February: Oxford Trees

February: Oxford Trees

The delicate pale pink blossom on the flowering plum outside my window lifts my spirits each morning on these winter days, now lasting too long as I await Spring knocking at the door.   Yet this year as never before the flowers seem tinged with a sadness, flowers to mourn the loss of a dear friend who will not return to Oxford this year, as in Springs past.  No more will we smile as we catch that first glimpse of the pink almond blossom in the High outside the doorway to the University Church which has been so significant in our yearly landscape.  For it has died, and Oxford is a sadder place for it.  Thank you to Jeremy Mogford of the Old Bank Hotel for planting another and to Daniel Emlyn-Jones for giving us hope, where there was only hopelessness, as he seeks to clone our tree so that it can live again. 

I reflect on the strength of feeling for our leafy friends, not all sad, thank heaven.  This weekend a stunning photography exhibition by artist Jenny Blyth opened at Wolfson College.  The room is made for it, sweeping views across Wolfson’s gardens, themselves maturing into the landscape down to the banks of the Cherwell, just visible through bare winter branches.  ‘Reflecting the Landscape’  is closely observed, capturing the moods of changing weathers and seasons, a walnut spinney in a corner of Oxfordshire caught by the frost or warmed by the sun, a majestic tree somewhere at Ditchley,  man and nature intertwined in the sun catching the underside of the rainbow bridge across the Cherwell and reflecting branches getting under the water’s surface the two becoming one.  

Oxford trees inspire. We only need to look to our own Philip Pullman and the Hornbeams of Sunderland Avenue.  In ‘The Subtle Knife’ the second of the His Dark Materials Trilogy  

“He came to a large roundabout where the road going north crossed the Oxford ring road going east and west ... Planted along the grass at the road’s edge were two lines of hornbeam trees, odd-looking things with perfectly symmetrical close-leafed crowns, more like children’s drawings than like real trees, and the street lights made the scene look artificial, like a stage set… 

 ‘Will’ is watching this cat it reaches out a paw to pat something in the air in front of it, something invisible to Will. It leaps backwards, back arched and fur on end. It approaches again:

“Again she leapt back, but less far and with less alarm this time. After another few seconds of sniffing, touching, whisker-twitching, curiosity overcame wariness. The cat stepped forward, and vanished.”

Because, you see, there is an invisible window under a hornbeam tree in Sunderland Avenue. A window into another world ...

These trees were planted by Oxford Preservation Trust, 70 fastigiate hornbeams intended to commemorate King George V’s Silver Jubilee and planted at 2.30pm on 25 November 1937, the Coronation of George VI.  Seventy five year later, to the date and time, at 2.30pm on Sunday 25 November 2012 Philip Pullman generously turned out, spade in hand, to plant the first of six oak trees, marking the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, one tree for each decade of her reign. All are now happily putting down roots in the open fields to the north of the Marston Ferry Link Road, owned and cared for by OPT, where the trees grow happily in the place which saw such sadness in the 1960's, when trees were ravaged by Dutch Elm disease changing the Oxford landscape.    

Just up the road in New Marston there is a story to be told about our relationship with trees.  In 1950  OPT set up an ‘Adopt a Tree’ scheme where local people could plant trees in memory of friends and family who had died in the Second World War, our reaction to engaging with the newly created streets, the verges and the front gardens in the many new houses built on the green fields of Headington and Cowley, homes for heroes and the increase in Morris factory car workers.  The first trees were at the junction of Copse Lane and the road up to Old Marston and was marked by an opening ceremony on Armistice Day.  By the end of the following year a further 60 ‘labelled’ trees had been planted, surely one of them the trees that Councillor Mick Haynes fought to save in 2011 with his 4,500 signed petition.  The scheme later expanded out to Littlemore, Rose Hill, and Cutteslowe.  I wonder how many of these trees remain today?

In 2019 OPT are custodians of thousands of Oxford’s trees across our 1000 acres of land.  Our roots lie in the fields of Boars Hill where land was bought in 1927 to save the views of the ‘dreaming spires’ made famous by the poet Matthew Arnold in the 1840s and so Oxford Preservation Trust was born.  You can only imagine our delight when in in 2002 All Souls College gave us the chance to buy the land and the Signal Elm tree, perhaps the most distinguished Oxford tree of them all, which was immortalised in Arnold’s poem ‘Thyrsis’. Nowadays the tree, actually an oak, stands magnificent, much loved and well cared for, and it is there for everyone to enjoy, a circular walk leading to it with a welcome bench to sit on, looking out across  ‘That sweet city with her dreaming spires’ the place that we all call home.