Dawn in the New Forest and as the light begins to bathe the oaks, beeches and yews, James Aldred is 170ft up in the canopy listening to Bach. It’s a perspective of the pasture and heathland enjoyed exclusively by the birds and squirrels unless, like James, you’re crazy for climbing trees. His boyhood passion has led to him travelling the globe, seeing the world from treetop to treetop as a wildlife cameraman and photographer.
Hornbeam is really strong – that’s always been the centre of a butcher’s block, and axles in a cartwheel – while willow and poplar are not
No adrenalin chaser, James compares himself more to a mountaineer wishing to take his time and appreciate the beauty of the world from a higher vantage point. More likely to be caught reading a novel than swinging about like Tarzan, at the core of his passion is a deep respect for woodland and the folklore surrounding it.
“They are beyond us,” says James. “We don’t define trees, they define us. That’s the beauty of them.” For him, it is an immersive and mindful experience. “You have to focus on what you’re doing for safety, which cuts out all the extraneous rubbish that clutters my mind. And when you get up somewhere high – that’s the reward, to see the horizon and the tops of the trees and the wind blowing through.”
It was perched at the top of “Goliath”, a Hampshire redwood planted in the 19th century (“A sapling, a teenager really, but huge in British terms”) that he wrote the epilogue to his memoir, The Man Who Climbs Trees. Starting with his first climb as a teenager in the New Forest, scaling the trunk to escape a rutting stag, to the forests of Venezuela where howler monkeys stalk the vines, it’s a book of adventure and endurance in uncharted territories. Today, though, we’re standing at the bottom of an oak tree in the decidedly unglamorous surroundings of a rainy Wandsworth Common, south London, where James is going to give me a taste of the techniques he uses.
I’m in good company when I place my safety in his hands. National treasure Sir David Attenborough has been attached to a swing seat by James and hoisted 250ft up trees in Venezuela, Thailand, Borneo and Costa Rica for programmes such as The Life of Mammals (as much as 90 per cent of life in the rainforest is found in the trees).
“Sir David sort of glides up into the canopy and looks at the gibbons,” laughs James, who also trains arborists, tree surgeons and ecologists around the world who want a safe way of climbing trees.
We’re not going so high as Sir David today. While we both agree the harness and ropes feel a little over the top for our location, James encounters plenty of trees where the single-rope technique we’re using is indispensable. “It’s a really efficient way of climbing. If you want to stop and look around, and you’d be crazy not to, it’s got you safe.”
He expertly chucks the rope over a branch. In his day job, most trees he’s eyeing up don’t have a branch for 200ft and he uses crossbows, longbows, whatever he can, to get the rope up and over, without damaging the tree.
A lot of the old pollards, trees I climbed as a kid, whenever I go back, another one’s fallen down. There’s no next generation of trees coming up in those woodlands
James doesn’t have a tree climbing manifesto but leaving no trace is a top priority. With less robust species such as beech, he uses special friction straps wrapped around the branch rather than the rope, so that he can abseil down without damaging the bark. “I don’t like to cause the trees grief,” he says. Knowing and understanding Britain’s 50-odd national species is part of the sensation of climbing. It also connects him with a past where trees shaped and were the foundations of our communities.
“Hornbeam is really strong – that’s always been the centre of a butcher’s block, and axles in a cartwheel – while willow and poplar are not. Elm was used for the keel of ships because it gets harder under water,” says James.
Forest folklore doesn’t help him in the remote rainforest, though. “You might not even know what species you’re climbing, you can’t trust it implicitly in the same way.”
The longest he’s spent in a tree? Three days. For fun. “I was in Borneo, and I had some time off.” James talks blithely about sleeping in a hammock, always attached to an anchor point, so that when a storm comes in the middle of the night he can just roll out of bed. “You’re on a rope and there’s only one way to go. You don’t even have to think, you just go down.”
We won’t be practising any sudden bailouts today, despite the threat of a full storm, but James certainly thinks it would be great if more people spent time in trees. He takes his own young sons tree climbing and recommends starting low. “Hawthorn is good. Kids can get up into that. They can just take it gently and go as high as they’re comfortable doing, and when you’re ready to take the next step and get into the ropes, by then you’ve already got the confidence in your body and the muscle memory. If you just go in at the deep end and climb the tallest trees straight away, nervousness really detracts from the enjoyment of it.”
Health and safety culture, and suspicion by passers-by that he intends the trees some harm, means James usually avoids public parks in favour of remote woodland. And while he travels the world, he loves nothing better than to head out into the British countryside and set up a hammock. It was capturing this unseen canopy life, the sounds and his own thoughts and observations, with a binaural microphone and recorder that led to a series of Radio 4 programmes called James and the Giant Tree, which led him to write his memoir.
Despite leaving largely no forest in the world unexplored, Britain still has a magical allure for him, in particular the New Forest, where he grew up and where he says there’s world-class tree climbing. “It has got some really special trees. I know where some of them are, but that’s the nice thing, it’s a very regional thing. Down here sycamores are quite scrappy trees, seen as a pest. But you go up north or to the Scottish borders and sycamores grow into massive, beautiful trees that are real icons in the landscape. Different species grow better in different environments.”
He admits to worrying about the state of Britain’s woodlands, particularly the New Forest, which he feels is overgrazed. “The Forestry Commission has had its heart ripped out. It needs proper funding,” says James. “A lot of the old pollards, trees I climbed as a kid, whenever I go back, another one’s fallen down. There’s no next generation of trees coming up in those woodlands.”
The UK is one of the least wooded countries in Europe, and from 2015 to 2016 the Forestry Commission planted just 640,000 new trees – substantially short of the 2.2 million needed to meet the target of 11 million by 2020. Yet James remains hopeful for the future, believing British people won’t allow our living giants to disappear. “We’re pretty good with trees,” he says. “They are in our culture and we love them.”
The Man Who Climbs Trees by James Aldred (Penguin, £16.99). To order your copy for £14.99 plus p&p call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk