As late autumn slips into the chilly months of winter, a Buckinghamshire wood glows light gold, as the low sun shines through the tree tops. Crisp, brown fallen leaves crunch underfoot as visitors to Burnham Beeches, near Beaconsfield, walk along its paths. 

 A tracery of walks meanders through the 540 acres of this ancient woodland, past trees that have stood here for more than four centuries. Few beech trees achieve such a venerable span, but at Burnham approximately 350 craggy pollards survive among younger trees in this woodland oasis. 

By November, the beeches have shed most of the foliage from their dense canopies, leaving drifts of brown and gold leaves on the ground beneath. A distinctive, mellow aroma of leaf decay fills the air. Above, other leaves may be dead, but they will hang on to the branches until spring. Around each silvery bole, among the rippling roots that radiate across the mossy woodland floor, lie countless thousands of spiky brown husks, crackling underfoot. These are the fallen beech fruits, now emptied of their triangular brown seeds, often by squirrels. 

Fast-growing beauty

Thanks to its grace and beauty, the beech, Fagus sylvatica, is sometimes known as The Mother of the Forests or The Madonna of the Wood. It has a striking presence. Fast-growing, it reaches maturity within 30 to 40 years. At this time it can be up to 115ft (35m) in height, although, exceptionally, it may grow to 150ft (46m). Beeches normally live for up to 250 years, making Burnham’s pollards the exceptions.

The trees with the greatest girths are usually old ones which have been pollarded, that is have had their upper branches removed. Up to 30ft (9m) has been recorded. The last to grow this big at Burnham was in 1878. Today the largest tree here measures slightly more than 16ft (5m) in girth. 

Extremely shade tolerant, beech thrives on most types of soil, although it is particularly successful on the free-draining chalk and limestone of southern England. It is equally at home on acidic or sandy soils. The tree’s extensive root systems are comparatively shallow compared to many other broadleaved trees, which causes problems in the face of high winds. Many British beeches were lost in the gales of 1987 and 1990. 

It is considered to be a native species in the southern half of England, or below a line stretching from The Wash to the Severn Estuary and into south-east Wales. North of this, it is classed as naturalised. This means the trees regenerate freely, but originated from planted stock, hundreds if not thousands of years ago. The exact date of the beech’s arrival after the last Ice Age has been the subject of considerable debate. One theory is that it arrived 8,000 years ago, a second 5,000 years ago, while a final theory is that it was intentionally introduced during the pre-Roman era by early farmers who fattened their livestock on its nuts. 

The winter tree

In the final months of the year, the colourful foliage displays a wide range of yellows, golds and oranges. These get lighter in hue as the year comes to a close. 

The spiky four-lobed husks of the fruits slowly peel back to release the ripened nuts inside in early autumn. These are known as mast, from the old English word maest, which referred to nuts that were used for fattening animals, such as pigs, in woodland. Every five to 10 years, there will be a mast year, when a bumper crop of the brown, pointed, triangular nuts is formed. It is not known why mast years occur, although the weather is believed to play a part.

By December, the graceful, silvery form of the tree, with its smooth grey bark, becomes visible. Dense crowns of fine twigs bear slender, sharply pointed buds, tightly enclosed in waxy orange-brown scale leaves that provide protection for the frosty months ahead. 

The tree’s profile tends to be slender and conical. With age, however, the heavy lateral boughs may droop downwards, eventually touching the ground. When this happens they can layer, putting down new roots and creating the potential for new trees. 

For many centuries, beech wood was the mainstay of fuel for towns and cities, but with the advent of coal, and later oil, this demand dwindled. It was also used to make legs and spindles for Windsor chairs in the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Retaining dead leaves

Some beech trees retain their dead leaves throughout the winter months. This phenomenon, known as marcescence, is usually observed in younger, smaller, low-lying beech trees, and frequently in well-trimmed hedges. This is one of the main reasons that beech has long been favoured for this use. It continues to provide both shelter and colour when much else is bare. 

The reason why this happens remains unknown, although one theory is that it helps protect the new buds from frosting. Another suggests that the dead leaves, which present no obvious nutrition for browsing animals, help to protect the new buds from predation. 

It has also been suggested that leaves at the lower levels get an end-of-season burst of sunlight. These have been shaded until all the leaves above have blown off. It means that the trees are able to photosynthesise later into the autumn. This enables the production of nutrients to strengthen the tree over winter. 

Whatever the reason, at Burnham Beeches the result allows the low winter light to gleam through the last pale golden leaves. It creates a wonderful place for brisk walks under the dappled canopy.

Words: Archie Miles Photographs: Alamy

The feature on Burnham Beeches appeared in the Nov / Dec 2015 issue of LandScape.
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