The strangest apple tree in England?

14/6/2016 During my ‘book journeys’, I had now come across three references to an apple tree buried in the shingle beach near Aldeburgh. The origin of this tree is unknown but suspected of being the result of a fisherman’s picnic lunch. This, along with the fact I had never seen Maggi Hambling’s sculpture, ‘Scallop’, apparently not far away from this tree, was ample excuse to set out for Aldeburgh on an excursion – despite the forecast of heavy downpours.

Armed with waterproofs (which turned out to be of very little use in such persistent rain) and my Suffolk guide book, Roger Deakin’s Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, which I hoped contained enough detail of the location of the famous apple tree to enable me to find it, I started to walk up the beach in the direction of ‘Halfway House’, a slate-roofed ruined cottage buried amongst shrubs on the edge of the North Warren marshes – approximately half way between Aldeburgh and Thorpeness, as its name suggests.

A friend whom I had just visited in Aldeburgh before setting out on my exploration was sure that the apple tree was not to be found on the shingle beach and therefore must be in the dip in the ground at the edge of the marshes, if it was still there at all. After looking around the maze-like paths surrounding the ruined cottage and failing to find the tree, I fished the book out of my sodden rucksack under the shelter of a green arch to check for further clues. I found a sentence that indicated the tree was definitely in the shingle, not in the marsh. Clearly I was not going to be able to pick it out at a distance, amongst the other low shrubs growing there, so I would have to comb the landward side of the shingle ridge until I came upon it. In my state of steadily increasing wetness, this was not the most encouraging realisation.

Luckily I did not have to go far. I only realised that I might have found it once I was standing right next to it; and not only that, it took me some minutes of close inspection to ascertain that this was definitely a tree, and therefore, by process of elimination, and thanks to Deakin’s description of it being ‘buried up to its neck in shingle’, the tree. It was smaller than I expected – not 23 feet wide and 3 or 4 foot high, as Deakin wrote, but more like 1 or 2 foot high and 15 or so feet across. The shoots appeared to be rising vertically out of the shingle, like irises out of water, or bulrushes out of a bog. No branches were immediately apparent. Then I peered down between the twigs and thought I could see horizontal branches, from which the shoots originated, just showing on the surface of the shingle. Perhaps this was the world’s only rhizomic apple tree!

The difficulty of determining that this was a tree was exacerbated by the fact that the shoots were bare, and I had been expecting to be able to find and identify the tree by its leaves alone. At first I thought it was dead, but most of its shoots looked relatively new, green and vigorous. Still, there was not a live bud or leaf to be found on it. Some strange debris was attached to the end of several of the shoots, unidentifiable even on pulling apart, which made me wonder if the tree had been recently drowned in salt water and therefore lost all its leaves. My friend assured me afterwards, however, that the sea had not breached the shingle ridge in many years and so this explanation was impossible.

I will have to go back later in the season, and again next year, to find out whether the tree is temporarily or permanently dead. I will also take my camera, which I did not do this time due to the weather, and because I often like to experience things or places for the first time without this form of distraction. I pondered whether to delay publishing this post until I had taken a photo, but concluded that photos can sometimes do a disservice to the imagination, as films can do to books: I was glad that it had not occurred to me to look for a photo of this tree before going to see it, even though it would have been easier to find had I known what I was looking for. It is a curiosity that needs close-up, three-dimensional examination to be appreciated, and it lived in my imagination for many months – two or three years, in fact – before I saw it. So I hope it will for you, at least until I (perhaps) decide to add a photograph after my next visit.

4/8/2016 Update: Thankfully the tree is alive and well, although it will bear no apples this year. I don’t know what could have happened to it earlier in the season, but I think the most likely explanation is that a sustained or repeated spraying with sea water, in high winds perhaps, could have been enough to kill off the leaves.

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