I love trees in winter. You can see their architecture – the beautiful structure of trunk, branch, twig, and learn to distinguish species by shape – the solid oak with its heavy limbs, the taller ash its twigs already thickening with sooty black buds and the graceful beech with its wide-spreading crown of branches. Without the distraction of foliage you can also appreciate tree bark – the very different textures – from the amazing contortions and whorls of the hawthorn to the gleaming rowan, and then there’s colour. I remember with shame how, as a child, I would assiduously colour in the tree trunks in my paintings – one solid dark brown. How I wish some kindly adult had suggested that I actually go outside and look at some trees. There are many shades of brown from that shiny bronze of the rowan to the more solid mid-brown of the larch or spruce, but also so much else: silver grey of beeches, wonderful staining of green, olive and khaki on the damp side of many woodland species – and have you looked closely at a mature sycamore recently? There’s a glorious specimen opposite the hole in the wall at Bolton Abbey where you can trace greys, buffs, even pinks in a soft combination that would grace the most expensive tweed.
So winter woods cannot be without colour though on some of the recent damp grey days they may have seemed so. To add to the picture, this is the time when mosses and lichens come into their own – brilliant patches of colour against the earthy browns of dead leaves. Wet is encouraging for fungi too. Splashing through woodland near Baildon just after Christmas our family spotted some fine examples of bracket fungi – still in their new and colourful stage. The best was proliferating on a log, its vibrant yellow and orange lighting up the whole scene. Bracket fungi grow on trunks and fallen branches, eventually forming shelves. They can live a long time and become very tough. In fact birch bracket is also called razor strop fungus and was once used for that purpose.
Another bonus of winter woods is that you can see through the trees and spot any movement of bird or mammal. Everything may seem quiet but, if you are out long enough, you may come across a large mixed flocks – finches, tits, sometimes a tree creeper or a couple of gold crests – foraging together through the bare branches.