“My life now is just trees, isn’t it,” says Judi Dench. “Trees and, erm, champagne.”
Judi Dench’s Secret Woodland lies by her home in Surrey and holds special significance for the actress. Many of the trees were planted by Dench herself and her husband Michael Williams who died in 2001 ( there’s a tree here in his memory.). There are trees in memory of deceased friends and family including her brother Geoff, actress Natasha Richardson… “It’s something living that goes on,” she says. “You don’t remember them and stop; you remember them and the memory goes on and gets more wonderful.” The actress said she had been naming trees after dead acquaintances for decades in her six acre plot in Surrey, and said she views them as her ‘extended family.’
Judi Dench wants to find out more about trees, and what they do through the seasons, from the experts. One of them is Tony Kirkham, who takes her to see a yew that is about 1.500 years old. That tree was even shot in the English civil war (the cannonball was found inside it). Yews are interesting because they are poisonous and because some people say they have experienced hallucinations while among them.
The sound of the trees
In spring, she continues to explore with another expert, Alex Metcalf, who takes her to a bluebell wood with a special listening device, so they can hear what’s going on inside a tree. They are able to hear the sound of the water travelling up through the xylem tubes to the leaves. “Ah, it’s riveting,” gasps Dench.
She clearly adores trees and sees them in a very romantic and personal way. She is delighted when she learns that they can communicate by sending messages to each other underground. As I suppose we all are…
Another fascinating discovery is that trees can sense attack from insects or from deer and change their taste to be less tasty. They even call out chemically for outside help.
Dench also plants two trees, both English natives. The yew, in memory of Robert Hardy, actor, friend and expert in longbows – which, of course, are made of yew. And the other, an oak, but she doesn’t say who that one’s for.
Through amazing research, we learn more about how trees can communicate and contribute to the forest, sharing resources with seedlings or the vulnerable. It’s confirmation for Judi that there’s so much more to the trees she loves: they are a real community that help each other.
Make sure you see this beautiful documentary on Boxing Day, on BBC One.