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Country diary: this sombre, subaquatic green gloom is glorious

For 50 years I’ve known and cherished the wonderful line of beech trees that marches up to a gritstone fissure called Flint Clough. While it might be churlish to call them “non-native”, strictly speaking these trees are not truly indigenous to Buxton.

In these islands, the species is naturally a chalk-loving tree found south of a line between the Severn and the Wash. Its occurrence in spare northern places like this has been down to our attachments to beech. Yet if these specimens are here as our guests, they have certainly not been cosseted since first planted about a century ago. There has been no or little pollarding or coppicing; nor have damaged and fallen trees been removed and tidied. The one practice bringing benefits was incidental to their wellbeing. Yet banishing the sheep from these woods has allowed for a huge outburst of young saplings that should secure their future well into next century.

At this point in early winter the trees seem more integral to the spot than ever. The healthiest specimens, with fluted columns and iron-hued bark, look as if they are rooted to the gritstone plate just below the soil surface. The remaining canopy has immersed Flint Clough in a sombre, subaquatic green gloom, but all across the valley floor the fallen beech leaves had laid down simultaneously an eye-soothing layer of softest russet brown.

Candlesnuff fungus growing on a beech stump

Candlesnuff fungus growing on a beech stump. Photograph: Mark Cocker

In some places whole beech trunks have collapsed and their wood is waterlogged, spongy, mined relentlessly by beetle larvae and plastered over with other devourers of lignin. In one impressive fungal garden there are crowds of inkcap mushrooms and – even more beautiful and weird – a gesticulating throng of a species called candlesnuff, whose powdery white fruiting bodies are like tiny deer antlers spiring out of the beechwood plate.

The smell of the place is all fungal rot and dead leaves. Yet wherever there are young beeches there is a blaze of orange and gold leaves mingled with the saplings’ last green foliage. All in all, Flint Clough and its beeches have an air of winter’s entropy blended to the storm of colour one associates with new life.


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