7 April 2014

Small leaved lime trees - a taste of true wilderness in Coniston

Two hundred years ago, the now-peaceful woods of Coniston and Langdale would have been alive with the noise and chatter of men at work and their families, coppicing trees to produce fuel for iron smelting, raw material for charcoal burning, bark for tanning leather, and a myriad of other products for which we now rely on plastic and metal, from buttons to barrels.  Woodland management was a precise science to those woodsmen; the ‘semi-natural ancient woodland’ we enjoy today is the direct result of their work, as they encouraged the species with the most value – like oak and alder – and ‘grubbed out’ the trees that didn’t have a use.  Truly natural woodland would have a different mix of species, and by looking for some of these species that would have occurred naturally but have been almost wiped out, we can experience some fragments of real wilderness in the midst of Britain’s man-made landscape.

Fall in love with lime

For me, the most remarkable of these ‘lost’ species is small leaved lime.  Lime is an easy tree to love.  Folklore considers it a feminine tree, and with its graceful, slender shape and down-curved branches creating a leafy cascade in summer, that’s hard to argue with.  Woodpeckers adorn the smooth bark with orderly rows of diamond scars as they search for moisture or insects (no-one really knows).  The leaves are exquisite, irregular heart shapes the size of your palm at their very biggest, and create a mottled shade that lets the sun glitter-ball through the canopy.   

Lime leaves, flowers, and 'bracts'
At the height of summer, trees in full sun are covered with pale lemon flowers that exude the most intoxicating smell of the woodland year, beautiful but incredibly subtle so that it leaves you chasing after each gentle hit.  You can hear a good, sunny tree from quarter of a mile off thanks to all the bees swarming the flowers.  Coniston’s relic limes are particularly characterful as they ‘walk’ down the becks, drooping over water falls and casting their gentle shade over tranquil pools.

A living link to the Vikings…and beyond

We know from pollen records that before humans started to influence the British landscape, lime would have been one of the most widespread tree species, and was dominant over much of the country.  Since then, it’s been progressively grubbed out of most woods as it just didn’t have many uses for our ancestors on an industrial scale.  Anglo-Saxons did use lime for their shields, as it’s light and absorbs impacts well, and parts of its bark are fibrous and were used to make twine and rope, including on Viking longboats.  The clean, pale wood could be used for kitchen utensils and for carving – renowned wood sculptor Grinling Gibbons worked in lime, which allowed him to produce his breathtakingly intricate 3D reliefs.  You can see one at Dunham Massey in Cheshire, where I also worked as a ranger.  (I once had to hold it during a fire drill and casually asked how much it was worth – ‘priceless’, came the terse reply.)

A bee forages on lime flowers
Beehives placed in limewoods were reputed to produce the tastiest honey as well as the cleanest-burning beeswax for candles – elsewhere in the country, lots of limewoods that have survived are right next to abbeys, for these reasons.   But if you’ve ever tried to use lime in the wood burner to heat your house (I have), you’ll know it makes appalling firewood, and it’s not strong enough to use as structural timber or for tools.  The discovery of other sources of rope as Europeans explored the globe, like jute and hemp, was the death knell for lime in British woods, and it was grubbed out all over the place.

Coniston’s walking trees

A huge, 'lapsed' lime coppice stool
There are some hidden spots around Coniston, however, where you can still find remnant lime trees amongst the managed ancient woodlands.  They’re usually tucked away up inaccessible ghylls (steep valleys with becks in the bottom), where their survival is due to the fact that it was too much work to make it worthwhile to grow and harvest other species of tree there.  Sometimes, these trees still display the classic coppice form, with a number of stems sprouting from the same ‘stool ‘ showing that they have been managed as a crop at some point. 

Others are ‘walking trees’, demonstrating one of lime’s most fascinating ecological characteristics; where low branches bow down and touch the ground, they’ll often set roots and create a whole new tree or even an entire thicket.  As the original tree grows old and dies, the younger, genetically identical parts take over next to it, meaning that in genetic terms, ‘walking’ lime trees are probably some of the oldest living things on earth. 

A walking lime tree - the failed branch on the left is still attached to the parent tree, but the branches have also rooted in the field creating a whole new thicket.  The rangers have fenced it off to protect the new low growth from stock.

What’s even more remarkable here in the Lakes is that lime doesn’t readily reproduce by seed this far north; at the limit of its range, it’s just too cold to meet the exacting conditions of warmth that it needs.  So most of the remnant trees we see have probably regenerated vegetatively  - by ‘walking’ – in the same spot, time and time again since the last Ice Age.  To stand under one is to experience the pre-human ‘wildwood’, as a truly wild organism quietly forges its own path despite the long history of human intervention in woodlands.

The tree of peace

With such powerful ecological history, it’s no wonder that many cultures venerate lime.  To Anglo-Saxon cultures, it symbolised peace and conflict resolution, and lime trees were often used as places to meet and parley, or on boundaries.  This cultural connection continues in Northern Europe today, and it seems likely that even our recent ancestors understood something about the importance of lime on boundaries that’s since been lost to us; as well as the specimens in ghylls, there are other lime trees out in the Coniston landscape, whether in woods or fields, that have been left for reasons other than utility, but that we don’t understand. 

A classic Coniston relic lime, wandering slowly down the ghyll.
But I’m not telling you where they are – finding them is half the fun.  Spring is the perfect time to get out and explore ancient woodlands, when the bracken and bramble is low but the ground is full of wildflowers.  Grab a tree ID book and a map and head up some wooded becks on the east shore of Coniston.  Find a lime tree and you’ll find a living remnant of the real wilderness before humans started messing about with the landscape, and a connection to the lives and lore of our ancestors – not to mention a simply beautiful, atmospheric tree.  What more do you want from a day out?


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