The English Elm tree, along with the yew, was in times past the mainstay of the English country churchyard. Thomas Gray epitomises this in his elegy:
"Beneath those rugged elms, the yew tree's shade
Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
There were plenty of elms in the hedges and lanes around here - our lane had many and they were dotted about in our field margins. Go further afield and many stately homes had stands of statuesque old elms - it was the quintessential tree of the English countryside.
Robert Browning in self-exile in Italy, longed for the English countryside each Spring - wanting to see the humble buttercup rather than the "gaudy melon flower" and remembering the trees coming into leaf. In his "Home Thoughts from Abroad," he says
"Whoever wakes in England finds,
some morning, unaware,
that the lower boughs of the brushwood sheaf
round the elm tree bole are in tiny leaf."
That brushwood around the base of the trunk was our way of identifying an elm tree when we were children and the first tiny green leaves of Spring would sprout first on this brushwood because it would be in a sheltered position.
Now they are mostly gone from our countryside. 120feet of majestic tree falling victim to the Dutch Elm beetle and slowly dying. I had three elm trees in my garden when I lived in The Midlands and, knowing the disease was about, we watched them carefully. The odd leaf fell early and we worried. The next Spring barely any leaves sprouted and within a month they had fallen - the trees died before our eyes and the effect was catastrophic as it spread around the country.
The disease, first described in The Netherlands, hence the name, was in this country in the 1930's but then in the 1970's a more virulent form arrived - this time probably from Canada - and there was no escape. Everywhere you looked, these giant trees were dying.
The elms on the farm succumbed in the late 1980's. The pictures, taken at the time by me, although I was not married to the farmer then, show dead elm trees. David and his father felled the trees, sawed them up into logs and stored them on our wood pile.
Well, now we are just burning the last of those elm logs. They have been supplemented by holly, hawthorn, sycamore and alder as and when Nature decided to do a bit of pruning. But now the last few logs lie on the hearth ready for burning.
One dead wych elm still stands in the hedge waiting to be felled. Its days are numbered, for we are running short of logs and Winter is not yet over.