Breathe the trees: Oxford Canal

Mature trees flourish alongside the new at Stratfield Brake, a peaceful oasis of woodland, meadow and wetland along the Oxford Canal.

Breathe the Trees

 

Standing by a tree on a riverbank is different to being with trees in any other place. In most other places, like in the park across from my house, trees assume a regal aura. Beneath the canopy of a mature oak I am humbled – like being with a wise man who’s party to all the secrets.

But as ironic as it may sound, there’s something more grounded about waterside trees. It feels to me as if both tree and I are paying homage to the river, kindred in our reverence for it. The way an alder might lean into the water as if desperately trying to see itself reflected there. Or how a willow will drape itself into a canal. I often think on seeing those long, ethereal branches in a dishevelled, tangled mess on the riverbank that the tree has committed a devoted act of unrequited love.

A solitary tree hanging about the riverbank gives the determined walker a reason to stop, a place to rest and contemplate. I am so often inclined to walk “with” water, keep pace with its flow, especially if I’m over-wrought. Trees, however, are great reminders of the joys of gazing. It is as if they’re saying to me: “Hey, come see this!” And of course I am never disappointed: there’s always something to note.

It could be some colour spectacular for instance. There’s a Japanese maple that hangs over the river near my house. It has broad branches and is incredibly bushy. Thus, every October, it drops acres of golden, purple and crimson leaves into the water – not to mention everywhere else besides. These luminous five pointed leaves collect in vast flotillas and head upstream in union. It can be cathartic to imagine them carrying one’s worries off with them.

Then there’s a sycamore that lives a few miles east on the River Thames. I also make a point of stopping by it on my water pilgrimages. I discovered it some years ago, one hot summer day while cycling the towpath. Its stocky boughs were growing horizontal and very close to the bank. Conveniently these branches also featured comfortable grooves, which invited me to sit and eat my packed lunch. Perched on that tree I felt part of the river’s world, rather than that of the towpath. From my arboreal throne I gazed out into the water and witnessed an empire of beings busy in mid-air missions: drifting dandelion seeds, whirling swirling midges, dragonflies fizzing like electricity.

Alas I don’t always have the luxury of time. But I’ve found that a few minutes with a tree have transformative powers. As much as I try I know I allow the challenges of the day to prevent me from breathing as well as I should. But when I see trees I am reminded of the simple requirements of my physiology: to breath slow and deep.

No matter where they’re situated, trees make me inhale more deeply than I do anywhere else. My body instinctively responds to the oxygen shrouded about them. And this is all the better when it happens by the water, where there is so much scent to inhale: the salty tainted riverside air, the sweet summer fragrance of yellow flag iris. Breathing like this, even for a few minutes, is a pick-me-up that feels as refreshing as a dip in the river itself. No expensive membership is required; no online form needs completing. It’s an indulgent act that’s entirely free of charge. All that is required is to idle on the riverbank and dream for a while.

Oxford Canal

Mature trees flourish alongside the new at Stratfield Brake, a peaceful oasis of woodland, meadow and wetland along the Oxford Canal.

Dominated by oak, these woodlands are a fantastic opportunity to get better acquainted with one of Britain’s oldest trees. Oaks are known for their autumn acorns but in May, trees produce flowers, which appear with the leaves. Male flowers hang in slim catkins while female flowers occur at tips of shoots.

Find other British native species: ash, field maple, hazel, hawthorn and birch. Visit in spring and find bluebells covering the ground beneath the canopies of stately specimens, and you may hear great spotted woodpeckers drumming on wood overhead. Summertime meadows are bright with ragged robin and yellow rattle.

The canal forms the western boundary of this 45-acres landscape, and links to it with a footbridge. There’s a 4.7-mile (7.6-km) circular walk designed by local ramblers for the Canal & River Trust that can be accessed by the footbridge and towpath from Stratfield Brake to Yarnton.

Canal & River Trust