According to Wiltshire District Council’s Conservation Area Statement (2004) for Wilsford, “The village appears remote, somewhat bare and undeveloped. There are few trees and hedgerows, the more significant tree groups are at its east and west ends… The lanes from the south approach the village through a landscape almost devoid of mature trees or hedges.”
Ten years on, not much has changed. Wilsford’s tree stock has grown a decade closer to dying and little has been planted to replace it. The two “lanes from the south”, connecting either end of the village to the A394, are still bare, save for a few scraps of thorn. The fencing is run down, a gate is missing. Neither approach tells the truth about our village – that good people live here, that we are a community which cherishes this place. Those roads are a cold approach, with no welcome in them.
Trees provide shelter and shade, add height and depth to an outlook, mass to congregate woods; they are the wild muscle and grace and scale of our countryside. In May our trees are in their prime. Remember Larkin: “Last year is dead, they seem to say; Begin afresh, afresh, afresh”? Or David Hockney’s description of the hawthorn blossom spread like thick spoonfuls of cream? But trees die. In May it is easy to forget that we aren’t planting enough trees.
Pewsey Vale used to be famous for its elms. James Noble of Puckshipton House, a forester (which makes him a planter and a feller of trees) remembers standing on Knap Hill as a boy and looking across the Vale and the elms floating like green clouds above the landscape. And he remembers his father telling him that they were all dying. Now, he reminds me, we are facing a cull of our ash trees.
So we are going backwards, not forwards, yet each of us considers themselves a champion of this landscape, lucky to live in such a lovely piece of England. And each of us bears responsibility for the landscape we pass on to our children.
Tree planting, James explains to me, is an act of faith. We plant something that is beautiful and that is vulnerable, in the hope that others will enjoy and protect it. Trees are bigger than us, they live longer; when we plant an oak whip we can only imagine the mature tree, we will not see it.
The elm was a hedgerow tree and when the elms died in the 1970s, some farmers took the opportunity to remove their hedgerows too, and create larger, more easily managed fields. Perhaps this is what happened to the hedges that once lined Wilsford’s lanes from the south.
When the ash trees die we will all share responsibility for planting new trees in their place. We should not just leave it to the landowners to plant on our behalf. This is our shared landscape, each of us should play our part.
Plant a tree if you have the space. Or approach your local landowner. Greet them, thank them, and conspire to plant more trees together. What gaps need plugging? What will you do together when that old oak finally topples over? Can you squeeze a hedge along that stretch of road? Plant!
This is a job for the winter, best shared among many people and mixed with hot soup and sausages and sustaining alcohol. Wilsford: it’s time we re-planted hedgerows along our southern approaches. Imagine the joy, the sense of accomplishment. The wind break. A warm welcome to our village. As James reminds me, “the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago … the next best time is now.”