Many towns and cities offer themed walking tours. A guide, dressed in Georgian garb, can lead you around Bath or in Wells, a tour will take you to view the filming locations for the movie ‘Hot Fuzz’. But, as always, Shaftesbury is offering something different.
Keri Jones went on a unique walk that celebrates the town’s trees.
“We had around 60 people on the first walk and there’s around 30 on this one,” enthused Tree Group member Sue Clifford. “It’s really exciting. People want to know more.”
Sue was one of the three expert guides waiting outside the Town Hall for the start of the 90-minute tour. She has co-authored books on landscape and British heritage and culture with Angela King. Angela runs the Shaftesbury Tree Group and spends much of her time answering questions about Tree Preservation Orders.
“I grew up in Robin Hood country”, said Sue. “Trees are important to me.”
Sue tells stories about the connections we have with trees and, as I discovered, she brings the topic to life with an infectious passion. “I’ve done lots of work in the past about what trees mean to people,” Sue explained. “Not just how to grow them. I look at all of the cultural aspects. What the names are and why they are named differently in different places. I’ve looked at how certain geology means that different trees grow.”
Our third guide was Robin Walter. He works with trees every day of the week. “I’ve been a tree surgeon, I’ve worked for the Woodland Trust and now I am a ‘jobbing’ independent forester,” Robin explained.
Sue briefed the assembled group that it was okay to leave the walk at anytime. “Don’t feel you should stick with us if you’re waning,” she said. And as the clock chimed 2’oclock, the party headed out onto Park Walk.
Outside the Abbey Gardens entrance, Sue stopped and painted a picture of how locals use this promenade. “It’s a place where people with prams can linger and play, wheelchair users can get right along there. A place where you can bump into people, where dog walkers go,” she said. “Park Walk is spot that demonstrates to people how beautiful the countryside around is. We are so lucky as a town to have it,” she said.
But Sue doesn’t think we use Park Walk as its designers would have intended. She doesn’t like use of tarmac along this terrace. “It feels too much like a road, which is why people are parking on it. Its surface could be gentler so the trees could get more water. I think we could do better and people would really appreciate it,” Sue said.
We turned to the trees. Sue pointed out a Swedish whitebeam, “for fans of BBC4 Scandi-Noir dramas,” she joked. I soon realised that I knew so little about the trees that I walked passed every day. As our walk continued, I was surprised to learn that so many of Shaftesbury’s trees are non-native.
Robin singled out different species. The origins of some were obvious – Norway maple and Norway spruce. But the provenance of some trees was a surprise. “The sweet chestnut was brought over by the Romans,” Robin told us.
During the walk I learned of Sue’s distaste for ‘blousy’ and ‘flowery’ cherry trees. She was full of enthusiasm for the humble hawthorn though. And Robin reckoned that sycamore are the trees that are synonymous with Shaftesbury, because of their prominence on Park Walk. They were planted there because they could withstand the exposed position. Many of the sycamores survived until an ice storm in the 1960s. It would have been wonderful to walk under their continuous, cooling shade.
We continued walking. Park Walk narrowed into a path sloping down into the deep, green shade of the Pine Walk. “I like Pine Walk. The smell of the resin of the Scots pine is delicious. It’s another experience,” Sue smiled.
Pine Walk was planted during Queen Victoria’s reign when these trees were highly fashionable. “I think the Victorians loved them for their sheer scale,” said Sue, who highlighted how Pine Walk’s planters were planning ahead for future generations. “They never saw them because when you plant a tree, it takes long a long time for it to get big,” said Sue.
We walked onto St John’s Hill and took a path off the road to the left, just before Bimport. 17th century headstones lie around Bury Litton Churchyard, which is enclosed by thick foliage, tree branches and leaves that block the sunlight on all sides.
In one corner stands the majestic Shaston Yew. Its contorting and twisted branches suggest that it is very old. “This ancient yew tree probably predates the churches and Christianity in the town,” said Sue. She believes the tree is of national significance.
“Its hard to tell its age,” said Robin. “The Yew spreads right from the base into multiple stems and that makes it difficult to date. You can’t get an accurate girth measurement because there is not a single column that you can put a tape around. It’s probably the oldest thing in Shaftesbury – older than anything living or built. It’s an extraordinary tree,” he said.
I was fascinated to hear how Sue spoke about the mighty tree, almost as if it was a person. “It has a presence. It has a real sense of itself,” Sue said. “I love just standing by it and holding its ‘hand’ where it’s beginning to sprout new, green shoots. We care for it and give it a life that is not overshadowed by trees that are too big for it. I feel camaraderie. It’s a great-great-great-grandfather that we should be very pleased to have with us,” she said.
As we headed back towards the centre of town we stopped on the left-hand side of Bimport, opposite the Abbey Walk entrance. The Bimport beech tree was lost during a storm in the early 1990s. But the size of its trunk has been captured by a pattern of cobblestones. I had not noticed this piece of Shaftesbury’s history preserved in the pavement until I took the tree walk. Again, I got a sense of this tree having a personality. The paving was its headstone and we were paying our respects.
“Mr Ferrari, who does the cobbles on Gold Hill, traced out the huge size of the trunk,” said Sue. “I hope that the small tree, which is growing there now, feels like it has some shoes to fill,” she added.
People often talk about architecture and building design when they comment on a town’s appearance. When you take the tree walk, you’ll soon realise that most of the impressive trees that enhance the town’s appearance have been planned. “Variety doesn’t just happen,” Sue explained. “Pine Walk. Park Walk. Trinity Churchyard’s lime trees. They’ve all been planted by people who can see there is a possibility,” said Sue.
The Shaston Yew has stood for centuries. But, as we learned on the walk, our mighty trees can also be so vulnerable and can succumb to nature. We ended our walk with a word of warning. Recently, Melbury Abbas artist Gary Cook presented a highly acclaimed exhibition of his art which highlights how ash dieback disease could alter the appearance of Shaftesbury, the Vale and Chase. Robin says he’s noticing that the fungus is now taking effect.
“It’s particularly noticeable this year. There are ash trees that are threadbare. Some trees are in full leaf, others have the youngest tips dying back and the central part of the crown is growing but the outer tips are not. Some hedges are brown and dying – they are not bursting into leaf. It’s everywhere,” Robin cautioned.
The level of interest in the tree walks is evident and Sue and Angela have ideas for more routes. “We want to do a new map down the bottom of the hill and we might do several new walks, but that’s for the future,” said Sue.
You can pick up the free tree walk leaflets from the TIC and take yourself on a self-guided trail around the town. Gary Cook has designed a beautiful map, which shows you the circuit. “We worked really hard to make the map accessible in many ways. It is easy to walk, easy to read and it tells so much in a short space,” said Sue.
If you see another tree walk advertised, don’t hesitate. Go on it. These passionate experts will open your eyes to the role that trees have played in shaping Shaftesbury. You could say it will help you see the trees from the woods!