A Most Pecular Tree


I stood just outside the mossy rock wall of the churchyard.  We were in a tiny English village with a name I would have to look up in my notebook.  I was making it a point to stop and look inside these old Saxon and Norman churches whenever we passed one (and where there was room to pull the rent car safely off the narrow road).

I stood and looked at the strange tree that grew many feet above my head.  I inched closer, careful to not brush against the nettles that, with a touch that lasted a nano-second, would punish your hand for the rest of the day.  It looked like a conifer with its oddly shaped needles.  Yet, there was something…

After snapping a picture, I continued to move around in the churchyard in search of unusual tombstones, interesting names, the best angle for a photo and heartfelt epitaphs that could barely be read under ages of lichen and moss.  I kept looking back at the tree.

Then I remembered.

I was shown this strange plant in 1975, on my first trip to England.  I was with a friend and he pointed out this awesome tree.

“Wager you don’t have many of these in the States,” he said.

“You win, Malcolm.  I’ve never seen anything like this before,” I replied.

“It’s a Monkey Puzzle tree,” he said.  “You don’t see many of them around.”

A Monkey Puzzle tree.  What an interesting name, I thought.

Over the years, I forgot about this strange tree that is native to Chile (it’s the National Tree of Chile).  Just a few weeks ago, I saw another one.  And now, I’m seeing my third.  I googled the tree and found that its population is declining.  It’s on the Endangered Species List of the IUCN (whatever that is).

Then little bits of my memory fed me snippets of the tree being mentioned in popular culture.  One of my favorite movies is The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.  Mrs. Muir had a Monkey Puzzle tree cut down and replaced by roses.  This made the spirit of the sea-captain quite angry…he had planted the tree years earlier (when he was alive) by his own hands.

Wikipedia mentions a novel Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer.  The female character, Emily, manages to climb the tree.  This is no small feat, since the tree is called “Monkey’s Despair” in France.  It’s not easy to climb.  Emily learns that a young boy who once lived in her house had climbed the tree…but was too afraid to climb down.  He later died in WWI.

I get a certain odd and creepy feeling when I stand and gaze at this tree.  Strangely, I often find them near graveyards.

They’ve been called “Living Fossils” because of the age of the species.

I found one an hour ago on eBay.  Perhaps I will buy one and have the only Monkey Puzzle in the Adirondacks (most likely).

But, then again, I don’t think I will.  I might be tempted to climb it.  I might be afraid to climb back down.  I might discover what it was that drove the monkeys to despair while they pawed their way through the odd and spooky branches.


I Never Met An English Country Church I Didn’t Like


[St. John the Baptist, Buckthorn Weston, Dorset]

It’s been said by many travelers that if one wants to know what’s happening in any small English village, just go to the pub and listen for an hour.  I think the same is true, to a degree, of social life provided by the Church in these towns and hamlets that appear on maps as small squares with crosses.

The village names themselves are worthy of a post for their own sake.  There’s Guy’s Marsh, Ebbesbourne Wake, Bowerchalke, Broad Chalke, Sutton Mandeville, Donhead St. Mary, Mellbury Abbas and (my favorite), Little Puddle Bottom.  And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg when you consider the English penchant for descriptive and proper geographic place names.

Each of these towns, each of these dots and intersections on maps, nearly always contain a church.  The vast majority of these are Anglican or Church of England.  Americans know them as Episcopalians.  One drives by these small churches everyday when you’re motoring about from places like London to Stonehenge.  Stop in one of these small buildings, and time has stood still.  Each one is different yet each one is nearly a carbon-copy of the next.

You enter the church grounds (if you’re lucky) through a lychgate.  These are small entries into the churchyard that have a roof to protect the pall bearers from the frequent rains.  Here, the mourners and the coffin await the priest to emerge and begin the funeral service.

Once inside, you feel the chill.  I didn’t have my pocket thermometer with me, but the churches I visited today probably were all about 56 F.  If I were attending service, I would hope for a highly charged sermon full of fire and brimstone.

I’d feel warmer.

Here is a small photo gallery of the common sights one sees in so many of these lovely and ancient structures.  And, by ancient, I really mean ancient.  Most of the churches we visited on June 3, date back 800 to 1,000 years.  It staggers the mind to contemplate the fact that worshippers offered up their prayers and pleas to that many years.  These churches were ancient centuries before Columbus even thought of sailing to the edge of the known world.

Here are some photos:


 [Typical lychgate]


[The Book of Common Prayer for the congregation]


[The effigy of Alexander Mowbray who died in 1410]


[Baptismal font from the late 1300’s. I find it interesting to contemplate the tiny infant being baptized and then, 80+ years later, ending up in the ground outside the church under a stone encrusted with moss and lichen.]


[Cushions for kneeling. Sometimes made by the local ladies. Many are Regimental Insignias]


[From birth to death. The end of the story for the faithful worshippers]

The first stanza of one of my favorite poems:

“The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

the shepherd, homeward, plods his weary way,

the lowing herd wanders slowly or’ the lea,

and leaves the world to darkness, and to me.”

     –Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.

Looking For A Silk Mill And Finding Barton Stacey

Barton Stacey Graveyard

It was clearly shown on the AA Road Atlas of Britain, right there on Map 19.  It was a stop I very much wanted to make.

We were motoring south on the A34 from Oxford to visit our friends in Romsey.

There at a small town of Tufton, was an attraction labelled SILK MILL.

Admittedly, when I think of the UK, I think of wool and room-temperature beer and the most baffling game on the planet, Cricket.

But, I never think of Silk Mills.  Here’s the sum of my knowledge of silk: It comes from a worm, Bombyx mori and it is native to China.  How it gets from the worm to my multi-colored neck-tie is one of those mysteries of life I never looked into, like computer chips, digital technology, why New Jersey is called “The Garden State”, the fact that Charlie Manson almost got married, and how gravel-filled barges stay afloat.

Back to the A34.

I knew we needed to go west first then east to get to Tufton.  Somewhere in a series of roundabouts, I ended up heading southwest.  The roads were narrow (no surprise here) and the hedges were close by the road’s edge (again, no big surprise).

We drove for a few miles.  I was still holding out for a sign to the Silk Mill.


Then, like a vision of Brigadoon, was a church steeple and the thatched roofs of a small village.

Where were we?

Before we had a chance to check the Atlas, a road sign appeared.  We were in Barton Stacey.  It was quite close to Newton Stacey and a few miles away from Sutton Stacey.

My diuretic was doing its duty so I found a place to pull over near the church.  There was no one about, so I went through the gate and found a totally obscure place among three huge trees and a garbage bin.

I took care of business.

I turned around and found myself looking over one of the most peaceful English churchyards I’ve yet to see in this country…and I’ve seen quite a few.  It was quiet as a, well, a churchyard.  The tombstones were unreadable because of the accumulation of moss and lichen.

I tried the church door and found it locked.  A sign said there was a key at the village market across the road.  I walked over and asked for the key after buying the latest Guardian.

We entered the church and signed the little guest book.  I read a small card that explained that the church was about 1,000 years old!  I put the card down and zipped my jacket.  I was chilled to the bone.  I hope for the sake of the faithful that the sermons were kept short.

Mariam, meanwhile was looking over a financial poster that detailed the church fund-raising efforts.  We were both amazed that they had managed to raise over £10,000!

I was reflecting on this amount when I walked back to the store to return the key.  How could such a tiny village raise that kind of money?

On the way back to the car I walked past an old British Telecom Phone Box.  You know, the red ones they show in all the old English movies?  But, I had to take a second look (a double-take as they say).  This was not a phone booth anymore.  It was a lending library!


I peeked inside and saw some titles I wouldn’t mind reading, but I already had about 358 titles stored in my iPad so I couldn’t justify borrowing a book.  Even if it was from a decommissioned phone booth.

We drove on to make our first stop in Winchester.

Later, at our friends’ home in Romsey, they said that the money most likely came from the wealthy residents of Barton Stacey.  This little rich village could afford to pay for the upkeep of the church…and to keep the town the way they wanted it, quaint and quiet.

My best guess is that if I return to Barton Stacey in twenty years, I’d find the same village but I wouldn’t be able to buy a MacDonald’s cheeseburger.

That thought was totally fine with me.