'Tree hunter' nears end of 13 year nature project

By Steve Mather
BBC News

Image source, Rob McBride
Image caption,
This giant sweet chestnut in Gloucestershire is about 400m from Bigsweir House that was used in the Netflix series Sex Education

A "landscape detective" who has been recording ancient trees along the English and Welsh border for 13 years has almost completed his project.

Rob McBride has been walking the 177 mile (285km) Offa's Dyke path logging culturally significant trees since 23 April 2008.

He initially thought it would take "a few weeks" to complete and is writing a book about his passion project.

"Trees, people and culture are all interlinked," he said.

Image caption,
Mr McBride's work has taken him to many countries and he is part of the group that decides the European Tree of the Year

Mr McBride, who lives in Ellesmere in Shropshire, is aiming to complete his venture on 23 April 2021, which would make it 13 years to the day since he started.

He has been recording the trees for the Woodland Trust and the journey will be recorded in his forthcoming publication The Great Trees of Offa's Dyke.

Over the years he has walked, cycled, camped and hitch-hiked, spending days away from home at a time to catalogue the "arboreal treasures".

Image source, Rob McBride
Image caption,
There is an aerial forest of small trees at Redbrook that have colonised an old wooden bridge

The final part of his journey will see him walk through Gloucestershire where he has recently been recording trees at Redbrook.

He said the importance of trees and nature had been boosted through a combination of increased awareness of climate change and people spending more time at home during lockdown.

"It's a bit of a unique concept, a travel diary about trees but they don't get the press and PR they deserve. Trees should be a lot more mainstream in a time of climate change.

"A lot of people are scared of getting lost while out in the countryside but there is no need to be. It's so important to spend time outside," he said.

Image source, Rob McBride
Image caption,
The Great Oak tree at The Gate of the Dead is found near Chirk Castle in Wales

Mr McBride said his passion started when he began attending meetings with "tree professors" who taught him how to identify and locate ancient and interesting trees.

"It blew my mind. These tree professors taught me how to read the landscape. It's about being a landscape detective.

"The UK is the European rainforest. I've got tree hunter friends all over Europe who are envious. Every time you go out for a walk you will inevitably find an ancient tree. They are all over the place, but most people don't realise it."

Image source, Rob McBride
Image caption,
In Discoed he found an oak tree with an eight metre circumference

After spotting a tree which he believes is ancient, Mr McBride uses online maps to research it and the area before making copious detailed notes about it.

"Size is everything," he joked. "We measure the circumference and that girth size gives you a good estimate of age. Many are hundreds of years old."

Some of his favourites along the route are the Dragon Oak at Montgomery, the view of the trees from Devil's Pulpit overlooking Tintern Abbey and the lime trees in Cadora Woods.

Image source, Rob McBride
Image caption,
Garry Hogg wrote about his walk along the route 75 years ago in And Far Away

His Offa's Dyke odyssey follows in the footsteps of Garry Hogg, a journalist turned author who walked the route in 1945-46.

Mr McBride said he was thinking of completing his walk in the period clothing Hogg would have worn, such as a trilby hat, pipe and tweed jacket.

The path celebrates its 50th anniversary this year but the dyke itself, built by King Offa of Mercia, dates back some 1,200 years.

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