On Penhale Sands, I noticed a drumlin field, of trees

In the last year of my geography degree, I took a module on palynology (the study of pollen grains in geological deposits). During a field trip to Aran, after standing huddled around our tutor while he drilled out a bore sample, I was presented with a sample of soil to study. I learned about the succession of vegetation as climate evolves. The first to colonise Aran after the retreat of the Ice Age was heather, caluna vulgaris, evidenced by its pollen with mickey-mouse shaped ears. The first real tree was the silver birch, betula, a pollen grain that I have no lasting memory of.

It is thirty years since I was part of this field trip, but those mickey-mouse ears made an impression on my appreciation of shifting climates and habitats and why vegetation might be in situ. It made perfect sense to me to go first to a place devoid of trees, Penhale Sands on Cornwall’s north coast, to think about the 26Trees project. I wanted a contrast to the wooded environment that I had in my mind to write about. I had a fancy for the majestic Sessile Oaks that line the upper reaches of the Fal and Truro rivers. I was going to Penhale to reflect – I was not expecting a tree to choose me.

I have walked Penhale many times with Bessie (my black labrador), mostly with an eye to the horizon, to the vast skies and to seek out the first glimpse of the ocean. When you notice, truly notice, what is around you, the experience shifts. It shifted that day. When I lowered my gaze, I was struck by the forms of the shrubs. It was like a field of drumlins, in tree-form, not formed by retreating ice, but moulded by the wind. I was quite mesmerised.

The north coast of Cornwall lies at the eastern fringe of the Atlantic Ocean, and gets battered by the prevailing winds and visiting storms. There are few trees on this exposed coastline, and I would have said that Penhale was no different. A little in land, in the lee of some of the dunes, a tree population was growing. At first I thought it was brambles… then I landed on blackthorn. Close but no prize. It was only later, pouring over the Woodland Trust Tree Identifier app that hawthorn revealed itself. Over the following weeks I visited the dunes frequently, to chart the hawthorn’s progress through spring, and find me a specific tree to write my sestude about.

In the meantime, I found a rival location, and a brassy hawthorn that I had also once overlooked… (cue Eastenders style ‘duf-duf’ … or … tbc)