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Word from Wormingford

wormy from standing

THERE are tasks that hurry the countryman into his past. Coppicing, for instance. Hazel is one of those woodland growths that hedge one in before it seems possible, and it takes a visitor to notice it. Also, the world is divided between those who let everything grow and those who possess a chain-saw

The novelist friend from Italy, a biannual visitor to leafy Bottengoms, professed to be amazed that he “could no longer see out”. And so the coppicing began. First of all, I felt like the poet who mourned the felling of the Binsey poplars, but soon, as Wiston came into view, then Arger Fen, then several neighbours, then light, my tender fears evaporated, and the rasping chain-saw became liberating music to my ears.

Shape returned to the farm garden. Moreover, like P. G. Wodehouse’s “Aunt calling to Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps”, our chain-saw was soon being answered by two other chain-saws, as the valley-dwellers made up their minds to see out, catkins or no catkins.

How the budding branches fell! How the great view reannounced itself! How the saws whined through the January day! And how difficult it is to dispose of the cut wood that for centuries was part of the rural economy, the brush for faggots, the boughs for fire-logs, the slender little wiry branches for wattle and daub. All this will be stacked neatly or burnt, this winter wood harvest of long ago.

Woodland usefulness and spirituality was all of a piece in 1657, when John Beale wrote: “We do commmonly devise a shadowy walk from our gardens through our orchards (which is the richest, sweetest and most embellished grove) into our coppice-woods or timber woods. Thus we approach the resemblance of Paradise.”

I can remember the old coppicing, the quiet chop-chop-chop of the forester’s hook, not the levelling scream of the chain-saw, the soaring surround trees that would never be touched, the little fire for the kettle, the leaping dog. Now and then the novelist switches off to dash into the house to add a bit to the book he is writing, and I stop piling to take in the huge landscape that the hazels had taken from me. And without my knowing it, for nature is a gradualist in this particular respect.

In the evening, the novelist and I have supper at the Eight Bells — fish and chips and beer — while a few yards away the rings are practising in St Mary’s Church. The garage man comes over to repine how the years pass, galloping along when we are our age, dawdling when we were boys. I note sawdust on our shoes.

The bell-ringers descend the tower to join us, and we scorch happily by the wood fire. Now, could Willie the landlord do with a ton of hazel, green as green at the moment, but hot stuff later on? No charge. We are just down the road, in Bures, a largish village, which sprawls over the Stour and has dual nationality, being half in Suffolk, half in Essex, although its ecology has no notion of this. Cribbage is being played.

I recall how Julian of Norwich chose a hazelnut image of God’s love. “What is this?” “It is all that is made.” I marvelled that it continued to exist. . . it was so small. “It exists, both now and for ever, because God loves it.” The Wensum hazels would have been coppiced a few steps from her cell for hurdle rods and firewood, bread-oven fuel, and all manner of things. Corylus avellana, a plant for all seasons.

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