene conifer caught in a thick basalt flow in Scotland. The distinctive quenched rinds have been noted along with the strong horizontal columnar jointing reflecting the overall effect of quenching and local rapid cooling. Also notice the man for scale. (after Emeleus and Bell, 2005).’ Emeleus and Bell are the authors of The Paleogene Volcanic Districts of Scotland. I provide the scale!


Posted in Gone for a walk + Holidays and field trips





Tall trees at Diana’s Grove, Blair Castle (with a note on Britain’s tallest trees)

A fantastic avenue of lime trees running towards Blair Castle from the front gates.

The day after I walked around the Hermitage at Dunkeld I climbed Cairn Gorm - my sixth Munro - on a beautifully clear but cold day, and the day after that I set off on the long drive home. My great Scottish excursion had just about come to an end, but I still had something left to look forward to in Blair Atholl.

In May 2008 I arrived at Blair Atholl station with a couple of friends from university. We’d caught the train from Edinburgh and were just setting off on five days of walking and camping, going to Aviemore via the Minigaig Pass, the Linn of Dee, Loch Etchachan, Loch Avon, and Glenmore. From the station we walked up past Blair Castle and entered a small wood called Diana’s Grove. An information board by the gate got me pretty excited. Under the heading ‘Some Notable Trees’, it listed ‘Tallest Japanese Larch in Great Britain’, ‘5th tallest Douglas Fir in Great Britain’ and ‘Tallest Red Fir in Great Britain’! We had only just started our hike, so didn’t hang about, but I remember being impressed by a grove of very tall conifers.

Three and half a years later and I was back. The same information board tells how Diana’s Grove was set out in 1737 and takes its name from the statue of the Roman goddess of hunting that stands there; that it is renowned for its exotic conifers; that some of the first European larch (Larix decidua) to be grown in Britain were planted there in the 1730s by the second Duke of Atholl; and that the seventh Duke introduced Japanese larch (Larix kaempferi) in 1884 and replanted much of the grove.

Many of the trees in the grove are numbered. On the left in this photo: No. 47 – a grand fir (Abies grandis), which was 62.7 metres tall with a diameter at breast height (dbh) of 180 cm when climbed by a team of arborists in February 2009, making it one of the tallest trees in Britain. Champion Trees of Britain & Ireland by Owen Johnson (The Tree Register Handbook – published 2011) gives the grand fir national champion for height as a tree at Ardkinglas, Argyll, which measured 64.3 m tall with a dbh of 210 cm in 2010 (it was planted in 1875).

On the right: No. 45 – a Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), now the tallest tree in Diana’s Grove. It measured 60 metres tall with a dbh of 131 cm in 2007 according to my Champion Trees, which lists the tallest Douglas fir in Britain as a 63.8 m tree with a dbh of 180 cm (measured in 2009) at Stronardron, Argyll.

Unfortunately a storm in March 2010 blew the top out of the grand fir. I think it still has a far more impressive trunk than the Douglas fir it now has to look up to.

The statue of Diana, Roman goddess of hunting. A small plaque on the plinth states that the original statue by John Cheere was erected by the second Duke of Atholl in 1737. It was replaced (by the seventh Duke) in 1893 after the ‘Great Storm’; the replacement was restored in 1997.

Champion Trees lists a giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) growing in Diana’s Grove, on a mound of earth called Mount Strange, as the national champion of its species for height; it was 54.5 m tall with a dbh of 151 cm in 2007. (A few days earlier in my trip I’d visited Britain’s widest conifer, another giant sequoia at Cluny House Gardens near Aberfeldy - Champion Trees lists that one as being just 41 m tall but having a massive dbh of 360 cm!) I did see the Mount Strange sequoia but I didn’t take a decent photo so you’ll have to make do with the mushroom.

According to an information board there, the Mount Strange tree was grown from seed collected from the Grizzly Giant, the largest redwood growing in the Mariposa Grove of Yosemite National Park, California. The mound on which it grows was reshaped in 1884 to match the diameter of the trunk of the parent tree (according to Wikipedia the Grizzly Giant has a dbh of 780 cm these days!) - it initially commemorated “the 2nd Duke of Atholl taking his seat in parliament. He had recently inherited the title Barony of Strange through his paternal grandmother and went under this to parliament in 1737, the year in which Diana’s Grove was originally laid out.”

Of the red fir (Abies magnifica), which I don’t believe I could find, Champion Trees lists the Diana’s Grove tree as being 41 metres tall with a dbh of 163 cm in 2007 (and gives its date of planting as 1878). It is the red fir national champion for girth, but there is a taller red fir listed at Dunkeld House (43 m tall with a dbh of 127 cm when measured in 2007).

This is the national champion Japanese larch for height. According to Champion Trees it was planted in 1886, and in 2007 was measured at 44 m tall with a dbh of 97 cm. There is, however, a Japanese larch with a greater girth at Barton House, Warwickshire – that tree is listed as having a dbh of 115 cm in 2007.

This excellent noble fir (Abies procera) was growing in the castle grounds outside of Diana’s grove. It’s neither the tallest nor the broadest of its species, but it is nevertheless an imposing beast.

Fungi growing from the base of one the limes on the grand avenue.

In my last post I wrote that the tallest tree in Britain was the Stronardron Douglas fir near Dunans Castle, Argyll, which was measured by a team of tree surgeons in February 2009 and found to be 63.79 m tall. You may however have noticed that in this post I have mentioned a 64.3 metre tall grand fir at Ardkinglas, Argyll, but this tree was measured more recently, in 2010. Champion Trees of Britain & Ireland was only published last year, and it is a definitive guide (and well worth investing in). I give it the last word:

The Ardkinglas grand fir grows in a fairly exposed spot beside Loch Fyne and, since 1991, has died back twice but regrown vigorously. In April 2010, it was climbed by a team of tree surgeons led by Iain Campbell Duncan and found to be 64.3 m tall. Its closest rival was a Douglas fir at Stronardron, Argyll, which was climbed in 2009 and was 63.8 m tall (and growing steadily); a Douglas fir of identical height at Lake Vyrnwy, Powys, split and was felled in 2011. Heights of 64 m have been claimed for ‘Dughal Mor’, a Douglas fir in Reelig Glen Wood near Inverness, Highland, but it is probably nearer 62 m. Another Douglas fir at the Hermitage, Dunkeld, Perthshire, grows on the steep bank of the Braan burn and is 65 m from its tip to the lowest exposed roots, but only 61.3 m to the ground on the top side when climbed in 2009.

The best trees in several stands of Douglas fir and grand fir in Snowdonia, planted by the Forestry Commission from 1919, passed 60 m around 2005 and seem likely, within a few more years, to provide all of our tallest trees.

…And that, I promise, was the last post from my November trip!


Posted in Holidays and field trips + Notable trees





The Hermitage, Dunkeld, and one of Britain’s tallest trees

A feisty River Braan flowing through the Hermitage.

More from my Scotland trip in November! The day after my tarriance in the Caledonian pinewood at Glenmore, I drove south to Dunkeld and met up with a good friend from university who I’d not seen in almost a year. Things worked out well because I wanted to visit the Hermitage to see one of Britain’s tallest trees, and he used to work in Dunkeld and was familiar with the area.

Just before the supertall tree I wished to see was this fine Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), itself an impressive enough sight with its towering, ramrod-straight stem.

The tree I came to see – the supertall tree – is the one on the right. In February 2009, a team of arborists from Sparsholt College in Hampshire were tasked with making official measurements for the Tree Register, who pointed them at four candidates for Britain’s tallest tree. The tallest was the Stronardron Douglas fir near Dunans Castle, Argyll, which measured 63.79 m (209 ft). Second place went to the grand fir in Diana’s Grove at Blair Castle, Blair Atholl (62.70 m) – which I visited at the end of my trip – while third place went to the Dughall Mor Douglas fir at Inverness (62.02 m). The fourth tallest tree was the supertall Douglas fir in my photograph, which was found to be 61.31 m tall. It is now the third tallest tree since the Blair Castle tree came a cropper in 2010 (which I’ll cover in the next post!), assuming no other reshuffling of the champs, which are raising the bar all the time.

The tallest Douglas firs in the world are found in their native range in North America. They are about the 100-metre mark! The only other species of tree with individuals taller than 100 m is Sequoia sempervirens - the California or coast redwood. The world’s tallest known living organism is a coast redwood called Hyperion – it was discovered in 2006 and has been measured at a whopping 115.6 m (379.3)!

The Black Linn Falls – seen under the bridge in the first photo - were fair roaring. I remember my mate telling me he’d seen salmon leaping up the falls before. I was well jel!

After crossing the bridge and checking out Ossian’s Hall and Ossian’s Cave we walked upstream...

We crossed back over the Braan at the Rumbling Bridge, where there are more falls, and looped back to where we started, on the way passing these mushrooms sprouting from a heavily decayed birch. Then back to Dunkeld for dinner in the Atholl Arms Hotel!


Posted in Gone for a walk + Holidays and field trips + Notable trees





Caledonian pinewood in Ryvoan Pass, Glenmore (Part Three)

Following on from Part One & Part Two

Scots pine – probably my favourite photo of the trip.

Another fine pine, but you may have noticed that the lower trunk is dead and barkless on the left-hand side. The crown still looks healthy though.

Orangey Scots pine bark caught in the late afternoon sun must be one of the nicest colours a tree can possibly be, don’t you think?

A hydra-like downy birch (Betula pubescens).

Downy birks and a pointy holly (Ilex aquifolium). Down in the bottom, the Ryvoan Pass runs gently uphill from Glenmore, which is off to the right / south-west. You can get across to Nethy Bridge if you follow the Pass, but I looped back to my base at the youth hostel in Glenmore.

The lower slopes of Cairn Gorm occupy the distance. I climbed to the top a couple of days later, it becoming my sixth Munro bagged to date. Only another 277 to go then.

The junipers sure looked lovely illuminated by the setting sun.

This pine was an absolute monster! The stump and wound at the bottom of the tree coupled with the lack of any branches on this side of the trunk show that this monster was, until recently, a twin-stemmed monster – i.e. it was twice as big as it is now!!

Here it is from a distance: look at the crazy spread of those lower branches! It’s three trees in one, arranged like the ace of clubs! And to say half of the tree is missing… Wow.


Posted in Gone for a walk + Holidays and field trips + Notable trees





Caledonian pinewood in Ryvoan Pass, Glenmore (Part Two)

Juniper (Juniperus communis).

After a wee intermission I’m back with more photos from November’s Scottish excursion. Part Two continues where Part One left off, and I’m sure there’ll be a Part Three along soon - and afterwards a little post about my visits to some of Britain’s tallest trees. Did you know that it’ll be treeblog’s fifth anniversary next month?

Looking down the barrel of a big, old Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris).

A typical Caledonian pinewood scene. Heather, bilberry (blaeberry) and juniper form the shrub storey while Scots pine forms a rather open canopy, with a few downy birches for company. Other trees I saw in the Ryvoan Pass, but in miniscule numbers, were willow, rowan, holly and alder.

This downy birch (Betula pubescens), a silvery island in the sea of juniper, has a sort of ethereal feel about it, glowing as it does in the sunlight. Imagine coming across it glowing like this in the moonlight.

The Caledonian pinewood is a thing of such beauty!

The exposed roots in these photos all belong to pines growing out of a banking beside the shore of the Green Lochan – An Lochan Uaine – a small tarn whose waters have a strange turquoise hue.

An Lochan Uaine – not looking green at all in this picture, unfortunately. I didn’t see any leeches either, but I didn’t know to look!


Posted in Gone for a walk + Holidays and field trips





Caledonian pinewood in Ryvoan Pass, Glenmore (Part One) – including a brief history of Glenmore

Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) in the Ryvoan Pass, near Glenmore.

At Glenmore, near Aviemore, there is a remnant of the ancient Caledonian Forest. Today, only 180 km² of the Caledonian Forest remain – a pathetic 1% of its estimated maximum extent. As is usually the way, Homo sapiens is to blame for the loss. If you’d like to find out more about the Caledonian Forest, let me point you in the direction of Trees For Life, an inspirational organisation ambitiously dedicated to restoring a 2,300 km² area of the Forest. This description of the Caledonian Forest is taken from their website:

The Caledonian Forest originally covered much of the Highlands of Scotland… the native pinewoods, which formed the westernmost outpost of the boreal forest in Europe, are estimated, at their maximum extent, to have covered 1.5 million hectares as a vast primeval wilderness of Scots pines, birch, rowan, aspen, juniper and other trees. On the west coast, oak and birch trees predominated in a temperate rainforest ecosystem rich in ferns, mosses and lichens. Many species of wildlife flourished in the forest, including the European beaver, wild boar, lynx, moose, brown bear and the wolf, as well as several notable species of birds - the capercaillie, the crested tit, and the endemic Scottish crossbill, which occurs nowhere else in the world apart from the pinewoods.

However, there has been a long history of deforestation in Scotland, and clearance of the land began in Neolithic times. Trees were cut for fuel and timber, and to convert the land to agriculture. Over the centuries, the forest shrank as the human population grew, and some parts were deliberately burned to eradicate 'vermin' such as the wolf. More recently, large areas were felled to satisfy the needs of industry, particularly after the timber supply in England had been exhausted. The widespread introduction of sheep and a large increase in the numbers of red deer ensured that once the forest was cleared, it did not return.

Today only a tiny percentage of the original forests survive, and the native pinewoods have been reduced to 35 isolated remnants. Gone with the trees are all the large mammals, with the exception of the deer. Species such as the brown bear and the wild boar had become extinct by the 10th and 17th centuries respectively, while the last to disappear was the wolf, when the final individual was shot in 1743.

A large witch’s broom on a large downy birch (Betula pubescens) – a common abnormal growth caused by the fungus Taphrina betulina.

After staying at Fearnan by Loch Tay for a couple of nights, from where I visited the Birks of Aberfeldy and Britain’s widest conifer at Cluny House Gardens, I drove north to Glenmore (climbing Schiehallion – Munro no. 5 - en route) and checked into Cairngorm Lodge, a SYHA hosel, for four nights. The next day (Nov. 20th) I meandered (really meandered) part-way up the Ryvoan Pass to An Lochan Uaine – the Green Lochan. I’d walked down the pass and past the Lochan to camp near Glenmore three years previously with two friends, towards the end of a hike from Blair Atholl to Aviemore, but that’s another story.

Looking up at one of the giant Scots pines of the Caledonian Forest.

To provide you with a very brief history of Glenmore during the past century, I’ve just skimmed through the excellent little book I bought from the Glenmore Forest Shop during my stay. The book is called ‘No rivalry but different’; Glenmore and Rothiemurchus in the 20th Century, the third publication in the Touchwood History series. It was written by Mairi Stewart and first published in 2010.

Pine foliage against a clear, blue sky – it was a lovely day for late November in the Highlands!

One hundred years ago, the estate of Glenmore was owned by the Dukes of Richmond, who used it as a hunting ground. Between 1916 and 1918, during the First World War, just over a hundred thousand trees on the estate were felled to provide timber for the war effort – to make pit props, trench supports, crates, etc. Thankfully, the 7th Duke, Charles Gordon-Lennox, is said to have stipulated that some trees were retained to allow the forest to naturally regenerate – trees to be spared had the Duke’s stamp burned onto them. In 1923, the Duke sold the 12,474 acre estate to the newly-created Forestry Commission. Although the Commission decided that three-quarters of the estate were unsuitable for forestry, it had planted around 1,300 acres by 1934 – favouring the faster-growing but non-native Sitka spruce, Norway spruce and European larch over Scots pine.

Looking up at an absolute monster of a Caledonian pine. I have never seen Scots pines like these – they really are jaw-droppingly, breathtakingly, heart-stoppingly awesome.

Glenmore escaped the forester’s axe during the Second World War because it was considered more important for training soldiers than for supplying timber (although neighbouring remnants of the Caledonian Forest, at Abernethy and Rothiemurchus, were not so lucky).

A large fragment of scaly pine bark.

Glenmore was run as both a sporting and forestry estate until 1947, when it was designated a Forest Park. This re-branding officially recognised the popularity of parts of the estate with outdoor activities enthusiasts. Extensive planting continued throughout the Forties, Fifties and Sixties, however. In the 1960s recreation at Glenmore, particularly skiing, really took off, and a lot of new infrastructure was built. By the early Eighties the campsite at Glenmore was accommodating a thousand people at its busiest, and the main focus had shifted from forestry to recreation.

In the foreground – juniper (Juniperus communis). I have never seen so much juniper! In many places it formed an almost continuous shrub layer beneath the pine trees. Very pretty, very necessary for gin, but very prickly when wading through a waist-deep sea of the stuff to get to the next big pine.

During the 1990s the Forestry Commission underwent a significant change in its outlook and policies, with the old approach of “create as much timber as possible” replaced with a more responsible approach to forest stewardship. At Glenmore this meant felling the non-native trees planted in earlier decades, resulting in the decimation of two-thirds of the forest. These areas are being replanted with the native Scots pine.

Huge. Beautiful. Ancient.


Posted in Gone for a walk + Holidays and field trips + Notable trees





Britain’s widest conifer, a giant redwood, at Cluny House Gardens

Britain’s widest conifer.

After I’d been around the Birks o’ Aberfeldy, I drove to the nearby Cluny House Gardens because I’d recently heard that Britain’s biggest-girthed conifer grows there…

…and I wasn’t disappointed. What an impressive tree it is! Not only is the trunk massively massive, it also reaches some pretty lofty heights. This champion tree is, surprise surprise, a giant redwood (Sequoiadendron giganteum) a.k.a. a Sierra redwood or giant sequoia or Wellingtonia. An information board in front of the tree informs the eager tourist:

A Perthshire plant collector, John D Matthew, introduced Giant Sequoias into the country from California, in 1853. The two Cluny trees were planted around this time possibly from the original seed collection. This magnificent specimen stands at around 45 m (135 feet) in height, has a girth of 11 m (35 feet) and is the widest conifer in Britain.

Giant Sequoias are very fast growing averaging 0.75 m (2 feet) per year in height until they reach a height of about 60 m (200 feet). Vertical growth then slows down but growth of the trunk continues at a rate of 50-70 mm (2-3 inches) a year sometimes as much as 150 mm (6 inches) annually.

The woody cones are 50-100 mm (2-4 inches) long and roughly spherical reaching full-size in the first year but maturing in their second. They can remain on the tree for over 20 years. In their native woodlands in California, forest fires are necessary to open the cones while they remain on the tree. The heat releases the seed which falls and germinates in the ash. The trees themselves are protected from fire by a very thick fissured layer of soft bark up to 300 mm (12 inches) thick.

A bit of zoom to peer into the canopy.

This is the massive tree at ground level with a human scale. It’s much more impressive in real life. The Tree Register’s excellent handbook, Champion Trees of Britain & Ireland by Owen Johnson, lists the tree as having a diameter at breast height (1.4 m) (dbh) of 360 cm and a height of 41 m in 2009. By comparison, the largest tree in the world (by stem volume) is the giant redwood General Sherman in California – Wikipedia records it as being 83.8 m tall with a maximum basal diameter of 1,110 cm and a dbh of 770 cm – therefore it is more than twice as tall and twice as thick as the British girth champ. There are even taller sequoias - the tallest is 95 m! - and even wider sequoias - General Grant has a dbh of 880 cm! (Wikipedia’s Sequoiadendron page has all the stats.)

A visitor to Cluny House Gardens is bound to see red squirrels. There is a feeder beside the redwood, and while I was marvelling at the tree one of the little fellas was eating its fill. This was my first opportunity to observe red squirrels up close – although I couldn’t class them as ‘being in the wild’. The info board next to the tree says that they have been seen just 2 metres from the top!

The Gardens have a relaxed vibe to them. Mind you, I was the only visitor in there! You can borrow a walking stick as you enter (free entry when I visited, but there’s a donation box), and one of the first things you see is a sign asking you to PLEASE WALK ON THE LAWN - I knew straight away this was a cool place.

There is a second giant redwood, although it isn’t quite as big as its buddy. My Champion Trees of Britain & Ireland gives its height as 33 m and its dbh as 331 cm (although it seemed to me there wasn’t much between the two redwoods’ heights).

This is where the second giant meets the grounds. Incredible.

Looking up at the No. 2 redwood. What a fantastic tree!

Here’s one of the cones. I’d love to collect some seed one day and grow my own redwoods.

Under the second redwood, a delicate mushroom: could it be a pink waxcap (Hygrocybe calyptriformis)? But then wouldn’t it have a split cap, or is this just a young specimen?


Posted in Holidays and field trips + Notable trees





The Birks o’ Aberfeldy

Moness Burn.

I recently spent a fantastic week on my own in Scotland making pilgrimages to big trees and climbing a couple of Munros. At the beginning of my week I walked around the Birks of Aberfeldy on a rather dank and overcast day. The Birks is a small, wooded valley through which flows the Moness Burn. It was originally known as the Den of Moness but the name was changed after Robert Burns visited and wrote the song ’The Birks of Aberfeldy’ in 1787 (‘birks’ is Scots for ‘birches’).

This is a European beech (Fagus sylvatica), although you can’t tell from the moss-covered trunk. Down here in the countryside on the edge of the Peak District, beech trees have beautiful silvery trunks more or less free of moss and lichen. I know our trees would probably have been dripping with lichens before the Industrial Revolution, but I reckon a beechwood is better-looking with its silverware on display.

A statue of Rabbie has been seated by the burn. Someone had attached a Remembrance Day poppy to his lapel.

An oak leaf amongst beech leaves.

I passed a few small waterfalls as I walked up the valley. There was a fair bit of water going over them – it had rained like billyo in the night.

The waterfall on the left drops into the burn just upstream of a wee gorge.

It’s funny how this oak burr is made up of segments that are trying to be hexagonal, as if it has formed like a big, wooden crystal. It kind of looks a bit like a turtle-shell.

Another oak tree – an overgrown coppice.

Eventually I reached the big waterfall, the star attraction of the Birks. This photo doesn’t really do justice to its size and power, but I assure you it was quite impressive in the flesh. There’s a really tall Scots pine growing from the bottom of the braes – you can see part of the trunk running up the left of the photo.

A footbridge over the top of the fall allows for a closer look at the action and the opportunity to walk back down the valley on the other side of the river.

The oaks in their winter coats of lichen really stood out from the bare birks.

A giant old stump exhibited fantastical patterning and had pretty groovy colouration to boot.

Abstract.

If you’re going to encircle a young tree with a metal bench, the tree would probably appreciate if you removed it before… this.


The Birks of Aberfeldy, by Robert Burns

Chorus:
Bonie lassie, will ye go,
Will ye go, will ye go;
Bonie lassie, will ye go
To the birks of Aberfeldy.

Now Simmer blinks on flowery braes,
And o'er the crystal streamlets plays;
Come let us spend the lightsome days,
In the birks of Aberfeldy.

[Chorus]

While o'er their heads the hazels hing,
The little birdies blythely sing,
Or lightly flit on wanton wing,
In the birks of Aberfeldy.

[Chorus]

The braes ascend like lofty wa's,
The foaming stream deep-roaring fa's,
O'erhung wi' fragrant spreading shaws-
The birks of Aberfeldy.

[Chorus]

The hoary cliffs are crown'd wi' flowers,
White o'er the linns the burnie pours,
And rising, weets wi' misty showers
The birks of Aberfeldy.

[Chorus]

Let Fortune's gifts at random flee,
They ne'er shall draw a wish frae me;
Supremely blest wi' love and thee,
In the birks of Aberfeldy.

[Chorus]


Posted in Gone for a walk + Holidays and field trips





The Cape Wrath Experience. Watery postcards from North-West Scotland.

A powerful waterfall above Bucktooth’s Meadow in Glen Golly. We were going to camp in the meadow on our third night, but nay sooner than we’d selected a passable pitch a swarm of midges materialised and we legged it sharpish.

Two weeks ago I was on a hike in the extreme North-West of Scotland with two friends from uni. This was Team Seatle’s fourth big walk together, having previously done Lake Windermere and Coniston Water in the Lake District in 2007, Blair Atholl to Aviemore through the Cairngorms in 2008, and the Skye Trail in 2010. This year, because of some spectacularly wet weather, we had to cut short our planned route. Yet despite our perpetually saturated boots (leading to some impressively sore feet on my part), we still managed to enjoy four days of walking and three nights of camping in an incredibly remote and beautiful part of the country.

I drove us up from Edinburgh on Saturday the 28th of May and we stayed the night in the Durness youth hostel. The bunkhouse was pretty basic, but as we discovered later in the week, the communal area in the second building was lovely and cosy. In the morning we caught the ferry across the Kyle of Durness - we were lucky the ferrymen decided it was safe to cross as the sour weather had prevented any crossings being made the previous day. On the other side of the water we walked through an incredible rainstorm to arrive soaking wet at Cape Wrath, the most north-westerly point of mainland Britain; we camped just south of the Cape that night. A sunny Monday saw us walking south towards Sandwood Loch before turning east up a long glen where we made camp again. It bucketed it down during the night, but Tuesday (Day Three) gave us pleasant weather. This was a long day of walking up and down glens, past lochs and waterfalls, for miles and miles and miles. We camped not far from Glen Golly, and as we were eating our evening meal the rain started up again. It rained hard all night and we seriously thought the tent wouldn’t make it through to the morning, the wind was giving us that much of a hard time. (We should never have doubted the tent.; it was only forty pounds from Halfords but it has seen us through all four walks!) We were rained on all day Wednesday as we followed the road down Strathmore to Loch Hope. Here we turned onto the Moine Path, which was pegged as one of the trip highlights. Unfortunately, three weeks of unseasonally bad weather (and I suppose that’s saying something for this part of the world) had turned the path into a seriously unpleasant quagmire. After trudging uphill for an hour (my wet boots had been busy on my feet the past few days so I was limping quite badly), we came to the first of fourteen rivers marked on the map. The river before us was a raging torrent, though I suspect it is usually a quiet stream. Well, we were wet enough already without performing another river crossing, and we reasoned that we might struggle across seven rivers only to be well and truly blocked by the eighth, so we made the decision to retrace our steps back down the Moine Path.

I hitch-hiked back to Durness to collect the car, then I drove us to Tongue were we spent Wednesday night in considerable luxury at the youth hostel there (where we had planned to stay anyway), after a grand meal in the bar at the Tongue Hotel. The next day we were tourists, visiting places like the cleared township of Ceannabeinne, the ‘beach of the burn of the old woman’, and the awesome Smoo Cave. The night we spent back in Durness hostel, and we drove back to Edinburgh on Friday the 3rd of June. Quite an adventure!

I know that hasn’t got anything to do with trees, but it sets the scene for the handful of photos I took that actually have trees in them. There aren’t many trees up in that wild land.

We passed this rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) on Day One soon after crossing over the Kyle of Durness on the ferry (which was just a really small boat). It was just coming into flower.

The Kyle stretches out behind the rowan. In the distance we saw a group of seals chilling on a sand bank.

On Day Three a landrover track we had been following ended abruptly at a loch. We followed deer tracks around the edge of the loch and had to cross over this boisterous stream which was at the foot of a very impressive waterfall… (The tree in this photo is another rowan. The vast majority of trees we saw were rowans or downy birches (Betula pubescens)).

…this waterfall. Seeing the waterfalls in full flow was definitely a worthy pay-off for suffering with incessantly-soaking boots. We filled our water bottles at this one. The water was good.

This is another ‘tree’ that we saw a lot of. It was common on the boggy moors and grew no taller than the grass and heather. I’m fairly sure that it’s some dwarfish species of alpine willow, but I can’t make a positive ID. Can anybody help me out with this one?

We walked past this broch in the rain on Day Four (the stone structure by the river). We passed it again driving back to Edinburgh so we stopped to take photos in better weather. According to the information board: ”When built about 2000 years ago, Dun Dornaigil (or Dornadilla, as it is also called) would have stood about twice as high. Its drystone walls formed a complete circle, pierced only by a single narrow entrance. The walls were hollow, and within their thickness a stone stair gave access to several narrow galleries, probably used for storage. The inner courtyard would have held a thatched wooden dwelling which housed the small farming community who had built the broch as a shelter against marauding raiders.” The Strath More river is calm in this photo, but when two days earlier it was flowing frighteningly fast.

We stopped for a bit at Glenmore near Aviemore on the way back to Edinburgh. This is the view across Loch Morlich to the Cairngorms; those leaves in the foreground are common alder (Alnus glutinosa). The weather was phenomenally nice, so it was a bit weird to be seeing snow on the tops. After resting by the loch-side for a while, we headed to the café adjoining the visitor centre for cake and a drink… which was exactly what we did as we passed through near the end of our big hike in 2008! I thought that was a nice touch.


* * * * *

June’s video-laden edition of the Festival of the Trees - No. 60 - is hosted by Brenda of Rubies in Crystal. Go read / watch!


Posted in Holidays and field trips





Holiday snaps from the French Riviera

Whizzing past a vineyard in the south of France.

I flew to France with three mates a couple of weeks ago. We landed at Nimes, picked up our hire car, and set out on a six-day jaunt along the Côte d’Azur taking in Marseilles, Toulon, Saint-Tropez, Cannes, Monaco, Nice and Arles. It was awesome. A few observations: the French don’t know what real tea is / beer costs twice as much as it does in the UK / the French aren’t afraid to bash into things (other cars, bollards, etc) when parking / the French don’t appear to drink milk (or chocolate milk) / London plane (Platanus x acerifolia) is the street tree of choice / street trees and trees at campsites are almost all kept perpetually pollarded and/or subjected to extreme butchery! (And never, ever take your car into a French multi-storey car-park if you value your paintwork.)

The top of a pollarded London plane. All those wounds are bound to let in disease, and most of the trees were partially or entirely hollow. I have a photo of my friend stood inside one!

This square in Saint-Tropez was lovely with its dozens of plane trees. I wish we had somewhere like this in Sheffield!

Pine trees at one of the campsites. These pines grew in great abundance everywhere but I don’t know what species they were.

This olive tree (Olea europaea) stood in a beautiful public garden in Monaco. Judging from the size of its base, I’d say it was very old indeed.

I think this is some kind of fig tree (Ficus), but again I don’t know the species. There were quite a few growing in Monaco. I thought these buttresses made a good throne.

Some of the figs were dropping aerial roots down from their crowns. This group had almost reached the ground.

Another fig’s buttresses had formed a impressive wall!

Palm tree, Saint-Tropez.


Posted in Holidays and field trips





The Petrified Forest of Lesvos

A long, long time ago… in August 2003, I holidayed with my family on the Greek island of Lesvos (or Lesbos). One day during our stay we paid a visit to the Petrified Forest of Lesvos, which just so happens to be the largest petrified forest in the world, covering as it does an area of several thousand hectares. The forest was declared a Protected Natural Monument in 1985; it is also designated as a European and Global Geopark.

Fifteen to twenty million years ago, a sub-tropical forest flourished on the north-western part of the island. But this lush ecosystem was suddenly entombed completely by pyroclastic material produced by volcanic activity in the northern Aegean Sea. This rapid burial coupled with the hydrothermic circulation of heavily silicated fluids within the sediment ensured that some plant tissues were perfectly fossilised. Inorganic matter replaced organic matter practically molecule for molecule in a process known as petrification. As a result the internal structures of many trees have survived, perfectly preserved, to the present time. Annual growth rings and even individual cells can still be seen clearly today, and several large trunks remain standing upright on their intact roots.



It’s hard to imagine a forest ever existing in such a dry and barren landscape.

This stump is seen from another angle in the photo below:

There’s me, aged seventeen, taking photos with a film camera. How old-fashioned!

Disclaimer: these photos were taken by my father with an early digital camera, the Fuji FinePix 1300. It was capable of capturing a whopping 1.3 megapixels.

* * * * *

Some of the information in this post was taken from the Petrified Forest of Lesvos pages on the ‘Global Network of National Geoparks’ site. Further information can be found at the Natural History Museum of the Lesvos Petrified Forest site.


Posted in Holidays and field trips





A handful of field trip iPhone photos

The quality of these photos is poor because they were taken on my mobile (I didn’t have my camera with me). Yesterday my arboriculture class went on a couple of wee field trips to see some gymnosperms and today we went on another to see some angiosperms. It was awesome to be out in the woods with some seriously big trees. I saw the largest Norway maples (Acer platanoides) I’ve ever seen today at the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Moorlands Nature Reserve - super-tall, super-straight big stems - and yesterday we saw a magnificent Turkey oak (Quercus cerris) by the roadside near Askham Bryan.

Yesterday we visited the Forestry Commission’s Wheldrake Woods where they have plenty of conifers growing, including trials of grand fir (Abies grandis). The woods were full of fungi, including loads of these striking fly agarics (Amanita muscaria).

We also called in to see how our Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) plantation, that we planted at Escrick Park Estate in December, was getting on. Unfortunately it appears a fairly high proportion of the seedlings have died, but our forestry guru was unperturbed. Still, it looks like the beating up is going to be pretty heavy going, particularly with the resurgent bracken coverage.

These brackets – which I’m fairly certain are chicken o’ the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) – were growing from a big old Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) stump at Moorlands NR. I don’t recommend touching them: they are grossly slimy.

Another gnarly bracket (actually much yellower than my phone depicts)…

…and the stump itself.

This gigantic European beech (Fagus sylvatica) was breath-takingly huge. Unfortunately it has been savaged by artist’s conk (Ganoderma applanatum) – you can see a few of the big brackets - and so the upper part of the tree has been completely removed for the safety of the reserve’s visitors – what you see in this photo is pretty much all that remains. The stem has been left upright to provide ‘standing deadwood’, and the timber from the crown has been left on the ground to rot away too.

Moorlands has some fantastic trees, but there are a hell of a lot of rhododendrons around. Apparently the lady volunteer who has managed the woodland for the past twenty-odd years is a big fan of them. How the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust can reconcile this with the fundamental concept of a nature reserve is beyond me. Rhododendrons are among the last things you should want in a nature reserve!


Posted in Holidays and field trips





The Skye Trail

Team Seatle wake up to a beautiful morning on Day 3.

Last week I walked the Skye Trail over seven days with a couple of friends from uni. Skye is a beautiful island, even though 90% of its surface seems to be bog. We were mega lucky with the weather; apart from a couple of occasions when it rained at night and we were kept dry by the tent, we were only rained on for about an hour for the whole week! Day 2 (Bank Holiday Monday) was an absolutely perfect hot summer’s day.

There aren’t many trees on Skye though: a few large patches of commercial coniferous forestry, a few small yet lush woods in the sheltered parts of the island, and a smattering of tortured-looking trees alone or in small groups, usually keeping some old ruins company.

Day 2 (30th May) – Peering over the edge of the mighty Trotternish Ridge at the trees and rocks a couple of hundred metres below.

Day 3 (31st May) – Looking out over the Sound of Raasay to the Isles of Rona and / or Raasay, separated from the mainland by Inner Sound. The mountains of Torridon on the mainland are far away in the distance.

Looking in the same direction as the previous photo, but from further south along the coast (near Holm).

From the same spot, looking north over Bearreraig Bay with its hydro-electric power station to the wooded cliffs at Rubha Sùghar.

Here’s the view looking west towards the rocky face of the Storr (719 m), which towers over a chunk of forestry and Loch Leathan, the outlet of which is damned for the hydro station.

Loch Portree, or the natural harbour of Portree (Port Righ) - the capital settlement of Skye – seen from the bridge spanning the River Chracaig.

Day 4 (1st June) – Standing on Allt Dubh’s waterfall facing south-west towards the brooding Cuillin Hills. In the middle distance, the River Sligachan flows lazily towards Loch Sligachan, just out of shot on the left. If you take a microscope to this photo you may discern the Sligachan Hotel (the Slig), whose bar kept us hydrated on our fourth night.

Day 5 (2nd June) – A luscious rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) radiates greenness in the late afternoon, posing in front of Loch Slapin off the eastern coast of the Elgol peninsula.


* * * * *

Above the 60th parallel in Canada you feel that nobody but God has been there before you, but in a deserted Highland glen you feel that everyone who ever mattered is dead and gone.

- Hugh MacLennan


Posted in Holidays and field trips





Loch Tay and the Falls of Acharn

The beautiful, beautiful Loch Tay, seen through my sunglasses. Seven of us stopped in a log cabin up there for three nights last weekend (April 15–18). On the Friday we hired a couple of boats and spent the day motoring around and fishing. It was a good time, even if our trawling wasn’t successful.

The harbour at Milton Morenish. The mountain in the background is Beinn Ghlas, a Munro in the Ben Lawers Range.

The big tree in the centre of the foreground is the famous Mother Beech - a tree with a special place in my heart.

This mahoosive Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) stands by the road between Milton Morenish and Killin. What a tree.

Not far away was this curiosity: a perfect ring of tree stumps. Who planted a ring of trees and why? Who cut them down? I do love being intrigued by these little mysteries.

On the Saturday we had a walk up to the Falls of Acharn, a series of small waterfalls and pools around one giant waterfall. This photo shows one of the pools. As you can see, there wasn’t much water coming down the falls, so all the interesting rock formations were revealed.

This is the same pool on the 4th of August 2009, the last time I was up at Loch Tay. What a difference!

Another section of the falls in low flow…

…and the same view in August. Back then it was a noisy, scary, raging beast of a river; now it’s a gentle trickle!

And here’s the main waterfall, seen from across the gorge. More rock than water...

…but a totally different animal in spate!


Posted in Holidays and field trips





More photos from the Highlands jaunt

3rd August ‘09. Looking down on Loch Tay from the Drummond Hill silver birch provenance trial. I collected data for my dissertation there in March 2008.

3rd August ’09. Me and my father were skimming pebbles on Loch Tay from a little jetty at Fearnan. This is one of his that hit the water at too steep an angle.

5th August ’09. A hoary old rowan in Glen Lyon with a massive, hollow trunk.

5th August ’09. A complete wreck of a rowan. The only sign of life was a handful of dying leaves out on that snapped limb. A tree crossing the very threshold of death.

5th August ’09. A characterfully windswept Scots pine below Loch an Daimh...

… and nearby, a bit of old Caledonian pinewood.

21st March ’08. Three logs near the silver birch provenance trial, taken on my phone during a snow shower when I was up there collecting dissertation data.

3rd August ’09. The same logs a year and a half later. See how they’re decomposing, and see how the surrounding vegetation has changed.


* * * * *

The thirty-ninth Festival of the Trees, “Hidden Among The Trees”, is up at Arboreality. Go read!


Posted in Holidays and field trips





Aira Force: the money tree, the waterfall, & the GIANT spruce

Three weeks ago yesterday I was travelling back from a week’s stay in the Highlands. Seeing as the road passed so close to Aira Force near Penrith, a detour was made. I discovered Aira Force completely by chance with a load of my eco-mates in May 2008 when we day-tripped out of Center Parcs. It was an awesome little trip that made a lasting impression on me, and I’ve wanted to go back ever since. There are a number of highlights to a visit to Aira Falls: there’s the money tree, there’s the actual waterfall, there’s the beautiful bit of river above the fall, there’s the whopping huge Sitka spruce, and there’s the general ambiance of the place… All this can be taken in and enjoyed in a couple of hours, but if the weather is tozzing I’d be more than happy to spend a whole day there.

And there it is! The famous Aira Force Money Tree! It is a tree wrapped in coins inside an enigma. How did it begin? Who hammered in the first coins? Who remembers to bring a hammer and coins along? How long did it take to completely cover the tree in coins, and how long since it was covered?

Coins galore, all bent by hammering. 1ps, 2ps, and a few 5ps.

A-ha! A bracket fungus growing (on alder? on hazel?) down by the beck. Q: What flavour are you? A: I think I’m a Laetiporus sulphurous - chicken of the woods, sulphur polypore. But I’m not sure. Can you help us, dear reader?

A quadruple hazelnut cluster (Corylus avellana).

A-ha! Another bracket fungus, definitely growing on an alder this time (Alnus glutinosa)! Q: What flavour are you? A: I think I’m a Ganoderma, perhaps G. applanatum - artist’s conk - but I’m not sure. These days I am old and blackened, but have a look at me as I was last year:

The same bracket on the 14th of May 2008. Again, dear reader – can you help ID?

Aira Force itself: an impressive 20 m / 65 ft drop (force, from the old Norse fors or foss, meaning waterfall.)

Downstream of the fall, Aira Beck flows through a gorge. Some of the oaks growing on the steep slope above the water were festooned with epiphytes. This photo shows a section of trunk about thirty feet up covered with mosses and ferns. I’ve seen trees dripping with lichens, but I can’t remember seeing British trees covered in ferns to this height. Remarkable.

This gargantuan Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) grows with one tree-sized limb hanging right out into space over the gorge. I have yet to see the ridonculous dimensions of this tree done justice to by a camera. Even with a bloke stood at the base, you cannot appreciate the scale of this thing the way you can when you’re actually stood gawping at it. The spruce is apparently part of an arboretum planted by the Howard family of Greystoke Castle in 1846. Well big.


* * * * *

And if you’re in the mood, how about a bonus poem by William Wordsworth?

The Somnambulist
Composed or suggested during a tour in the summer of 1833.

This poem might be dedicated to my friends, Sir G. Beaumont and Mr. Rogers, jointly. While we were making an excursion together in this part of the Lake District we heard that Mr. Glover, the artist, while lodging at Lyulph's Tower, had been disturbed by a loud shriek, and upon rising he had learnt that it had come from a young woman in the house who was in the habit of walking in her sleep. In that state she had gone downstairs, and, while attempting to open the outer door, either from some difficulty or the effect of the cold stone upon her feet, had uttered the cry which alarmed him. It seemed to us all that this might serve as a hint for a poem, and the story here told was constructed and soon after put into verse by me as it now stands.

LIST, ye who pass by Lyulph's Tower
At eve; how softly then
Doth Aira-force, that torrent hoarse,
Speak from the woody glen!
Fit music for a solemn vale!
And holier seems the ground
To him who catches on the gale
The spirit of a mournful tale,
Embodied in the sound.

Not far from that fair site whereon
The Pleasure-house is reared,
As story says, in antique days
A stern-browed house appeared;
Foil to a Jewel rich in light
There set, and guarded well;
Cage for a Bird of plumage bright,
Sweet-voiced, nor wishing for a flight
Beyond her native dell.

To win this bright Bird from her cage,
To make this Gem their own,
Came Barons bold, with store of gold,
And Knights of high renown;
But one She prized, and only one;
Sir Eglamore was he;
Full happy season, when was known,
Ye Dales and Hills! to yon alone
Their mutual loyalty--

Known chiefly, Aira! to thy glen,
Thy brook, and bowers of holly;
Where Passion caught what Nature taught,
That all but love is folly;
Where Fact with Fancy stooped to play;
Doubt came not, nor regret--
To trouble hours that winged their way,
As if through an immortal day
Whose sun could never set.

But in old times Love dwelt not long
Sequestered with repose;
Best throve the fire of chaste desire,
Fanned by the breath of foes.
"A conquering lance is beauty's test,
"And proves the Lover true;"
So spake Sir Eglamore, and pressed
The drooping Emma to his breast,
And looked a blind adieu.

They parted.--Well with him it fared
Through wide-spread regions errant;
A knight of proof in love's behoof,
The thirst of fame his warrant:
And She her happiness can build
On woman's quiet hours;
Though faint, compared with spear and shield,
The solace beads and masses yield,
And needlework and flowers.

Yet blest was Emma when she heard
Her Champion's praise recounted;
Though brain would swim, and eyes grow dim,
And high her blushes mounted;
Or when a bold heroic lay
She warbled from full heart;
Delightful blossoms for the 'May'
Of absence! but they will not stay,
Born only to depart.

Hope wanes with her, while lustre fills
Whatever path he chooses;
As if his orb, that owns no curb,
Received the light hers loses.
He comes not back; an ampler space
Requires for nobler deeds;
He ranges on from place to place,
Till of his doings is no trace,
But what her fancy breeds.

His fame may spread, but in the past
Her spirit finds its centre;
Clear sight She has of what he was,
And that would now content her.
"Still is he my devoted Knight?"
The tear in answer flows;
Month falls on month with heavier weight;
Day sickens round her, and the night
Is empty of repose.

In sleep She sometimes walked abroad,
Deep sighs with quick words blending,
Like that pale Queen whose hands are seen
With fancied spots contending;
But 'she' is innocent of blood,--
The moon is not more pure
That shines aloft, while through the wood
She thrids her way, the sounding Flood
Her melancholy lure!

While 'mid the fern-brake sleeps the doe,
And owls alone are waking,
In white arrayed, glides on the Maid
The downward pathway taking,
That leads her to the torrent's side
And to a holly bower;
By whom on this still night descried?
By whom in that lone place espied?
By thee, Sir Eglamore!

A wandering Ghost, so thinks the Knight, 0
His coming step has thwarted,
Beneath the boughs that heard their vows,
Within whose shade they parted.
Hush, hush, the busy Sleeper see!
Perplexed her fingers seem,
As if they from the holly tree
Green twigs would pluck, as rapidly
Flung from her to the stream.

What means the Spectre? Why intent
To violate the Tree,
Thought Eglamore, by which I swore,
Unfading constancy?
Here am I, and to-morrow's sun,
To her I left, shall prove
That bliss is ne'er so surely won
As when a circuit has been run
Of valour, truth, and love.

So from the spot whereon he stood,
He moved with stealthy pace;
And, drawing nigh, with his living eye,
He recognised the face;
And whispers caught, and speeches small,
Some to the green-leaved tree,
Some muttered to the torrent-fall;--
"Roar on, and bring him with thy call;
"I heard, and so may He!"

Soul-shattered was the Knight, nor knew
If Emma's Ghost it were,
Or boding Shade, or if the Maid
Her very self stood there.
He touched; what followed who shall tell?
The soft touch snapped the thread
Of slumber--shrieking back she fell,
And the Stream whirled her down the dell
Along its foaming bed.

In plunged the Knight!--when on firm ground
The rescued Maiden lay,
Her eyes grew bright with blissful light,
Confusion passed away;
She heard, ere to the throne of grace
Her faithful Spirit flew,
His voice--beheld his speaking face;
And, dying, from his own embrace,
She felt that he was true.

So was he reconciled to life:
Brief words may speak the rest;
Within the dell he built a cell,
And there was Sorrow's guest;
In hermits' weeds repose he found,
From vain temptations free;
Beside the torrent dwelling--bound
By one deep heart-controlling sound,
And awed to piety.

Wild stream of Aira, hold thy course,
Nor fear memorial lays,
Where clouds that spread in solemn shade,
Are edged with golden rays!
Dear art thou to the light of heaven,
Though minister of sorrow;
Sweet is thy voice at pensive even;
And thou, in lovers' hearts forgiven,
Shalt take thy place with Yarrow!


Posted in Gone for a walk + Holidays and field trips + Notable trees





A huge ash in Glen Lyon. The Falls of Acharn.

One really, really big ash.

Somewhere in Glen Lyon grows a bloody huge veteran ash (Fraxinus excelsior). Though it has a girth of truly enormous proportions, it is sadly lacking in the height department after a recent pollarding. I reckon this major piece of tree surgery was carried out about ten years ago in order to make the tree safe – it stands at the side of a road – by removing a diseased / rotten / dying crown. Happily, the tree is looking super healthy and vigorous today and has put on plenty of new growth since it was pollarded, forming a nice ball-shaped crown.

All photos taken on Tuesday the 4th of August.

Two ashes.

A look round the other side.

The longest drop at the Falls of Acharn.

Later in the day after a drive around the eastern end of Loch Tay we parked the car in Acharn and went for a walk up by the burn to see the Falls of Acharn. July was very wet and the few days prior to our visit had been quite rainy, so the Falls were an impressive sight with Acharn Burn in good spate. There isn’t just a single fall, but rather a series of spectacular falls; the photo above shows the biggest drop, which can be admired from a wee viewing platform accessed through a “hermit’s cave” (read small T-shaped tunnel apparently built in the 1760s). Further upstream are a series of smaller yet equally (if not more so) impressive waterfalls in a rapids-stylee. If you’re up in the Loch Tay area they are definitely worth a visit.

This page on the Walking Highlands site and this Wikipedia page have a few of photos that show the same views as a couple of mine, but with the burn in a much reduced flow.

Part of the series of smaller falls further upstream of the big drop. Note the daredevil tree (centre top of the photo) growing right out of the rock and leaning over the churning pool.

Even further upstream. If you like waterfalls, treeblog will soon be treating you to more watery goodness in the form of Killin’s Falls of Dochart and the Lake District’s Aira Force.

Rogues and beeches.

And still in the vicinity of the Falls, a luscious young hazelnut (Corylus avellana) is coming along nicely.


Posted in Gone for a walk + Holidays and field trips + Notable trees





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