Stand on the lawns outside the Castle and look to the south west towards the ridge of hills some two and a half miles away. You cannot quite see the village of Ashmansworth but it is there. In another direction lies the hamlet Ashley Warren whilst further to the East is Ashford Hill. In the wider environs, moving steadily outwards, is Ash Vale, Ashstead, Ash and even further away, Esher and Ashford. As with many old villages and towns named for a compass point or geographical feature, in this case it is the Ash tree. Similarly, just across the Channel in France, the word frêne (Ash linked to its Latin root Fraxinus) has the same pattern of toponyms.
Trees, as the largest plant form, are at the core of life on earth and in all cultures, they are, to a degree, surrounded by myth and fable. In folk lore, Ash trees are often associated with the sacred. The Vikings believed that Yggdrasil, the World Tree, under which the gods held their councils, was an Ash whilst the Gaelic belief system also imbued it with powers of protection: of the five legendary guardian trees of Ireland, three were Ash.
Ash wood is very both very strong and elastic and it is said that a joint made of ash will bear more weight than any other wood. As a result, coach axles were made of ash as were oars, tool handles and archers’ bows. The tree coppices well, giving strong straight poles for bean poles after five years or oars after twenty. The density of the wood also makes it an ideal for fuel – the Latin name Fraxinus means firelight – as it burns hot and long. It grows easily, if coppiced it springs back with enthusiasm and if an ash tree falls down through accident, it will try yet again to grow.
As such a major feature of the landscape, they play background roles in extraordinary numbers of books and paintings. The famous English painter John Constable made some beautiful studies of ash and elm trees writing in September 1821 “I have done some studies … particularly a natural (but highly Elegant) group of trees, Ashes, Elms, and Oaks……” Equally they can inspire deep emotions – an American friend of the artist wrote: “I have seen him admire a fine tree with an ecstasy of delight like that with which he would catch up a beautiful child in his arms.”
The Roman poet Virgil wrote his Eclogues some two thousand years ago and described the ash as the most beautiful tree. The poems were performed with great success on the Roman stage, exploring all the usual political and romantic challenges but above all described the exquisite beauty of the world in which we live. Ever since, the arcadian landscapes in which Virgil set his stories have become ingrained in our drama and literature.
If you haven’t noticed, sadly the list of native British trees is fading. Thanks to disease, you can no longer see the huge numbers of Elm trees that used to cover the English countryside and now the Ash is compromised as well. Human society’s global footprint, as we move goods around the world in ever increasing quantities, wantonly tramples flora and fauna without fully recognising the consequences.
It is estimated that Ash dieback will kill around 80% of Ash trees across the UK at a financial cost of some £15 billion. Just as devastatingly, it will change the landscape forever and threaten many species which are involved in its evolution above and below ground.. All we can do is replant in time and live in hope that we do not lose all the arcadia described by Virgil, nor all the Ash trees painted by Constable nor the promise of life given to us by trees.
“The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”
― Nelson Henderson
“Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”
― Warren Buffett