An account of the 2017 Charter Ride
By Ruth Hyde
I’m not a morning person, but I was remarkably chirpy and full of anticipation when Chris, my Woodland Trust colleague, and I met the rest of the team — Simon from the Arboricultural Association, Rob Penn woodsman and journalist, and Fund4Trees trustees Gabriel, Martin, Mick, Russell and Tracy — in the early hours of the morning at a cold station car park in Berkshire for the start of our epic bike journey to Lincoln.
Our mission: to deliver a rare yew cutting to celebrate the launch of a new Charter for, trees, woods and people some 800 years after the signing of the original Charter of the Forest which established rights for ‘free men’ to access the Royal forests. Our destination — Lincoln Castle which houses one of the two remaining copies of the Charter — travelling 180 miles and stopping off en route for some celebratory tree planting.
Where better to start such a journey than the ancient Ankerwycke Yew at Runnymede considered to be the place where the Magna Carta was signed 800 years ago and which laid the foundations two years later for the creation of the Charter of the Forest. It was from this very tree that the cutting we were transporting to Lincoln was taken. I’m not normally a tree hugger, but for once it felt the right thing to do – so we circled the tree, gave it a good quick squeeze, had a few moments to reflect and then headed off to our next stop.
And what a welcome we received at Churchmead School from a group of 11-12 year olds at our first tree planting event. They listened avidly to Russell’s pre-planting chat about the benefits of woods and tree, chipping in enthusiastically and knowledgeably with answers to his questions. And they were more than happy to roll their sleeves up, get their hands dirty and join in with the planting. With a response like this the future of woods and trees is in safe hands.
By 10.30, two coffee breaks down, and our main tasks for the day done – all we had to do was cycle the 50+ miles to Milton Keynes, aptly the home of a Tree Cathedral, with a likely arrival time of 2 or 3pm. At this point I didn’t realise that cycling distances and estimated arrival times were more aspirational than realistic. What followed was a 65+ mile journey through uninspiring landscapes taking us past Heathrow and skirting around Watford, where we had to contend with weaving in and out of miles of stop-start traffic, being choked by the fumes on busy dual carriageways and stopping regularly to deal with technical problems (our support driver Ade was a hero!). And very few trees in sight to raise our spirits. We eventually arrived at our accommodation at 5.30pm tired, hungry and quite prepared to be grumpy! But the reception staff changed all that – they were brilliant – not batting an eye as nine weary, tangerine-jacketed cyclists hauled their bikes up the stairs to their bedrooms.
Day 2 – Milton Keynes to Melton Mowbray – our longest day of cycling and we woke up to rain – lots of it. They do say that there’s no such thing as bad weather; only unsuitable clothing. I’m not sure I’d agree with Alfred Wainwright – after 3 hours of constant rain even the best waterproof kit would have leaked. The morning was quite a slog but as the weather cleared our mojo returned because at last we were moving on to quieter roads and starting to make inroads into the mileage. The journey wasn’t without problems – more technical problems requiring trawling the countryside for bike repair shops, and punctures galore (thanks to Rob who is the master of tyre changing – where would we have been without him?). This coupled with the undulating (i.e. seriously hilly!) countryside of Leicestershire was eating into our schedule – we were due to join a Charter Branch celebration in Somerby at 3pm. So what had originally felt like an easy task became a real challenge – finishing with a mad and tiring dash across Leicestershire arriving at the village school to the sound of a rousing cheer . . . just in time to join the tree planting ceremony.
And this was a community event at its best – most of the children from the tiny primary school (just 30 pupils) had turned out with their parents and friends, and we were greeted with a welcome mug of mulled apple juice and delicious homemade cakes. Everyone was involved in the celebration and all crowded around to watch two youngsters plant a charter tree. And as we left the event to travel on to our night stop in Melton Mowbray I had every confidence that this small sapling would be cherished and well looked after by the whole community. For me it exemplified what the new Tree Charter was about – rekindling a connection between people and trees.
Day 3 – Melton to Lincoln – 50 miles to cover and plenty of time to get to the National Trust’s Belton House for our tree planting. The sun was shining and I was more or less on home territory. This promised to be a perfect day . . . only marred by having to say bye to Simon who had to leave us.
The Vale of Belvoir on a sunny Sunday morning is the perfect place to be – trees abound, amazing vistas everywhere and just the occasional hill to challenge us. By the time we passed Belvoir Castle we were ahead of schedule so slipped in a cheeky diversion to the Woodland Trust HQ and a chance for a quick photo bomb of the offices. Then on to the National Trust’s Belton House, a 1,300 acre estate with manicured lawns, deer park and ancient woodland features – for our penultimate planting event.
The event couldn’t have been more of a contrast to the previous day’s intimate planting in Somerby – Belton was unsurprisingly heaving with visitors, all out making the most of a bright autumn Sunday afternoon. Set against a backdrop of the 17th century mansion house, our tiny sapling was planted with quite possibly the biggest tree guard ever – a wise precaution given the ever present herd of deer.
All we had to do now was cycle to Lincoln in our own time – no more stops required – so we lingered for a while to enjoy some National Trust fare, before saddling up and heading back on out journey.
It was a delightful afternoon, the roads were quieter and so much flatter – and it wasn’t long before we could see Lincoln Castle in the far distance rising high above the surrounding landscape of the flat Fens. Our original plan was to go straight to the hotel saving the castle to Day 4 as part of the wider Charter celebrations. But the day was going so well, and having shared so many ups and downs over the previous 3 days we felt it was only right to arrive at the castle as one group and have a bit of special bonding time together! And so we arrived at the castle puffing and panting our way up to the top of the hill looking like a group of unfit tangerines on bikes – with just enough time to marvel at historic heart of the city and check out the charter pole before the castle closed for the evening. Time for a celebratory drink – and where else but the Magna Carta pub of course!
Day 4 – Lincoln to Lincoln – Our epic journey wasn’t quite over – we had one more school to visit and then the evening Charter launch. At last, I thought, a chance for a lie-in and a bit of a recovery time. So it’s fair to say that when we got the call at 8am to say “get over to the Castle, BBC Breakfast time wants you on TV!” – and you’ve got 20 minutes to get here – my response was unprintable! Dragging on cycling gear, stumbling out of the hotel, battling with rush hour traffic and frosty roads, puffing and panting up the hill to the castle, and then staggering up the iron staircase to the castle ramparts . . . without so much as a cup of coffee inside me . . was not how I’d envisaged the day to start. But it was fun and the media coverage absolutely amazing – we couldn’t have asked for more.
It is at this point that I should say planning was not always our forte . . . our approach was much more spontaneous and in the style of play it by ear/ ‘I’ve got an idea’ . . . which is why we ended up covering 205 miles as opposed to 180. But what could possibly go wrong with one last tree planting event at a school 2 miles away? Only it wasn’t 2 miles away it was 5 . . . only it wasn’t 5 when you factor in the ‘I’ve got an idea for a better route to avoid the hills’. And this is why 5 miles became 10 and how we found ourselves cycling rapidly down a long-forgotten byway across a golf course as balls whizzed past our bikes!
We arrived at Priory Pembroke Academy with only seconds to spare – for an event which marked the official opening of the school – and included, fittingly, the unveiling of a statue of the Earl of Pembroke, a signatory of the Magna Carta.
It was here that our journey really ended. We had covered just over 200 miles, endured countless punctures, witnessed schools and communities participating in tree planting and woodland activities and really embracing what the new Charter is meant to be about. If we can harness the passion and enthusiasm for woods and trees that I witnessed more widely then their future is assured.
Ruth Hyde is Director of Brand & Communications for the Woodland Trust
Fund4Trees trustees are very grateful to the following for their core support of the 2017 Charter Ride: