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Why Langley Vale Centenary Wood is so important to me

When I was five my parents would frequently tip me into the care of Scott, the enormous gardener of Hereford Square in South Kensington, which was home at the time. It was there I first climbed a tree, and I have yet to discover a more vivid way of getting to know one.

Today, for my wife Emma and me, the great tree of our lives is the vast, cathedral-like turkey oak in our Dorset garden. It dates back to 1633, and is a bona fide movie star: Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma finally accepted Jeremy Northam’s Mr Knightley beneath its branches.

Julian and wife Emma at Langley Vale (Photo: Philip Formby/WTML)
Julian and wife Emma at Langley Vale (Photo: Philip Formby/WTML)

This long love of trees led me to Langley Vale Wood, in Surrey, which the Woodland Trust is planting with 200,000 saplings to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War. It’s a wonderful place: there are bluebell-carpeted swathes of ancient woodland, and grassy areas ripe for picnicking. It might feel remote, but it isn’t – if you look north you can just about see the Wembley Arch.

Personal connections with Langley Vale

Langley’s historical significance is particularly poignant for us. Emma’s great-great-uncle, Lord Kitchener, inspected 20,000 troops on nearby Epsom Downs, and delivered a rousing speech as they went off to fight on the Western Front. To remember them, we’ll be planting an acre of trees in the Trust’s centenary wood.

My own family lost several people in the First World War. My grandfather succumbed to meningitis in the trenches aged 29; one great-uncle died of his wounds; and a great-aunt’s ship was torpedoed. The war touched the lives of that entire generation. That’s why this commemorative tree-planting drive struck a chord with me. It seems such a fitting tribute: like the men and women they stand for, these trees are dignified, life-giving, vital.

Hundreds of schoolchildren, community groups and local volunteers have helped with planting at Langley Vale (Photo: Rosemary Wilman/WTML)
Hundreds of schoolchildren, community groups and local volunteers have helped with planting at Langley Vale (Photo: Rosemary Wilman/WTML)

A long lasting tribute

I was lucky to be keen on history as a child, and that’s another reason I’m so drawn to the Trust’s work to honour the war’s centenary: schoolchildren up and down the UK have planted thousands of trees and scattered iconic poppy seeds to mark the project. Youngsters exploring these beautiful places in future years will find statues and plaques among the trees that point them back in time. If that piques their curiosity – gets them asking why this brigade was honoured, this regiment, that event – then as far as I’m concerned it has all been worthwhile.

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The full version of this article appeared in the Autumn 2018 edition of Broadleaf, our quarterly magazine exclusive to members. Its news, features and stunning pictures tell the inside story of how we, our volunteers and partners stand up for trees. To receive your regular copy and exciting welcome gift, become a member now