It was the veteran sweet chestnut trees of Hanbury Woods which inspired me to do a series of drawings and that led to an exhibition at the National Trust’s Hanbury Hall last October. I chose the title, Drawn from the Wood.
I am an amateur artist, drawing in late retirement. My career was as an executive with the Cadbury chocolate company, but my grandfather was a watercolour painter who loved landscapes with trees, and my father was an artist craftsman, so I grew up surrounded by family art- drawing was in the blood, even if it has taken a long time to emerge. For much of my life, drawing was confined to the margins of business agendas, but in retirement I have illustrated several books for The Housman Society. Long ago, I took a degree in zoology, and I have always had a strong interest in natural history and the countryside. This informs everything I do.
Hanbury Woods are not ancient woods. They exist because of neglect. In medieval time there was a large area of common land, called Dodderhill Common. It stretched over low hills of north Worcestershire, including Piper’s Hill, probably names after one of the early Saxon settlers, and for hundreds of years it was managed as wood pasture. By early Victorian times there was a scatter of already ageing trees retained by the commoners as a source of wood and timber, common oaks, beeches and sweet chestnuts. With the enclosures grazing on common land declined and beeches, the most invasive of trees, grew up and multiplied. The old trees of the common survived surrounded but engulfed in beech wood with its thick canopy.
Three years ago I went out to draw trees without any particular subject in mind. Near the car park at the southern edge of the woods was a standing dead trunk of a chestnut which immediately fascinated me. Nearly bare, it showed the twists and cracks and ripples of old wood, with holes and burrs and broken branches, it really was an organic sculpture. I did several drawings right away. And then I explored a little further and found the tree I call The First Veteran. Although only a few yards away, it was screen by small saplings, bushed and brambles. It looked dark, almost sinister, covered in black drooping burrs. It seemed to lurk hidden like a huge animal. I came back to draw it another day. A man walking his dog said he’s been passing it for a year without seeing it.
Since then I have been back repeatedly, I have explored the woods and found more of the veteran chestnuts. The oldest I think are more than three hundred years old. They were once pollards, but they have not been cut for over a hundred years and they have grown big limbs, some of which have broken in gales or under their own weight. They look decrepit, festooned with broken branches; they have lost much bark and have splits and cracks. But still they send out fresh growth in tall poles and fringing twigs that keep coming from what looks to be dead wood. Venerable is the word that comes to mind.
I did more drawings, snatching a couple of hours at a time over three years and I have read as much of the history of the area as I could find. The woods are now owned by Worcestershire Wildlife Trust- they were very helpful. I brought it all together in an exhibition, not only to share my drawings, but to tell the story of the woods and their ancient trees. The land on which they stand was once part of the estate of Hanbury Hall, and so it was particularly appropriate to show the exhibition in the hall’s Long Galley, and I am grateful to the National Trust.
Blog and picture by Robin Shaw
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