Sandy's Garden ... Peripheral Vision

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I grew up in Perth when the railway industry was the city’s largest employer.

Some 5 000 men … and yes, they were largely men … worked in the engine sheds, on the passenger and goods trains, in the marshalling yards, in the passenger station and the goods depots, in the carriage sheds, the wagon works, the locomotive repair shops, the signal boxes and on the many miles of track.

It was said that there was nowhere in Perth during my formative years where you couldn’t hear the sounds of railway activities; and I well believe it. Certainly, the various sounds of steam engines busy about their sundry tasks and the noises of passenger and goods trains on the move were audible in my parents’ house and, like many of my contemporaries, I developed an interest in railway operations which has never left me.

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It was no surprise, then, that Ailsa … who grew up in Wormit in a house overlooking the Tay Bridge, hearing the sound of trains … and I are perfectly content to share a boundary wall with the railway.

Falkirk Herald gardening guru Sandy SimpsonFalkirk Herald gardening guru Sandy Simpson
Falkirk Herald gardening guru Sandy Simpson

No surprise, either, that we both sometimes look over the wall if we hear an unusual railway sound. So, while work was being done on underbridge 55A close to our house, and with all regular train services suspended while contractors repaired the extensive damage done by the waters of the Union Canal after it burst its banks, there were sundry unfamiliar noises emanating from Network Rail’s property.

Some of these were the sounds of tree fellers cutting down self-seeded, mature trees and feeding the unwanted wood into a shredder for removal from the site. But first, a few words of background information.

In the dead, departed days of steam locomotives … can it really be more than fifty years since British Railways ran its last scheduled steam-hauled passenger train? … lineside vegetation was partially kept in check by the tendency for steam engines to emit sparks and burning cinders when they were working hard.

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During dry spells, these embers set the parched vegetation alight, effectively dealing with it. And, although such fires were usually small and did little harm, especially when farmers knew not to grow cereal crops on the other side of a railway fence, lineside vegetation was also kept under control by human toil.

With the coming of dieselisation, this fire risk was eliminated, doing away with the need to regulate most of the undergrowth. Saplings were now able to mature into trees which led to more trees.

Fifty-plus years of unregulated growth had resulted in areas of dense woodland forming on the sides of railway embankments and cuttings, including some behind our home.

To gain access to underbridge 55A … little more than a culvert to allow the Polmont Burn to pass well below the line … Network Rail contractors had to fell self-seeded trees in the immediate vicinity; and, heaven be praised, they had also been instructed to fell a further fair number of self-seeded lineside trees behind our house, an act which has worked wonders for improving the amount of direct sunlight beaming into our garden as well as markedly improving our peripheral vision of this stretch of railway by greatly extending our sightlines.

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I must emphasise that these were all unwanted, self-seeded trees growing on sites from which they would formerly have been cleared. Most of them were plane trees, possibly the U.K.’s most common ‘wild’ tree, which are resilient giants, growing up to 35 metres tall.

Competition for sunlight in their packed communities had encouraged them to reach this height and more, bending and flexing in even light winds. And they are not unalloyed good news, even for tree-lovers.

Their dense clusters of fluffy seeds, which are dispersed by wind during winter and spring, can cause respiratory problems in people. We like trees. We have introduced trees into our garden. But we are happy that these planes have now been shredded!