Coun­try diary

Ape Dale, Shrop­shire

The Guardian - Journal - - Letters -

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

500 years.

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.

Paul Evans

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