Ape Dale, Shropshire
At noon, the sun rises above the tree line, Wenlock Edge casts a long shadow into Ape Dale. A frosty haze smokes through woods, across the brook that wriggles in tiny meanders – they call them “gippols” here in Ape Dale – to the Severn, through oaks that have stood for centuries in fields with millions of little green crop leaves that won’t see out the year. The industrial spaces of almost bare boulder clay drift in the valley bottom are stitched together by threads of an old land.
It’s a quiet day – still and chilly. A buzzard, dark and ponderous, settles in a tree outside the shadow where land rises westwards. On a bank above is a small field, a corner of relict meadow, on top of which a bowser is parked under an oak tree. The plastic water tank on its rusty trailer may have been left in the shade at the end of last summer’s drought. The oak, rising from a hedge, may have been there for
Open grown, its trunk, like a ruined stone tower glowing with silver-grey lichens, reflects sunlight, and its crown conceals another buzzard; this tree looks much older than taller oaks nearby. It is slowly changing shape, withdrawing into the earth to withstand the weather for a few more centuries. Its internal life of fungi and insects hollows it out, making an edifice that appears monumental on the outside but is a shell supported by a thin growing layer under the bark and foliage now folded tightly in bronzy green winter buds. Inside, the oak is a tomb, holding the ghost of a remembered landscape, filling with shadow darker than that cast by the Edge.
This tree is a repository of ecological memory, it grows in a dale that got its name from apiaries, beekeeping, honey-making in the savage sweetness of the middle ages. The acres of wildflowers needed for that have long gone and with them the culture that created the meadows under the auspices of Wenlock’s monastery, leaving fragments of that world scattered around the dale. The bowser loses its function and agricultural ambition in its abandonment to become something placed in the old oak’s orbit like an offering.