Here's how the story starts. . .
You could say this story starts more than a hundred years ago.
In the 19th century as the maps of the planet were being finalised, the world's great forests passed on to the English their secrets kindly and discreetly like grandparents pass on sweets. Explorers boomeranged home from being flung far with cuttings and seeds, leaves and nuts, and welcomed them to our strange and magical island. For tree-growing and the appreciation of trees has always been a silent passion of ours. From these experiments, hybrids of Redwood and Oak, of Baobab and Yew, of Cypress and Sycamore were designed, planted and encouraged to grow to wonderful heights and girths. Hundreds of feet high, dozens around. Designed to be used for a sport only to be played long into the future. Designed to be climbed.
Picture then, Eight Great Trees of England planted during the main course of the Victorian feast, only to reach their mighty heights towards the end of the 20th century long after the deaths of their planters.
There are more than eight of course every county has its revered tree, and how proud we all are of them. But there are eight truly important ones, dotted around the island like birthdays on a kitchen calendar.
Now picture a young woman as she ascends one such great tree. She climbs to music and enthrals a stadium audience of hundreds with her graceful leaps and acrobatic pulls. If you had to describe it you might say it is a mixture of figure skating and mountaineering, a vertical ballet, an arboreal gymnastic. It is the expression of our national soul. It is the writing on the sand that tells a passing world we are here.
But you don't have to describe it, you just have to see it.
Can you see the tree? Can you picture the girl?
And here's how I meet one of those girls. . .
The way we fell in love wasn't extraordinary or hugely romantic. It was as light and surprising as leaving a house on a summer night and breaking a spider's thread with your nose.
Runnymede is the greatest of the great trees of England. Hybridised from Wellingtonia and Beech it provides the roots of the tree climbing world. Each great beam is adored, each fathom of the trunk venerated, and while other trees have more challenging features I'm thinking of course of the Bridgwater Cavities and the Ivy on the Elm at Bishop Auckland Runnymede was the first to be declared ready for competitive climbing, and remains the most prestigious.
On 29th May 1992 my father and I enter the Magna Carta Pavilion, walk past the row of wooden busts of the champions made from fallen branches of the great trees, and head to the small supporting climbers dressing room. The annual ball had been the night before but we hadn't been invited.
We were doing the traditional Fireman and Cat routine, warming the crowd up for the big climbs. Kind of like the opening act of clowns at the circus only upwards. This funny cat, played by me in a rather itchy outfit, gets himself stuck in the tree and after last year's victorious climber pretends to be my owner and uses a broom to get me down one time at the Gretna Lime she got me right on the ankle - Fireman does his silly best to rescue him. The kids shout to tell Fireman where Cat is, I keep escaping, buckets of confetti, hoses, bungee ropes, you know the rest.
The crowd loved it that day. I knew it was the best we'd done the routine. I'd always been one who believed in getting through life by always giving a full 10%, in stopping well before the extra yard, in burning the candle at one end, but something about that day, I don't know quite what it was, made me give that little bit more. I even added a couple of extra scampers and somersaults, it was going that well.
My Dad thought that was showing off a bit, but was pleased we hadn't made any mistakes. We came back to Earth, I took off my whiskers and ears, and now the real tournament was about to start.
And then something else started. She looked at me.
Well, things progress and we get together. . .
You know all it takes for love to succeed is that cynical men stand by and do nothing. And all the other guys on the climbing tour said and did nothing loudly and constantly. They I think probably just weren't aware of us. My father approved of her because at Sudbury she once laughed at one of his jokes I asked her about this later and she said it was more a cough and she hadn't realised that what he had said could fairly be described as a joke. I didn't tell him that.
What did I love about her? That she was a hug just waiting to happen? That she had more sense than money? That her favourite charity was the International Red Rose, an organisation devoted to promote the ideas of romance among the world's coldest and most distant people. Just a pound a month could help buy a candle lit dinner for two in Suburban Toronto, 50p would provide a bunch of flowers in Denmark.
We decided we wanted to move in together at the end of that 1992 tree climbing year.
When the next season rolled around I kept on with my Fireman and Cat act with my Dad, now the second most important person in my life in a list of two, and she kept on getting close to winning Trees, but never quite making the breakthrough. Her numerous fans would tell her she had been robbed, but she didn't mind. She always told them she was glad she had more trees to climb. That was another of the things I loved about her. She had come here to compete but the winning was something that she well she didn't deliberately avoid it per se, but I think something of her self would go if she actually succeeded.