6 OCTOBER 2007, Page 37

Riding out the storm

Michael Hese!tine BEECHCOMBINGS: THE NARRATIVES OF TREES by Richard Mabey Chatto, £20, pp. 289, ISBN 9781856197335 1 share with Richard Mabey a love of trees. Beechcombings begins with the great storm of 1987, although Mabey's love of trees has its origins in his childhood in the Chilterns. The childhood romance shines through. Trees were family. When I had the privilege of being Member of Parliament for Henley, and so the Stonor Valley, the great beech woods of the Chilterns were in my constituency. Mabey's particular affection for the beech — fagus sylvatica — is touching, human and altogether understandable.

I took a rather more positive view of the consequences of the 1987 storm than Mabey does. Of course there were some sad losses. Mabey refers to the beeches of Chartwell which Churchill so admired. If you looked at the carnage on the ground it was devastating. But if you looked through the debris at the trees and woods that survived you saw an inspiring opportunity. In many ways the Almighty had done away with what years of neglect had allowed. We had to replan and replant. History will be grateful!

By 1987 most of the great beeches at my home had gone, their shallow roots devastated by the drought of 1976. These giants of the 18th century represented for me over 200 years of English history. Napoleon was emerging to convulse Europe in another of its frequent wars, whilst Nelson was yet to plant the oaks he planned to build the navy of the late 19th century. They still stand today, spared by the arrival of metal. I often speculate about the 200 years my beeches will last.

Beechcombings is a treasure trove of fact and anecdote linked to the beech tree. As you would expect from a countryman, Mabey always sets the tree in its context. Vignettes of wild flowers, birds, and great forests charm their way through the pages. By the time you have reached the end of the book you will have accumulated an encyclopaedic knowledge of the uses and merits of different timbers and you will have an extensive list of locations to visit. A welcome present.