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As one of the most wooded parts of England, the autumn colours of the Beechwoods across the Chiltern Hills are a highlight to savour along The Ridgeway. Specialist plants and fungi have adapted to living in the shade cast by the ‘Queen of the Woods’ and some Chiltern Beech woods are so special that they are protected for being of European importance. Beech is also a distinctive feature along the western half of the Trail, where famous photographers and painters have been drawn to Beech clumps which stand out as landmarks on the sweeping skylines of the Berkshire and Marlborough Downs. Read on below….

Banner image credit: Derek Harper, WikiCommons.

Likened to a cathedral by the nature writer Richard Mabey, the towering trunks of silver-grey, smooth bark in a Beech wood are like pillars and their branches arch overhead to hide the sky with overlapping leaves. These and other features are shown in this Woodland Trust video of a Beech tree through the seasons. There is also a lofty spaciousness to Beech-dominated woods where trees can grow up to 40 metres tall and the woodland floor is empty.

Beech is known as the ‘Queen’ or ‘Mother of the Woods’ in much the same way as the Oak is known as the ‘King of the Woods’. It can grow up to 6 metres or more in girth and, if pollarded, can live for 350 years. Ancient woodlands cover just 2% of England but account for 13% in the Chilterns, so there are some majestic old Beech trees to spot in the Chiltern woodlands along the Trail. Some of Hertfordshire’s best examples of Beech woodlands are along the Trail at Aldbury Nowers and Tring Woodlands, both near Tring. Where woods have been managed for timber in the past, there are interesting features to look out for such as coppice and the remains of saw pits. Beech woods around High Wycombe, for example, are famous for their history relating to furniture making. The history of some woods date back hundreds of years: a woodland is considered an ancient site if it has been continuously wooded since at least 1600AD.

The longevity of ancient woods allows a complex ecosystem to develop, giving rise to rare species and slow-spreading species such as Bluebells. Indicators of ancient woodland (not just ancient Beech woodlands) include Wood Anemone, Primrose, Lily-of-the-Valley, Wild Garlic, Dog’s Mercury and Red Campion. Aston Rowant Woods is a special example of Beech woodland along the Trail in Oxfordshire – it is a Site of Special Scientific Interest where 52 ancient woodland indicator species and over a hundred fungi species have been recorded!

Only specialist plants and fungi can thrive beneath Beech because its leaves cast dense shade during the growing season and the slowly decaying leaf litter lies deep. Beech woods are renowned for saprophytes, of which there are two types – ‘saprotrophs’ which are organisms, particularly fungi, that obtain nutrients directly from dead organic matter; and ‘myco-heterotrophs’ which are organisms that parasitize fungi whilst living on dead or decomposing matter. Beech fungi include Chanterelles and Boletes and rare plants such as Bird’s Nest Orchid, Yellow Bird’s-Nest and several Helleborines.

Yellow Bird’s-Nest (see image gallery above), also known as Dutchman’s Pipe, is an unusual plant because it lacks chlorophyll which gives plants their green pigment and utilises sunlight to carry out photosynthesis. Instead, this plant is a myco-heterotroph which obtains nutrients from fungi underground. Another plant also lacking chlorophyll and with a similar name is the Bird’s-Nest Orchid. This yellow, leafless plant gets its name from its nest-like tangle of roots which parasitize tree roots for nutrients.

In contrast to these sickly-looking plants, The Ridgeway’s Beech copses are photogenic and have attracted the attention of photographers, artists and writers. Wittenham Clumps, which can be seen from The Ridgeway, is a well known example near Wallingford in Oxfordshire that is associated with the artists Paul Nash. These trees were planted over 300 years ago, making the Wittenham Clumps the oldest known planted hilltop Beech trees in England. However, most clumps along the Trail were planted in the 18th and 19th centuries and often on prehistoric earthworks, which had already claimed the skylines, including Bronze Age round barrows along the Trail near Avebury, Wiltshire (see image gallery above). Some make useful shelter along trackways such as The Ridgeway, but their main purpose is for visual effect. This is expertly demonstrated by the famous photographer Fay Godwin who was drawn to clumps near Barbury Castle, Wiltshire. As landmarks and vantage points, they are useful for wildlife as well as humans, since buzzards and crows can often be seen in the trees (see image gallery above).

Beech may be a fading feature of The Ridgeway landscape as climate change progresses, however. Beech is vulnerable to drought due to its shallow roots and stresses are increased on thin chalk soils, steep slopes and exposed locations. Water-stress can cause Beech to suffer die-back and premature death. Conservation of the Wittenham Clumps, near Wallingford in Oxfordshire now involves planting Hornbeam and Lime to replace Beech, but other landmark clumps along The Ridgeway may not be managed so proactively. Such future prospects makes Beech an increasingly special sight to enjoy along The Ridgeway and its heritage more important to celebrate and conserve….

Notes: More information about The Ridgeway’s naturalists, artists, photographers, folklore, industrial heritage linked to Beech and other trees and shrubs is available in other Top 50 entries.

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