Wednesday, February 22, 2012



Thanks to Eric Thomson for what follows.

Composer of the Week on BBC Radio 3 last week was Sir Hubert Parry, never a great favourite of mine but there are few in Britain who don't know or haven't sung his setting of Blake's Jerusalem. I doubt whether either Blake or Parry was thinking of 'dark Satanic' saw-mills, but the idea might have occurred to Parry in December 1917 when the Government laid claim to almost the last of the timber on his Gloucestershire family estate. A letter to his friend Harry Plunket Greene is quoted in Charles Larcom Graves, Hubert Parry: His Life and Works, vol. 2 (London: Macmillan, 1926) p. 86:
I have just arrived here after a harrowing three days at Highnam ... the situation is heart-rending. Government instructions to cut down a large number of the finest elms in the place! I had to go round this week to look at them all. Glorious, old, noble trees that have taken centuries to grow—and doomed irrevocably. They are going to clear the whole of the chestnut wood in the next fortnight—shave it off clean. The larch wood by the brickfields is to be cleared—and they threaten to take all the ash in the woods, as they say they are too good and straight. The place looks bald already. What it will be when they have accomplished all their fell designs is too tragic to think of.
By chance I recently came across the same adjective 'heart-rending' used in an almost identical context, but this time it is December 1940 and the estate, near Dunbar, belongs to The Earl of Haddington:
Binning Wood was taken over under emergency powers and the loggers moved in. Down crashed, day after day, week after week, 4500 oak trees, 2300 beech trees, 690 sycamores, the same number of ash trees, 640 birches, alder, gean and other hardwoods, almost a hundred lime and horse chestnut trees, 82 hornbeams, 39 sweet chestnuts, and around a thousand conifers, including the esteemed Scots pines. In the end nothing was left of the Earl of Haddington's fine wood but ten thousand stumps. It was heartrending — though he may have taken consolation on hearing that some of the best beech went to make Mosquito fighter-bombers in the war against Hitler.

Binning wood was not an isolated case. Once again Armageddon decimated some of the best woodlands on the home front, and this time the casualties were even heavier than in World War One. On the densely wooded Seafield Estates in the northeast three times as much timber was cut in the second war as in the first, when the toll had been bad enough. On Deeside the Great Tanar estate suffered serious loss. Rothiemurchus on Speyside, savaged before, was hit again. The Black Wood of Rannoch, spared at the eleventh hour in 1918, fell victim in the 1940s when most of the best trees were taken out. Shortly after the war, the naturalist Frank Fraser Darling was moved to declare 'our land is so devastated that we might as well have been the battlefield.'
John Fowler, Landscapes and Lives. The Scottish Forest Through the Ages (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2002) pp. 183-4.


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