Photographs: Charles Francis

June 2009: Generations of visitors have carved their initials into the gnarled bark of a rare twisted beech at Tehidy Country Park, and present-day passers-by are equally keen to make their mark. But this summer, they are being encouraged not just to write on the tree, but to write about it.

Sharing the limelight with the beech, at two poetry-writing workshops to be hosted by the park, are two of Tehidy’s other iconic trees: a majestic monkey puzzle, which stretches above the surrounding tree canopy to spread its feathery foliage across the sky, and the Fallen Giant, a Monterey cypress blown over in a storm (pictured above), which now snakes across the woodland floor.

Tehidy, on the outskirts of Camborne, is just one of the glorious gardens and wonderful woods across Cornwall to play a part in a festival designed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Poetry Society. It will also raise awareness of the Great Trees of Cornwall project, which aims to map the county’s most significant specimens — trees which are ancient, unusual or are simply cherished by the communities where they have thrived for a century or more.

The idea for the festival took root when the appropriately-named Helen Wood, facilitator of the Camelford branch of the Poetry Society — or Stanza, as local groups are known — attended the launch of Great Trees of Cornwall.

“I explained that I had poets who would like to write about trees, and asked if anyone would like us to come to their wood or garden,” says Helen. “We were invited to visit some of the great gardens — Trebah, Trelissick and Trewithen — and other places around the county, from Penlee Park at Penzance to Dizzard Woods at Boscastle.”

Helen Wood writing a poem in the shadow of the big yew tree

Sarah Byham, Cornwall Council’s countryside officer in the west of the county, was swift to issue an invitation for the poets to come to Tehidy. For centuries, the park was the home of the Basset family, a leading mining dynasty whose support for the Victorian plant-hunters led them to start what became an important collection of exotic trees and shrubs.

In more recent years, Tehidy’s trees and lakes have become a haven for wildlife, ranging from swans and ducks to badgers and bats — and the park is also a much-loved open space for the people of Camborne and the surrounding area.

“I didn’t know Tehidy at all, but Sarah’s advert for it was so enthusiastic,” says Helen. “Then I went to see it, and I thought how beautiful it was. It’s so untouched — not a manicured reserve. I couldn’t believe it was such a wonderful resource right on the doorstep of Camborne.”

Sarah believes that writing poetry about trees helps people to see woods in different ways. “A lot of my job is about connecting people with the environment and making them feel comfortable with the natural world. This is a great way to do that.”

The twisted beech is known to be around 230 years old, and first appears on a map dating from 1778. “It is not known why it is twisted, although there are plenty of theories,” says Sarah. “Perhaps, as it grew up, there were other fast-growing trees, and it had to twist to get to the light. Or there could be something in the roots which makes it twist. Or it could have been trained by a gardener.

“The nicest thing about the tree is the grafitti carved into the bark. The earliest is from the 1800s. I’m curious as to why the first one was carved — was it by someone who was visiting the Bassets?

The spiral trunk of the twisted beech

“The Fallen Giant was about 30 metres high until it was blown down two and a half years ago. It fell straight across what was once the rose garden. There had been a plan to re-create the garden, but the cypress was such an iconic tree before it fell, and we didn’t want to move it or cut it up. It would also have been very difficult to do. It’s now become a vehicle for other plants. It also offers an opportunity for people to explore a tree and walk among its branches. It’s a very special thing.”

The Fallen Giant

Helen is particularly fascinated by the monkey puzzle, which, like the beech, has been at Tehidy for more than 200 years. “This is a tree which lived before railways and electricity. It has been watching the world around it, and it hasn’t changed at all. When I first saw it, it didn’t fit in with my idea of trees. Where were the leaves?” Then she saw them — 20 metres up. “As soon as the monkey puzzle peeped its head over the top of the tree canopy it was probably stopped by the north wind, or it could have grown even taller,” she says.

Helen examines the foot of the Monkey Puzzle tree

The first poetry workshop at Tehidy, designed especially for children, took place in April. This month, Helen will be leading a session for adults, and a second children’s event is planned for the school summer holidays.

Children at the first event enjoyed helping to calculate the age of the twisted beech with a combination of hugs and tape measures; using mirrors to gaze up at the topmost branches of the monkey puzzle; and climbing the sloping trunk of the cypress. Then they sat down to write about what the trees made them think about. The beech was a helter-skelter, they thought, while the monkey puzzle’s trunk was an elephant’s foot and the Fallen Giant a boat in a sea of stinging nettles. 

Measuring the girth of the twisted beech

Looking up at the Monkey Puzzle tree with the aid of a mirror

“The format for each event depends on who comes,” says Helen. “If people haven’t written poetry before, they may need hand-holding, but if they are experienced writers, they may prefer to wander off and find their own exciting tree.”

She believes that trees are such an inspiring subject for poets, because “historically, we are tree people”. She explains: “We used to live in houses which were made of trees, all our furniture was made of wood, our fires burnt wood. Some trees produced fibres which could be used in clothing, and you can eat things off trees. They are how we survived. I think trees are in our DNA. We still have that closeness, and spending time in woods frees you back to your older self. It’s also good for your health.

“Trees are great sources of metaphor — from tiny acorns, great oaks grow and all that kind of stuff. And from an eco point of view, we are now aware that we need more trees. Even in suburban areas, there is now a movement to plant them again. More and more people have trees close to them which they can celebrate. And if they don’t, they could always go and plant one!”