I grew up in a swathe through beech forests so it’s no wonder that I find the pines, redwoods, sequoias, cedars and cypresses of the south coast alluring.
Today, Bournemouth is famed for its vigorous tree culture — famous enough in 1948 for poet laureate John Betjeman to take the piss out of the modernising town clerk who longs to build blocks of flats over the town’s clifftop pine woods:
I walk the asphalt paths of Branksome Chine
In resin-scented air like strong Greek wine
And dream of cliffs of flats along those heights,
Floodlit at night with green electric lights.
My view from the eighth floor of one of those ‘cliffs of flats’ is dominated by city and canopy, a testament to a centuries-old commitment to greening and salubrious landscaped woodland.
But it could all have been so different.
From heath to health
Two hundred years ago, Bournemouth was at the arse-end of what Thomas Hardy imagined as ‘the Great Heath’ and described as follows in Return of the Native:
A place perfectly accordant with man’s nature – neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither common-place, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony!
Other critics were less kind. The History of Bournemouth: 1810-1910 portrays the area in the years before habitation thus:
At that time, stretching right away from Christchurch to Poole was a vast, desolate heath, covering an area of probably twenty square miles.
Meanwhile, at some point before 1875, a contemporary writer nailed Boscombe as ‘a scene of indescribable desolation’.
The turning point for the blasted land came in 1809, when, out of nowhere, a pub appeared. Where there is booze, retired army officers shall not be far behind and Lewis Tregonwell and family became the first official residents of the budding hamlet in 1812.
Latching on to far-fetched rumours that ‘pine-scented air’ was beneficial for popular nineteenth century maladies like tuberculosis, Tregonwell and Sir George Ivison Tapps, the owner of the pub, conspired to cover the heath with hundreds of pine trees, all the way down to the seashore.
Over the ensuing decades, these two wily entrepreneurs somehow transformed Hardy’s inhospitable heath into a miracle pine health spa.
But what’s almost more remarkable about this story is that those rumours about the health properties of pine were bang on the money.
Pine trees vs cancer
The scent of pine trees comes from its resin and specifically from two isomers of pinene. If you’ve ever used turpentine: it’s the same chemicals and the same woody smell. (Enjoy responsibly.)
Pinenes are a type of chemical called phytoncides. You might recognise the -cide ending there. Yep: pinenes kill stuff. It’s the pine tree’s all-natural antimicrobial killer defence spray.
And it works on us too.
Qing Li, an immunologist at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, has been investigating the effects of phytoncides on the human body since the early 2000s.
In one, frankly astonishing, 2009 study, Li invited 12 men to come and stay with him for three nights at an ‘urban’ hotel. If that sounds dodgy, wait until you hear what happened next: every night, he pumped vapour from the pinene-rich oil of Hinoki cypress trees into their bedrooms.
At the end of the study, the poor men showed a significant increase in the activity of their natural killer immune cells (this is good: these cells kill cancer) and a significant reduction in noradrenalin (AKA norepinephrine), which usually increases when we’re stressed or in immediate danger.
They also reported feeling less fatigued compared to a control hotel stay that lacked the vaporous phytoncide air.
And so back to Bournemouth, where the tradition of ‘taking the tree air’ continues with the council’s healthsome Tree Trail. (Betjeman’s town clerk was fired, I hope.)
Untold riches — of Redwoods, Cedars and Cypresses
The trail is heralded as ‘a two hour circular walk through Lower, Central and Upper Gardens’, but so far I’ve spent over four hours and have only rather shakily identified half of the 14 mapped trees.
I could spend two hours alone at the foot of Bournemouth’s Dawn Redwoods, a species once believed to be extinct, forgotten for five million years, rediscovered in its native China during the Second World War, and now lording it over the social distancing picnickers and parkour traceurs of the Upper Gardens.
Or I could cosy up for an afternoon with the Blue Atlas Cedars, re-seeded from the mountains of North Africa and now almost shyly gathering around the Hedgehog Kiosk, as if waiting to be invited for ices.
I must find time enough too, far from their Mississippi swamplands, for the Bald Cypress, those of the tree knees, whose canopy has that fibrous quality of ferns writ large, leaves that are hardly there, yet diffuse the sun into soothing colour.
And this walk of almost infinite discovery scoots over the single greenway of Bournemouth’s central gardens. The verdant chines — of which Betjeman’s Branksome is but one — are a tree trail tale for another day.
Thanks to A.T. for discovering and then sharing the Bournemouth Tree Trail with me!
Credit also to Winston Churchill, RLS, and the Literary Chines of Bournemouth by David A. Laws and The Pines of Bournemouth.