Anybody under 50 probably does not remember the glories of the English landscape before the ravages of Dutch elm disease robbed us of one of the most recognisable trees. The great silhouette of an elm tree, with its broad leaves and expansive branches at the top, tapering down to a bushy bole was so much a part of what we saw we did not realise how much it meant until it had gone. I particularly think of a row of elms towards the far end of Poringland beyond the church. This is but one tiny part of the countryside whose ageless charm was debased in just a few years by the death of such noble trees.
John Constable, that great East Anglian artist (arguably the greatest English landscape artist) gave a prominent place to the elm tree in his paintings. His pictures The Cornfield and Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Garden for example have detailed depictions of elm trees as a major part of their composition. There is no doubt that we have lost a fine part of the garden of England with passing of the elm tree. Almost as evocative as the sight of an elm tree was the whispering of the wind through its leaves. Thomas Hood has a long poem called The Elm Tree which dwells upon the murmuring of the air in its leaves. (It is of course a solemn piece of writing as most of the verses by Hood are.) Both artists and poets have been inspired by this majestic tree of the rural scene.
We have in our sitting room a little footstool which was made from the elm which used to stand in Elm Hill in Norwich. It is a pleasant memory to have, but it is bitter-sweet. A succession of elms grew here, stretching back into the middles ages. The elm tree that used to grow there also succumbed to the beetle-borne fungus. The tree which replaced the elm in Elm Hill is a London plane tree, pictured here shortly after planting. Although it has a very English sounding name is of cultivated origin, not a prehistoric native tree. It has now grown to a healthy size, but the tree ought to be an elm, in Elm Hill.
Elm wood had a specific use in the wheelwright’s art. It was the material used for the hub of a cart-wheel. Ash also was used for the felloes – the sections of the wheel’s rim- in the days when wood was the countryman’s natural choice. Ash was also used for tasks which needed a strong but springy wood, such as the shafts of wagons or the hafts of axes. (In the US hickory was used for these purposes, but that is not a native UK wood.) The elm has gone, and now a like fate awaits the ash tree in the British landscape.
It is awful to think that we are experiencing a similar loss as the elm of the ash tree to another European disease, in this case ash dieback. To loose two native species of tree in the space of 40 years is an unprecedented disaster. I do not know if the prohibition of imports had it been enacted as soon as the disease became widespread on the continent would have kept it at bay, but the slow response of the government has been criminal. Why were we still importing trees from areas where this disease was known to be prevalent until it was already devastating our forests? It beggars belief. The trouble is we are governed by urban-dwellers who do not appreciate or even consider the countryside.