Deep roots


Wanstead resident Jean Medcalf has published her first poetry book at the age of 89. To Everything There is a Season is a collection of lyrical, spiritual poems about nature. In the first of a series of articles, Jean introduces Heartwood, a poem inspired by a special Wanstead tree

I have lived in Wanstead for 60 happy years. I first came to Wanstead as a newly-wed, having been married at St Mary’s Church. My husband’s uncle, Jack Medcalf, was then the parish priest.

When we first came to live in Wanstead, I discovered what a friendly place it was; like a village where everyone knows everyone. I never gossiped about anybody, as I was probably speaking to their relative or friend! It is the kind of place where people know the names of each other’s dogs.

When I first went shopping, the lady in the hardware shop asked how I was settling in. I wondered how she knew I’d just moved in – she turned out to be a neighbour. When I was expecting my first baby and went shopping in  Webster’s, the butcher whispered to me: “Just come to the front of the queue, and I’ll serve you first.”

One of the things I love about Wanstead is its beautiful trees. The avenues of trees, once part of the grounds of Wanstead House, the plane trees along the High Street that provide welcome shade as people stop to chat, the horse chestnut trees on the green that provide little boys with conkers every year.

And in particular, the 300-year-old sweet chestnut trees on George Green, some of which were sadly destroyed to build the M11 link road. I remember the people of Wanstead linking arms around the tree, defying the bulldozers and chainsaws. When it was felled, a great cry of grief went up from the watching crowd. I took a tiny piece of wood from its fallen trunk and kept it as a sacred relic.

I have loved poetry since childhood and have been writing poetry since the age of 14. I found it allowed me to express my deepest emotions, whether of joy or of sorrow.

When I was about 40, I discovered I had the gift of hearing trees speaking to me. This has happened to me several times and always with oak trees.

One very special tree stands out. Many years ago, I used to cycle to work through Wanstead Park each day, always passing a magnificent old oak tree. It was the ancient Repton Oak, which is 200 years old and dates back to the time when Wanstead House was a grand mansion surrounded by landscaped gardens. One day, I stopped to rest beneath it, sheltered beneath its spreading branches, quietly listening. I heard this poem in my mind – it was as if the tree was recounting its life story.

This is the story it told me…

by Jean Medcalf

Upwards soars my head to Heaven,
Deep my roots dug firm in clay;
Squirrels eat my acorns dropping,
In my branches build their dreys.
Lovers carve true-love upon me –
Hearts and tokens in my bark.
Sun and Moon pour brightness on me;
I am the same by day or dark.

I saw crowned Queen Boadicea
Saw the Romans come and go;
Humans change, but I am constant;
Tree above, and they below.
Springtime sees my youth upon me,
Dropping autumn leaves me bare.
Winter lends me hoary fingers –
I change only with the year.

Humans: know my powers to comfort;
Know that I can bring you peace.
Tranquil rest your soul within me;
From all cares I give release.

If you put your arms around me,
Hug me round my crusty bark,
Troubled head to dusty roughness,
Touchwood close to unquiet heart –
Then my Heart-Wood self will bless you,
From your heavy fears absolve,
Draw them deep into my own roots,
Strengthen you with oak resolve.

Know then: we are one forever.
You shall be ours when you are clay.
Abiding, loving, green in spirit,
Remaining Dryads all our days.

Jean’s book To Everything There is a Season is available in paperback (£4.75). Visit wnstd.com/jean