Apple Tree Cottage
25 January 1971
Happy Burns Night! May your haggis be piping hot and may your whisky be a fine malt! Together may they keep out the cold!
I have just spent a few days in London but it’s good to come back to Berringford. Now I am here again, I pick up the Sherlock Holmes stories, which means going back to London in spirit. But wherever the mind may be, in Baker Street or wherever, I am back here, following the quiet rhythms of the village. This is having the best of both worlds. When with Holmes, it means going back to breathing the fog of London. What happened to all that fog? Where did it go? Nowadays London can be baking hot in summer, and in November you see people having drinks outside the pubs at tables on the pavement. If Watson returned, he would think he was in Rome or Naples rather than Bloomsbury or St Pancras. The old fogs now seem to be forever enclosed between the hard covers of my Complete Illustrated Sherlock Holmes Short Stories, and this is probably the best place for them.
Anyway, back to Baker Street, back to the days when one lived in ‘rooms’, when being a bachelor was not a suspect occupation (Watson’s poor wife never stood a chance of making it through more than a couple of stories), when one could relax for ‘a smoke after dinner’, ‘fall into a brown study’, take ‘a stroll’ in the streets of London, ‘ramble’ in the country and ‘browse’ in books. This was when each story was ‘an adventure’ and when the world seemed younger, more leisurely and easier to understand. But gone are those days and going are the words that describe them.
A phrase in one of the stories struck me the other day. I was reading ‘The Adventure of the Yellow Face’. Mr Grant Munro was telling Holmes about his concern for his wife, Effie. He mentioned ‘a nice little grove of Scotch firs’ near his house. He said that he ‘used to be very fond of strolling down there, for trees are always neighbourly kinds of things’. In those days one had the time to regard trees as ‘neighbourly kinds of things’ or indeed as any kind of thing at all. Grant Munro was right, however. Trees are good neighbours. The old pines in Uncle Jasper’s garden stand between my cottage and the fields to the west that lead to the coast. The sun sets behind them. Those pines are my neighbours. I know that when the sun is coming through the lower branches, I should be putting away my fork and spade, stoking up the bonfire in the paddock so it burns slowly through the night, and tidying up the path by the fuchsia bushes and the front porch.
Trees provide memories. I remember the great yew with its stretching branches that I played under with Elizabeth years ago when I was 6 and she was 7. I remember the tall ash I climbed a few years later. When at the top I could see the whole garden beneath me with the straight rows of cabbages and the high runner beans. It was best to climb when it was windy, and the wind threw the ash leaves in my face and the branches at the top almost gave way under my weight and I held on imagining I was a sailor hanging on at the top of the rigging while being buffeted by the winds of the Atlantic.
Certain trees become important. The larch, the birch and the beech I planted in Uncle Jasper’s garden are growing slowly but solidly. “Your trees are doing well,” says Uncle Jasper almost every time I see him.
A tall Wellingtonia marked the furthest curve of the athletics track at school. Past that and you were on the way home. It is there still.
I remember the lone pine where the road forked coming back to Berringford from Eelsbury, and we always took the right fork to wind up the hill, go past the church and then home.
Aunt Jane, a traveller like my brother, has a Christmas tree in a pot on her little balcony in Barcelona. It reminds her, I suppose, of the woods on the Mendips beyond Tollbury Hill.
Trees become part of our plans. ‘From the little acorn grows the mighty oak.’ With trees we look to the future. ‘Jock, when ye hae naething else to do, ye may be ay sticking in a tree; it will be growing, Jock, when ye’re sleeping. ’ Walter Scott’s old Highland laird gave this advice to his son, and it’s a pleasing thought. Men used to plant trees for their sons or grandsons, and that is a pleasing thought too.
Several years ago, my brother Robert, the one who’s travelling the world at the moment, was at university. There he would measure the notes he took, the handouts he was given, and the bibliographies he was showered with, in trees. Far be it from me to question the ultimate value of some of the texts using up trees in our universities, or to suggest that sheaves and wads of classification and sub-division, reference and cross-reference, patient pairing to the nth degree, are not worth the summer glory of the original tree that gave the paper. Such a thought would never cross my mind!
Trees are, after all, another proof that the influence over our stay here is benign. Why else would paper producers be so beautiful? As Uncle Jasper often says as he looks up at the great pines next to his home, quoting the last line of a poem, the rest of which he has forgotten and so have I, ‘For only God can make a tree.’
Perhaps the last word should go to the little poem of Ogden Nash, who strikes a blow for common sense:
I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Indeed, unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.