Tree Stories - The Living Library in Our Landscape

04/07/2016 10:18 | Updated 04 July 2016

Trees are living books. Their life story is recorded in their rings, their shapes, and the marks they bear of events past. Ancient trees are often called 'living monuments', but whereas monuments are unchanging reminders of a person or event, trees bear testimony that life endures, come what may.

Take for example the Crowhurst Yew in Lingfield, Surrey. Perhaps 4,000 years old, this massive tree was hollowed out in 1820 by locals who installed a door to create an organic grotto that was perhaps used to imprison wrongdoers. In the process they discovered a cannonball deep in the tree, probably fired by Cromwell's troops during the English Civil War.


The ancient roots reach much further back, to a time when yews were sacred symbols to pagans due to their evergreen foliage, longevity and seemingly magical ability to defy death by 'suckering' - creating new trees from branches as they decline with age. Yew trees would often be found at important pagan sites, on which churches were later founded. Stepping into the cavernous bole of the Crowhurst Yew is like walking into the Tardis - a chance to travel back through time, through generations of religious and political upheaval linked by this one organism that will outlive every human alive today and witness the unknowable events of the future.

A tree doesn't need to be ancient to have a story. Sometimes a tree finds itself at the centre of a drama rather than as a mute witness to unfolding events. Whether it is the hero of the narrative or the damsel in distress, it becomes entwined with the lives of all those who the story touches.

One such tree is the Chelsea Road Elm in Sheffield, the focus for a bitter dispute between residents and the Council. The council has dramatically increased felling of street trees in recent months, to the fury of locals who have seen their previously leafy streets denuded. The elm tree in question is one of those now scheduled for felling, and has become a cause célèbre for the plight of Sheffield's trees.

The elm is estimated to be about 100 years old. As well as being a rarity - many elms in the city were lost to Dutch Elm Disease in the 1970s - it could be immune to the disease, making it scientifically important as a potential donor of cuttings. Furthermore, the tree is known to be home to a rare species of butterfly which can only colonise elm trees - the White Letter Hairstreak.


The council's position is that the roots are causing the tarmac to ruck up, and that the cost of raising the road level is too great. Locals strongly disagree. Given that larger trees are managed safely in cities across the UK, locals have been enraged by this death sentence for a tree that carries so much historical, scientific and sentimental value. On 2nd January 2016 more than 100 residents braved the cold to assemble around the tree and sing to highlight its plight.

Sheffield County Council granted a stay of execution while they considered the objections, however the tree is once again up for felling, and the fight goes on. On 28th July an open topped bus will be parked by the tree to allow anyone interested to get up close and personal with the tree's lush canopy, and maybe spot the rare butterflies amongst the foliage.

Even if it is eventually lost, this tree has already earned its place in a story that will be told for many years to come. Whether it is a tragedy or a heart-warming tale of underdog triumph remains to be seen.

These stories deserve to be told, and the trees that bear them deserve to be celebrated and protected. If you know of a tree with a story you can ensure it gets the recognition it deserves. The Woodland Trust is calling for submissions for 'Tree of the Year 2016'. Any trees that receive more than 1000 public votes for the prestigious title will receive a 'Tree LC' care package to help it thrive in the years ahead. A Tree of the Year will be crowned in England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, and all four will go forward into the European Tree of the Year competition. No matter what happens with the football, and no matter what path each country takes towards Brexit, this competition will remind us of something we all have in common; trees in our lives and landscapes, rooted in the past and growing towards our shared future - whatever it may hold.

Submit your story here.

Your tree story will also help inform a Charter for Trees, Woods and People, ensuring that the true value of the UK's trees is recognised and protected. More info at