Maurice and the trees of Borrowdale

Berries on a yew branch in Borrowdale, Lake District

It was the first properly chilly day of autumn and, rather appropriately for a walk through our very own rainforest, it was raining.

I'm definitely in the rainforest!
Polypodium vulgare fern growing on a tree trunk in Borrowdale
I'm definitely in the rainforest!

The best man for the job

North Lakes Woodlands Ranger, Maurice Pankhurst very kindly agreed to take me out into the upper reaches of Borrowdale to visit some of his favourite trees. Maurice loves his trees. And after 20 years in the valley surveying, managing and hugging them (I know, I know, you’re just measuring their girth Maurice) he’s an absolute mine of information.

Maurice inspects an old oak pollard
Woodland Ranger inspects old oak pollard, Borrowdale
Maurice inspects an old oak pollard

Autumnal beauty despite the rain

We were a little early in the season to catch the stunning display of leaves turning shades of yellow, red, gold and umber - the real highlight of the Borrowdale woodlands in autumn - but the mountain ash and the hawthorns were positively dripping with red fruits which bejewelled our walk and made the valley feel fertile and luschious.

Autumn's berry bounty
Mountian ash berries in the rain, Borrowdale, Lake District
Autumn's berry bounty

Why Borrowdale's woodlands are so special

Borrowdale has an abundance of mixed broadleaf woodlands, including six Sites of Special Scientific Interest, which are rich in invertebrates, lichens, flora, bryophytes, liverworts, and old veteran trees. Walking the along the valley to Seathwaite you can spot numerous pollards of ash and oak.

Just one of the many old pollards, this one is an oak
An old oak pollard in Borrowdale, Lake District
Just one of the many old pollards, this one is an oak

Pollards are a managed tree-form where the tops and branches are cut off to encourage new young growth. Traditionally this is done to produce fodder for stock, or wood for wheelwrights, cartmakers, or just for fuel.

In Borrowdale there is a long history of mining which has contributed to the intensive management of the trees, and Maurice pointed out to me where the valley sides are pocked with the old surface remains of the graphite mines, worked here from the 16th century through to the late 19th century.

Mine openings seen through the gloom
Old graphite mine openings, Seathwaite, Borrowdale
Mine openings seen through the gloom

These days Maurice continues to manage the pollarding of hundreds of trees in Borrowdale, both to prevent them collapsing and because they are extremely valuable for their rich biodiversity.

Wordsworth was here

The ultimate goal of our squelchingly wet walk however, was a short climb up the valley side nearby Sourmilk Ghyll - for what I had really come to see was the famous Borrowdale Yews.

" But worthier still of note Are those fraternal four of Borrowdale, Joined in one solemn and capacious grove; Huge trunks! and each particular trunk a growth Of intertwisted fibres serpentine Up-coiling, and inveterately convolved;"
- William Wordsworth, 1803
One of Wordsworth's 'fraternal four'
An ancient Yew in Borrowdale, Lake District
One of Wordsworth's 'fraternal four'

Not too long after Wordsworth wrote about the ‘fraternal four’, four became three when one was uprooted by a storm in 1866, and various storms over the years have done their best to ravage and scar these magnificent trees. In 1998 a major limb was brought down from one of the yews and in 2005 a storm removed the canopy from another, catastrophic damage! Yet these are the yews that were old even in Wordsworth’s time and I could see with my own eyes that they remain resilient, slowly, slowly contorting and re-growing to live on beyond all of us.

Ancient damage appears strangely beautiful
The damaged trunk of an ancient yew in Borrowdale
Ancient damage appears strangely beautiful

Now for the science bit (but not from me!)

Maurice and other experts have studied the yews and have been able to determine that not only are they in excess of 1500 years old, the remaining three trees actually only represent two individuals as two of them are genetically identical.  Read more here (PDF / 3.8MB) download

A sapling grown from the seed of Wordsworth's yews
A protected yew sapling in Borrowdale, Lake District
A sapling grown from the seed of Wordsworth's yews

Make time for our special elderly ladies

All I can say is I found the Borrowdale Yews to be awesome, and I mean that literally. I was in awe, of their age, their beauty, their scars, the textures of the bark, the plumpness and abundance of their berries and their venerable stance above the River Derwent - I can see why Wordsworth felt moved to write poetry about them and why Maurice is so passionate about them. Go and see them, but be sure to treat them with great respect and much care (I wonder if Wordsworth ever realised his 'fraternal four' are actually female?).

Watch the video below or get out into Seathwaite yourself, this downloadable walk starts very close by to the Borrowdale yews