This morning, after last night’s dark swill of rain, there’s a sunny calm. From the top of Windmill Hill a circle of mist shuts out the world beyond Wenlock’s bowl, but within the circle, open above to an eye of clear sky, the trees are brilliant with autumn colour. Flashiest are the clear yellows of limes and burnished copper of beech; ash trees are already bare and the great oaks are golden. But the field maples, Acer campestre, stand out in ways they rarely do during the rest of the year.
“I love to see them gemmed with morning hours,” wrote John Clare in The Maple Tree. “I love the lone green places where they be / And the sweet clothing of the maple tree.” Most field maples are seen in hedges and new plantings along road verges; they are a woodland edge species, but the ones that have been left in the open fields have a unique character that belongs to a much older countryside. Field maples are fay trees: small, neat, compact; the veterans wear their age and their magic lightly.
In the 1990s, a field maple in Shrawardine, near Shrewsbury, was recorded with a girth of 2.43 metres (8ft) and was 15 metres (50ft) tall, but this is a monster compared with most open-grown trees, which are rarely even half that size. Older trees have grey sinuous bark with cracks and ridges; twigs are sometimes corky; leaves are three-lobed with two irregular teeth, triangular and finely rounded, as beautiful as Japanese maples, although not generally grown as ornamentals. Their wood is strong yet delicate and can make lutes, harps and medieval-style drinking cups.
In autumn, field maple leaves turn from butter yellow to bright gold, some change to a rich brick red and others to purple; often various colours appear on a leaf simultaneously. Dressed in “sweet clothing”, the field maples are as old, if not older, than many great oaks; their “lone green places” on the fairy tumps in far fields are bewitching and they have a subtly powerful allure to draw the curious to them. But, then, you don’t believe that old superstitious nonsense, do you?
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