Sixth Greenwich Annuale

Percheron dray horses with a girl from the Perche region of France (i.e. a Percheronne)
Percheronne with Percherons

The London Independent Photography (LIP) Greenwich group is holding its Sixth Annuale exhibition from 8 – 22 August at The Greenwich Gallery , Linear House, Peyton Place, London SE10 8RS. The private view is tonight from 6.20 pm – 8.30 pm and is open to all. I will be exhibiting my photo ‘Percheronne’.  It was taken in the Perche region of France (Basse Normandie, or Lower Normandy) where I spent a year in a cottage in Eperrais, a tiny village between Mortagne and Belleme.

Le Perche

Percherons are magnificent dray or cart horses and were once used as war horses. A Percheronne would be a female Percheron, but also a girl or woman from the Perche region.

The Perche region is famous for its mushrooms and also its salami sausages (saucisse sèche). There’s wonderful cider and organic cider vinegar to be had, too. The forests have wild deer and mostly maiden (i.e. straight, not coppiced or pollarded) trees (oak and beech). One oak, the Chêne de l’Ecole, is 42 metres high and is nearly 350 years old.  Most oaks of this age in Britain are pollards, with their gnarled fat trunks, so it was a surprise to me to see a very old but slim tree.

Chêne de l'Ecole, 350 year-old maiden oak
Chêne de l’Ecole, 350 year-old maiden oak

The forests and woodland in this part of France are managed very much as they used to be in Britain 200 or more years ago.  The forests are used for hunting game,  for mushrooms and for long, straight timber.  Elsewhere there are private coppice woods used to produce small lengths of wood for fencing, broom handles, firewood, etc.

Pinhole photograph of coppice wood with standard trees at Clinchamps in the Perche
Pinhole photograph of coppice wood with standard trees at Clinchamps in the Perche

In most coppice woods in Britain, like parts of Epping Forest, the trees haven’t been cut back (coppiced) for over a hundred years, so the ‘poles’, which would have been harvested every 15 years or so have grown into mature trees, sometimes in a circle around what used to be the stump of the original tree (see post on the Hornbeam in Highgate Wood).

When I came across the coppice wood in a little village called Clinchamps, with coppice stools mixed with maiden trees, I felt I was seeing a textbook version of the traditional coppice woodland described by Oliver Rackham in his book, Woodlands, but mostly disappeared from Britain.

Hornbeam

Old Hornbeam coppice, Highgate Wood
Old Hornbeam coppice, Highgate Wood – this is one tree, the ‘trunks’ growing from a now buried stump

Hornbeam, Carpinus betulus, also known as iron wood, or yoke elm because the wood is so hard it can’t be worked easily. It was mainly used for ox yokes, cogs and cartwheels. The grown-out coppice stools like this one in Highgate wood would also have been used for firewood or charcoal, as it burns slowly and brightly ‘like a candle’.  It was used for the tall, dense hedges of the original maze in Hampton Court, although these have since been replaced.

The poet John Clare was fond of hornbeam, which is one of the principal trees in Epping Forest, where he spent four years in the High Beach asylum, from 1837-1841, suffering from severe depression. He was allowed considerable freedom to walk in the forest and, indeed, in July 1841  walked out of the asylum and followed the Great York Road  until he reached his home in Northborough, 80 miles away, four days later. That year, while at High Beach, he wrote  Child Harold, mentioning the hornbeam:

How beautiful this hill of fern swells on.
So beautiful the chapel peeps between
The hornbeams with its simple bell – alone
I wander here, hid in a palace green.

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Seeing the hornbeams, I was reminded of a three-trunked hornbeam in the Bois de Vincennes, just east of Paris, in whose shade for seven years, every Saturday morning, I learned tai chi with my friend and teacher Li Gui Sheng and fellow student and friend Claude.

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Every Saturday that is, until, in a few hours after midnight on 26 December 1999, a hurricane blew down the forest. Miraculously ‘our’ tree was spared, though it took us several hours to find it amid the tangled mess of fallen trunks. About a year later we cleared a space beneath the tree again, now sporting a mass of side shoots from its trunk in an all-out fight for survival. But it wasn’t the same. The squirrels had gone, replaced by pheasants, now the forest was more like heathland or scrub. And the dog walker who had shouted after “Whisky” and “Frisky”, as we fought invisible opponents in slow motion, had found another route.

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sights and sounds

ImageOn a  walk around Kenwood this morning, the repeated notes of a song thrush were, for once, the first I heard, rather than the squawking of ring-necked parakeets that has started to dominate the birdsong in the woods around here.  The ribald laughter of a green woodpecker interrupted  the caws of carrion crows and  descending song of a chaffinch. Familiar sounds that seem  at home here among the old oaks and beech trees. But there are human parakeets today, dressed in fluorescent lycra, sweating as they jog or wade like space-age shepherdesses among flocks of spaniels, poodles and grinning labradors.

Far off sounds of an aeroplane, an ambulance siren.  By a pond, what I think is a fisherman under a large green umbrella turns out to be a homeless person lying on a sun-lounge, his bald head emerging from a sleeping bag. And in a car park in the Vale of Health, fairground people live in caravans called Monza and Barracuda, next to a jolly painted cart advertising Happy Falafels, in the shadow of bankers’ houses.