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  • Writer's pictureMartin Clarke

The needle-eye tree

It was a February morning about 8 years ago. As is my habit, when I get the chance, I like a local morning walk. It was a frosty, crisp day; I slipped my boots on and set out with my trusty stick.

I joined the track just a couple of minutes from the house -it runs up Tyley Bottom, bottoms being a local name in the South Cotswolds for the valleys that dot the edge of the hills, glacially formed but with slumped shoulders of clay and fullers earth. Tyley is unspoilt with no roads.

My boots crunched in the frost - this is corvid country and the cry of the rooks and jackdaws cut the air. The familiar musky smell of the Fox criss-crossed every few yards. A roe buck grazed in one of the ancient tythe fields and squirrels barrelled along the hazels that line the path. The sun was just beginning to edge above the hills.

It was an idyllic time to take stock, and enjoy some exercise. I’ve recorded the valley for many years, and have produced a photobook and a dvd, but this time I had no camera, no mobile phone., no sketch book. After about a mile I stopped on the bridge where a small stream joins the Tyley Brook. For some reason I felt pushed into getting into the stream for the first time and I waded along it’s course. I was curious about this unexplored, miniature landscape - a deep-sided gulley edged in blackthorn , hawthorn , and hazel , the stream picking up springs [or issues as they are known here] coming out of the oolite and clay horizons .

The stream bed was yielding as I rounded the first bend. My splashing surprising a buzzard sitting on a tree stump in midstream feeding on its bloody pigeon prey. It didn’t fly off. We stared at each other. Then it seemed to beckon me further upstream and it slowly flapped a few feet in front of me, then flew up and off through the trees after a minute or two.

A transfixing, goosebumpy, moment witnessed only by me and the wood sprites that populate Tyley.

It was so transfixing that I failed to notice my wellington boots were only an inch from being topped. The sticky, yellow mud is unforgiving and unyielding - my staff, inevitably, was propped up on the bridge. So a bit of a problem.

I struggled out of one boot, and my unsocked foot found a slippery hold on the bank - but the other boot was jammed in the ooze.

My eyes looked around, and then up, for help, only to be dazzled by the sun against a clear blue sky - the sun appeared 20 feet up a large beech tree, but not just up, it was IN the tree. I have never seen it’s like. The single beech had self seeded maybe 90 , 100 years ago, one of a group of three. The main trunk had grown twenty feet then divided into two ,as trees do, but this time the divided branches refused to diverge and stayed vertical then decided to combine again, leaving a hole for the sun to poke through, about 8 feet tall by 2 feet wide - the needle eye tree as I called it later. Two more divisions, two more smaller eyes visible above - a tree that did not want to obey convention.

My dilemma, thus delightfully interrupted, had not gone away. The left boot with my leg inside remained in the mire. Then with a crash a gift from above landed on the bank next to me, a stout straight strong stick, dropped by the needle-eye tree. I levered the stick under the stuck boot which gradually emerged and I was able to climb onto the bank, even retrieving the other empty boot.

So I will always be grateful to the needle-eye tree, and whoever organised the dropping stick, whether the buzzard or the local sprite who knows. It still seems surreal. I have taken a few groups to see it, expecting reverence, which was always given. It’s unique , my favourite tree, the needle-eye beech of Tyley Bottom.

Martin Clarke

4 October

Transcript of a story told at Mairi Campbell’s Ceilidh on Sunday 4 October 2020

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