On a bitterly cold day, in brilliant sunshine, I walked among the fire trees on Ashtead Common. Twelve years ago fire raged through the Common for three days, destroying hundreds of veteran oaks. Flames took hold in a deep layer of dry bracken, defying efforts to extinguish them.
Some remnants of the burnt oaks remain as silent witnesses to the destruction. These monoliths, scorched and bleached amputees, create a bizarre landscape. In summer they watch over a herd of chocolate-brown Sussex cattle. In autumn bracken rollers crush the scrub at their feet, removing tinder for any future flame.Look inside these hulks and you will find the remains of wasp and hornet nests, beetle burrows and deep hollows which once sheltered bats and birds. In this dead wood, you can read the history of the trees and the life of the Common.
In the winter landscape the fire trees stand proud against the sky, dominating the high pasture and casting deep shadows. They are like the grand old men of the Common, watching over it and offering a poignant warning against the destructive power of fire. There is something both beautiful and terrible about them.