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Why the trees Burnham Beeches have a story to tell

PUBLISHED: 12:47 12 June 2017 | UPDATED: 09:47 13 June 2017

Looking inside the remains of a huge tree. Its a vital lifeline for species relying on deadwood

Photo: James Petts,

Looking inside the remains of a huge tree. Its a vital lifeline for species relying on deadwood Photo: James Petts,

James E. Petts

The trees of Burnham Beeches would have stories to tell about the people who for centuries have gathered firewood, grazed animals or now simply enjoy the lofty sights

Some of the ancient trees and stumps in Burnham Beeches take us back hundreds of years. And you don’t need much of an imagination when viewing the most skeletal woody remains to feel the link with even earlier times.

This is not surprising as here is a woodland area which has existed since the last ice age, although it would not have looked as it does now with the leafy trails which attract visitors from far and wide. Us humans have been busy in the Beeches since Iron Age times, shaping the ancient woodland, pastures, ponds and heaths.

Despite all this a huge number of valuable trees have survived in the 540 acres, including veteran oaks and beeches. And the most ancient tree ‘skeletons’ provide homes to rare and endangered animal species which need deadwood to flourish. The distinctive twists and turns of many of the trees are the result of pollarding until a couple of centuries back – cutting branches above the reach of grazing livestock. When the pollarding, which produced firewood, ended the branches grew into the shapes which define much of the Beeches.

As today we once again face battles over the use of land for building, it’s worth noting that in 1880 the southern part of Burnham Beeches could well have been broken up and sold in parcels for the building of substantial country homes and estates, but instead The City of London Corporation stepped in and bought the lot to ensure it remained a public open space and haven for wildlife.

A stroll around the Beeches is highly recommended – and a guided walk provides a fascinating insight into the history and seasonal changes. Hour-long ‘Simply Walk’ sessions are held on the second Wednesday of the month, meeting at 10.45am at the Beeches Information point.

See and follow links to Burnham Beeches.

Woodland wonders

The beech woodlands overseen by the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust are also steeped in history, and here we recommend a visit to Warburg Nature Reserve, high in the Chilterns four miles from Henley. This is BBOWT’s richest site across the three counties for orchids, which appear between April and August.


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