Inside the Outside: In the Heart of a Tree

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Posted on May 18, 2020

 There are some places, some moments, that are so gently powerful, so beautiful, that they touch a part of us we perhaps don’t even know we have. Places that seem to dwell in a different time frame, offer an alternative take on the world, are utterly transporting, and remind us somehow of something we've forgotten. Places where to go outside is, quite literally, to go in.


We were taken to such a place two years ago, in May 2018, when we encountered the most remarkable ancient tree either of us had ever been with. The vast lime is a reminder of the beauty and abundance that can arise when people work with nature, in a gentle give-and-take. We frequently reflect back on this tree, and the eye-opening day we spent with Nick Heasman who shared it with us. Here's an extract from the blog first published through The Long View  in 2018.

When we were given the opportunity to show The Long View exhibition at ONCA gallery in Brighton, we wanted to set up a meeting with someone who could give us some insights into trees and policies in the South Downs National Park. Through a few contacts we found our way to Nick Heasman, one of the park’s Countryside and Policy Managers, and we arranged to meet for a couple of hours.


To be honest, I had anticipated talking about policy and the kinds of issues that present themselves in the South Downs but the day unfolded quite differently. Nick wanted to show us some of his favourite trees. And while we did talk about issues and policies – tree cover, diseases, protection of ancient woodland, woodland care, forest enterprises, the impact of tourism – these conversations formed around the edges of our mutual curiosity and passion for trees and nature. When we parted company, some six hours after meeting, we were all surprised, I think, that we’d spent so long together.  

The South Downs is an entirely new patch for Rob and me: neither of us has done more than drive through it in the past. So having a personal tour from a man who has lived here all his life, and knows this place intimately, was a huge privilege. It felt like a magical mystery tour, beginning at Cowdray Park in Midhurst. There are so many trees in this national park (some 24% land cover, compared to a national average of 12%) that nearly all the roads we drove along were flanked with green, or felt like tunnels through woods. Quite different from the open vistas and wide views in the Lake District.


The South Downs has an interesting geology, which determines soil types, and so much more. It crams five rock types into a very small area - chalk, upper greensand, gault clay, lower greensand and Wealden clay. You can quite literally walk from one rock type to another as you go uphill, and you can deduce the soil underfoot by the species of trees and other vegetation. Nick also suspects that people’s characters are shaped by the rocks and soil they live on and work with. That has a ring of truth about it. I imagine someone with a clay-like personality, heavy, sticky, slow; compared to someone whose character reflects a quick-draining, light limestone. 

The first tree Nick took us to grows on chalk. He had told us he would take us to a lime tree, and that was all I knew. I had no idea what would be revealed.


The footpath is thick with grass and slightly damp underfoot, and flanked on either side by walls of trees. This is a working wood, made up mostly of a commercial crop of western red cedars, which are used for decking, flooring, cladding and roofing. They’re planted in blocks, making for dark woods that feel uninviting and unexciting, with very little growing on the woodland floor. If I wasn’t being led by Nick, I would follow the path without deviating. But before long, Nick turns off the path, treads gently through the long grass and brambles at its edge, and sweeps aside branches at face and waist height.

‘Having known the tree for nearly twenty years, sometimes there’s a path, and you know people have been here. Today, it’s a bit of a struggle, because the usual path has all grown up. The landowner knows it’s here, a few foresters in the area know it’s here, and a few ecologists, but apart from that, you’ve got to be told that somewhere like this exists.’

We step through the curtain of the red cedars’ dull foliage, and find ourselves in another world. Right in front of us, in the midst of the dark wood, is an enormous burst of radiant green: a lime tree that has spread itself out and out and out, and up and up and up. It is bigger than our house. There is no canopy shyness here. The highest branches of this magnificent, ancient giant press against the tops of the red cedars, and extend way beyond them. It is in full flush and it is as if every single leaf is throwing out its own green light.

Limes put out stems from the base of their trunks – in towns and cities these shoots are trimmed to keep the trees upright, tall and tidy, and in a woodland setting, trimming these shoots to coppice the tree means their wood can be used while the tree survives. This particular tree is thought to be a large leaved lime Tilia platyphyllos, although some old limes may be hybrids. It has probably not been coppiced since the First World War and now has around twenty basal shoots or stems, each, we estimate, more than 30 metres high. They rise straight and tall, forming the outside edge of a circle that’s perhaps five metres across.


Nick and I step inside. We are in the heart of the tree, completely surrounded by it. We look up, and gasp: it’s impossible to see the uppermost leaves but equally impossible to look away. This tree draws your eyes up and up, and in its towering crown is a play of shapes and the brightest of greens: it’s like being inside a kaleidoscope. My feet are on earth but they feel as if they are in wood, as if I am actually inside the long-gone central trunk of the tree. I’m breathing in the scent of loam and wood and fresh leaf, and I am bathed in birdsong; I feel held by something slow and strong. I seems I am in a different time zone, and if I were here alone I could stay for hours. I don’t know how to describe my sensations and do little better than uttering several ‘Wow’s. Later, Nick puts it into words for me – for him, it is spending time within the timeless.


‘I often talk to a close friend of mine about time in the timeless,’ he says, ‘where you can be somewhere and it doesn’t matter what the time is, what the year is, or anything else is. On top a section of Down land, I can often feel echoes in the chalk. I lie down and I can hear other people’s footsteps. Sometimes a horse goes by, and you can hear that echo of the landscape. That’s time in the timeless. I close my eyes and it could be five thousand years ago, and hopefully five thousand years in the future.’

We fall quiet for a moment, taking in the green, and thinking about these great spans of time. ‘The general consensus is that this tree was the number one tree in the canopy when the Romans were here about 2000 years ago,' says Nick. 'It’s been coppiced for centuries. That’s why we still see it today - it’s been nurtured and cut by man for over two thousand years.’

Nick tells us that the farmer whose land this tree grows on feels very passionate about it, and often brings policy makers, including Defra officials, to see it, and presents the question: How do you preserve something like this? ‘Lots of people say, oh, you put a fence round it, you put a Tree Preservation Order on it. But what’s he’s trying to put across is that this tree is here because it has been cut - it’s here because of humans. People have marvelled at this tree and they’ve valued it and have actually prolonged its life by coppicing it and taking materials from it.' He thinks that the tree, and others like it, connect us to the landscape, and tells me why it matters:

‘As humans we often think that man is separate from nature, and yet by mankind’s hand that tree has been prolonged. That connects us back to our ancestors. It’s a natural history relic and it’s living, and it’s relevant today in allowing us to interpret who we are and where we are in this landscape. It’s a cornerstone to us understanding man’s relationship to landscape, to all landscapes – that we’re not separate, we are completely intertwined.’

After visiting the lime tree, Nick takes us to a few other special, and very old, trees, and he gives us directions to others that he recommends we visit. Just before we part, I ask Nick where his special ‘somewhere’ is. He smiles and admits that for him, the most special place is in the heart of the lime tree we stood in today. There are other places around the world that intrigue him, and that he loves, but he is rooted in, and most loves the South Downs. And, he says, he is happiest sharing this with his family.

‘Paradise, I think, is what you make it. And it’s here, for me, rather than somewhere thousands of miles away. I’ve been lucky to live in some very pretty places surrounded by nature, but there’s no point to that unless you are sharing it with someone. Us humans, we yearn for contact, and I think as much as there’s an ideal to be out in the wild, I want my mate with me, I want my partner with me.’


image of Nick made on Rob's large format camera in front of a fine Chestnut in the village of Sheet

Thanks to Nick, once again, for sharing this with us. From a time of lockdown, when so many people find themselves isolated from their families, and our ability to roam around the country has been restricted, it's wonderful to recall this joyful day, the power of a single tree, and the wisdom that Nick shared. 

If you'd like to read the full blog from 2018, here it is. You can follow Nick on Twitter here.


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