Ripon College’s great Beech

I have the good fortune to live in a nice village called Cuddesdon, near the workshop, close to Oxford whilst feeling quite rural, sadly no longer possessing a village shop, but still a pub, a mill stream, a recreation ground and a church. It is home to some 430 inhabitants. And a large theological college brimful of vicars and vicars-to-be, and some nuns. As claims to fame go, Cuddesdon’s is certainly unusual.

Ripon College was founded in 1853, its Victorian buildings now looking as venerable as many of those of its affiliates down the road in Oxford, and recently joined by the deservedly multi award winning Edward King Chapel, for which we have had the pleasure to make a bookcase, some hymn boards, a keyboard case and a cross for the central altar.  At the heart of the college grounds, surrounded by, and giving focus to the architecture, stands (spoiler alert – should have said ‘stood’) a magnificent Beech tree. This tree, higher than any of the surrounding buildings has been a meeting place, a hub, a shelter from both sun and rain, a calm centre to college life from the moment the first vicar donned his first dog collar; services have even been held beneath its spreading canopy.  It was very saddening when I heard in Autumn last year that as a result of a disease within the tree that had caused the sudden and potentially lethal loss of a number of major limbs, that the beech would have to be felled.

It is estimated that Ripon College’s great Beech was between 350 and 400 years old, meaning that it had been growing already for comfortably over two centuries when the college’s foundation stones were laid. Its life before the existence of the college was longer than its life at the centre of it. That said, are we not often told of the ‘green shoots of recovery’? I would not be in the least surprised if Spring brings all manner of sprigs to garland the brutal stump that yet remains and it will rise again, albeit in pollarded form.

I was contacted by the college when the discovery of the disease had been made. There was talk of making something of lasting memorial to (and from) the tree, such as a ceremonial chair. This has yet to be discussed further, and given the time it takes to season timber, it is not something that needs to be rushed into. However, it did make me realise that there is a conflict of interest in the furniture maker’s mind at such events.

When I was at Rycotewood College in Thame, learning to do fun things with wood, I remember a lecturer at the start of our course, our hands yet to be calloused by the plane and chisel, suggesting that before we raised a blade in action, we should spend our time amongst the trees and woodlands to see what noble beasts were sacrificed upon the altar of our desire to make furniture. Okay, it may not have been quite that emotive and hyperbolic, but that was the gist of it. And I do love trees, the great throbbing thing-ness of them, their age, their colonies of beetles, bugs, butterflies, mosses and mushrooms, their variety. And yet… And yet when I hear of the fall of one of these ancients, whose sapling youth could have been when Henry VIII was doing his own bit of domestic pollarding, or in the case of the Ripon Beech, when the musket balls of the English Civil War were flying (imagine finding one of them, pegged like Caliban ‘within its knotty entrails’!) I have to admit there is a part of me that thinks “Hmm, that would make a great dining table…”. And I have to say there is almost a feeling of moral obligation, as if I owe it to the dear departed woodlump, whose own lifespan outstrips mine fivefold, to memorialise it in some way. Which is frankly ridiculous, not to say anthropocentric and arrogant. When Granny pops her clogs no-one goes around saying ‘Ooh you know what, she’d make a lovely bean-bag”. In 2010, a mighty Oak Derwen Adwy’r Meirwon, The Great Oak at the Gate of the Dead, near Chirk, Wrexham, made national news when it collapsed some 850 years after the acorn first split. And as I looked at pictures of its knuckled hide, ‘what a shame’ was mixed in equal measure with ‘imagine the burr in that’.

There are furniture makers who have made a life’s work of using timbers of a particular provenance, as if they were relics of the True Cross. Such and such a table was made with wood from such and such a place, so it is worth ten times the other table made from a different tree of the same species just over the wall. Wood is a beautiful, varied and unique material, whether Charles II hid amongst its branches or not, and I am not convinced that strapping some momentary human event to the timber skeleton of these quincenturions is a legitimate marketing tactic.  However, there remains something to be said for provenance. Certainly it is true that the French notion of terroir could as legitimately be applied to trees as to wine or cheese; what grows from the land will be imbued with it and should be celebrated. When we made pews for St Thomas of Canterbury’s church in Goring-on-Thames, it was pleasing to know that the oaks that provided the material for the seat boards were once growing in the grounds of Powys Castle. The organisation ‘Grown In Britain’ has been set up in recent years to ensure the development and use of British woodlands in all areas of the timber industry. This combines the importance of provenance and sustainability with the merits of a shorter supply chain than that which is inevitably attached to imported timber products. The origins of our materials as workers of wood should matter, if only to remind us that what we make comes from something that could have shaded the courtships of our great great great great grandparents, and our own creations from it could outlive us in equal measure. To have something made from the timber of a particular tree binds us to its history, it gives us anchors, it measures us against its own far greater span, at once reassuring and dismissive.

And for the rest, all the bits that don’t make dining tables and wardrobes in which children may discover Ice Queens and lions, may I offer you this, courtesy of Celia Congreve and first published in TheTimes newspaper on March 2nd 1930.


Beech Tree Ripon College

The Firewood Poem

Beechwood fires are bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year,
Chestnut’s only good they say,
If for logs ’tis laid away.
Make a fire of Elder tree,
Death within your house will be;
But ash new or ash old,
Is fit for a queen with crown of gold

Birch and fir logs burn too fast
Blaze up bright and do not last,
it is by the Irish said
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread.
Elm wood burns like churchyard mould,
E’en the very flames are cold
But ash green or ash brown
Is fit for a queen with golden crown

Poplar gives a bitter smoke,
Fills your eyes and makes you choke,
Apple wood will scent your room
Pear wood smells like flowers in bloom
Oaken logs, if dry and old
keep away the winter’s cold
But ash wet or ash dry
a king shall warm his slippers by.

Thank you Celia, now pass the axe; I feel a sideboard coming on…

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