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7 November 2015

The queen beech ruled the land, even when she fell

How the whomping willow from Harry Potter entered a new "stage of life".

By Richard Mabey

Of all the trees you might imagine as a model for Harry Potter’s Whomping Willow (it lashed back when menaced), the sedate and conventionally elegant beech wouldn’t come first to mind. But it was a 400-year-old beech on the National Trust’s land round Berkhamsted in the Chilterns that was eventually cast as the prototype. The low-slung bottom branches, emerging from a tangled mass of stubs and cephalopodic burrs, were the clincher. With a bit of CGI tweaking, they were turned into the flagellating tentacles of a giant squid.

And they were pretty much like that in real life. I had known this tree since I was a child. It was a massive, mesmerising organism, whose serpentine structure I had assumed was entirely natural, until I learned about its human grace notes.

The branches had been pollarded for firewood by generations of local commoners. Centuries of benign graffiti were etched into its high branches. In 1866, it was at the centre of the battle of Berkhamsted Common, in which 120 navvies – “civil mercenaries” – hired on behalf of the Commons Preservation Society, travelled out from Euston and dismantled three miles of iron fencing with which the landlords, the Brownlows, had illegally enclosed the common and its fuelwood beeches – a crucial early victory in the fight to save the commons.

In those days, what we called “the Queen Beech” was my party piece. I led visitors through the mazy thickets of the common and unfurled it like a bunch of flowers from a conjuror’s hat. This is how tough nature is, I think I said – this is how adaptable it is in enfolding what we do to it. With its great cantilevered branches, I thought it was indomitable. Then, this midsummer, I heard from a friend that it had been blown down in a minor gale. He wondered if I wanted to pay my respects.

I went down from my home in Norfolk a couple of days later and was unsure for a moment if I had found the right tree. The site had changed significantly, not just because the tree was now cleaved down the middle and lying on the forest floor like two huge spills, but because of the light, reflected off gashed wood and last year’s crisped leaves and trunk surfaces that hadn’t seen the summer sun for centuries.

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What was striking was that the fallen queen still had total command over the space it occupied while vertical. Its airy ghost felt like the cast of Rachel Whiteread’s sculpture House. The surrounding and still upright trees showed hollows in their crowns where they had been shaded out, which will become the templates for new growth. A huge bank of data had fallen with the queen: branches inscribed with the exquisite striping known as “spalting”, a contoured record of a long border squabble between the tree and a wood-rotting fungus; ancient graffiti, one reading “18.V.44”, almost certainly dating from 1944 when homesick US servicemen stationed nearby scratched their names and townships on the trees.

The National Trust has learned a lot since the great storm of 1987. A short distance from the wreckage, it has put up a notice with the words, “This famous tree has entered the next stage of its life” – an arborocentric sentiment that would have been unthinkable on public display even ten years ago. That next stage is already beginning. On the now open ground, the network of symbiotic fungi that fed the queen and connected it with the rest of the community – the “wood-wide web” – will be hooking up with the first new beech seedlings, some of them the queen’s descendants. Regina est mortuus. Vivat regina.

Richard Mabey will discuss his new book, “The Cabaret of Plants”, with Alexandra Harris at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 28 November

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This article appears in the 04 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The end of Europe