If someone were to ask me what single feature of Wickford in my childhood comes most readily to mind, I could answer the elm trees – giant elm trees. I was conscious of them from a very early age, as though they had a very sentient life of their own. They were everywhere, one had to pass by some of them to go anywhere. They lined not only every road into the village, but graced the gardens of substantial houses that once had a place in the High Street. This was, not surprisingly, one little road long since treeless, which took its name from the elms.
As I grew older I became aware of the great beauty of the elms’ silhouette in summer and winter. They did not seem earth- bound like other trees. They dwelt in two elements, for their great rounded crowns were far away in the sky. One had to almost tip over backwards to see their tops. In that flat land, a little up-stream of the tidal Crouch, the elm trees were kings, more celestial than of the earth, with the wide, open skies of Essex for their backcloth. Was it by accident or design that caused our untutored forebears to plant these of all trees,the perfect contrast to the level landscape, unsurpassed in height, until recent times, by no human artefact other than a church spire?
The English elm can reach a height of 130 to 150 feet, and has been known to live for 500 years. Perhaps it is not extending fantasy too far to imagine that some of the oldest could have been saplings in the time of Queen Elizabeth 1. Down the centuries they grew, until in the 1920s the houses and cottages gave way to shops, and the elms vanished with them. However many giants remained on the outskirts of the town, a few until fairly recent times.
Some of the finest of them all were in Castledon Road, not far from where I used to live. There were six, huge and splendid, lining the side of a long garden. They had grown to their full stature, uncrowded, dwarfing the houses and such puny objects as telegraph poles. From my bedroom window I could see them end-wise, their crowns remote and detached against the sky, because their contact with the earth was hidden by the building between. Every tree had its music and those towering presences were rarely silent, but when the wind blew hard or reached gale force there was such a tumult as could send a shiver down the spine of those not in tune with them. Then there would be a billowing torrent of sound, unearthly, that rose to a rolling, roaring, wailing crescendo, spent itself, then died away in sighing eddies, fitfully to nothing, until the next performance – an arboreal organ waiting on the capricious wind.
Many years I lived with those trees, when, on one unforgettable day, I came home from work and could scarcely believe my eyes. The elms had gone. Only a long line of upturned earth showed that they had been there. I can recall the feeling of grief and shock to this day, as though one had suddenly lost well-loved friends. Unbeknown to us the garden had been sold for building. But at least their death was clean and swift, they did not linger, mutilated spectres of their former glory, or slowly wasting with disease.
Another landmark, at the north-eastern end of the village, was the majestic row lining the cricket field. As one passed under the railway arch the elms came into view endways, as beautiful in winter as in summer, dwarfing everything in sight. They were possibly the tallest, so tightly packed that they had no choice but to grow upwards. As a result of gales in the 1960s, though none had fallen, they were lopped to half their height, an ignominious fate. Now they too have gone. Should we lament their going? There are few sights in nature sadder than a mutilated tree.
Now there is hardly an elm, of any size, in Wickford. They have succumbed at last, as the whale has almost done, to the onslaughts made on them by man and nature. Three decades ago the second world war took the first great toll, for timber. I can remember the sadness, on coming home on service leave, to find along a well known field, a row of great severed trunks, like low tables, two or three feet in diameter, where some of my giants had stood for centuries. At that time winning the war transcended all. Afterwards, while acres of farmland were rapidly disappearing under postwar development of all kinds, the practice of intensive farming begun during the war accelerated sharply into the fifties and sixties, and enormous was the destruction of the hedgerow elm. It seemed incomprehensible that the far less beautiful oaks were always spared while the elm was regarded as expendable.This fact, together with the use of mechanical hedge cutting which lopped off every sapling as well, seemed to suggest a diabolical plot to eradicate elm altogether. Now with the help of nature the job is almost complete, in south Essex at least. Scarcely an elm anywhere is unaffected by the killer disease, so that, in years to come, the only ones to survive may be those carefully protected in private gardens.
Looking back, one could say that the 1930s, unbeknown to us at the time, knew the swansong of the great elm trees of Essex, as so many other precious and irreplaceable features of our life and land. But we were young and heedless then, because we did know there was to be a war which would change everything. We know no more that the familiar landmarks of the marshland skyline were doomed than that the sailing barges were making their last working runs up to Battlesbridge Mills. Perhaps even at this minute, some familiar, humble element of our lives may be quietly doing its last thing, only to be mourned when it is too late. But, so rapid is the pace of change, perhaps already the lesson is being learned, and the more prescient among us may even anticipate future changes so that precious records may be made in time.
Looking south-west from the railway bridge at Wickford station one can see on the London Road skyline a lone gaunt shape, like a part-opened parachute, leafless in high summer. It is a doomed survivor of my giants.