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  Noel Coward







You know those people who have got leylandii growing all along one side of their garden? Those horrible, nasty, great, green things forming a sort of arboreal Berlin Wall?

Well, I am one of those people.

I never meant to be, I swear it. It’s just that when we moved into our house in the country there was already a stout hedge of the things, and over the years, although we lopped and trimmed a bit, they have become mighty monsters, forty or fifty feet high. We never did much about it, because our neighbours never complained.

Our neighbours are Network Rail.

Yes, our predecessors merely planted a low hedge of leylandii to hide the railway line. The line in question is a branch line running off the main London-Bath line, going down south to Westbury and Weymouth, Yeovil and Portsmouth. Sometimes at the weekends, when the main line is full of engineers, they re-route Inter-City 125s round here, and occasionally there’s a steam special, but for the most part it’s lots of little trains shuttling to and fro. Can’t really see them, because of the leylandii.

Actually, can’t really see anything on that side of the garden because of the leylandii. Beyond that mighty green cliff there is a lovely valley, full of trees and rivers, but that side of the universe is hidden from us by the green screen. Dark side of the moon, and all that. And what I wanted, almost more than anything else in the world, was for Network Rail to come along and say: ”I am afraid these trees are too close to our line. Can we take them down?” I wanted Network Rail to be the neighbours from hell, to say: “We hate your leylandii! We want them down!” so that I could turn round and say: “Any time you like, mate, as long as you do it for us ...”

Unfortunately, they seem to think that the trees are quite safe where they are, and in no danger of falling into the path of the Weymouth train. So over the years the leylandii have grown from shrubs into trees and from trees into big trees, and the light has got gradually more excluded...

It was Mr O’Shaughnessy across the road who first put the idea into my head. His house is higher than ours and he would have a lovely view of the valley if the trees weren’t there. His idea was simple.

“Why not get them cut down?”

Lots of reason, really. Inertia. Getting used to them. Having them as a screen from the sound and view of the trains. Because they are nesting places for long-tailed tits and, my wife says, goldcrests. Oh, and because it would be jolly expensive.

“I wouldn’t mind chipping in,” said Mr O’Shaughnessy.

Good Lord. Not just self-interested neighbourliness, but self-interested neighbourliness with a cheque book. I started asking round among people who cut trees down. Hoary-handed tree fellers. Harley Street tree surgeons. Chaps who drive dodgy trucks and offered to do things for cash. They all came and had a look. They all went pale and said no.

“Very difficult job,” went the general excuse. “Too near the railway. Network Rail are bastards for insurance. Very difficult, leylandii. Difficult to get down, difficult to dispose of, impossible to burn. Also, we would have to get it all out across you garden and probably ruin it. Also…”

I got the point. They didn’t want to do it. And there the matter might have rested had I not somehow encountered a firm called Green Man, who specialised in railway work, and did a lot of it for Network Rail. Nice young man called Garry came round to have a look.

“Doesn’t look too bad,” he said. “It’ll take a few days, but no big problem that I can see.”

“But won’t Network Rail be a problem

“No. Not them.”

“But isn’t it hard to dispose of?”

“Not at all. We’ll chip it on the spot and cart it away.”

He sent me an estimate, which I agreed to, wincing slightly, and everything went very quiet for two months, then suddenly one day his lads came round and started work. They were brilliant. Every tree fell away from the railway line, every one was carved up, and every one taken away. It took them the best part of a week and hundreds of tea bags. What had been a big bank with a forest at the top suddenly became a big bank with nothing on it. Most of our garden is still green and pretty and bushy and shrubby, but one side of it looks just like those photos you see of Flanders in 1917: bare earth, shattered trunks, debris and long-tailed tits looking really annoyed. Give it a couple of years and it will be healing nicely.

And we can now see the trains, if that’s your idea of a good time. They belt along in full view, twenty feet from the middle of the lawn, high above us. My wife doesn’t like it. I do, quite. Luckily, they are no noisier than before. My wife still thinks that people in the train can look down into our garden and see us. See us doing what? We don’t do anything in the garden much, apart from play boules and have three barbecues a year. Anyway, the whole point of train travel is to look out of the window and wonder at other people’s lives. Poets have written about what they have seen from the train. Robert Louis Stevenson’s “From a Railway Carriage” . . . (“And ever again in the wink of an eye, Painted stations whistle by …”). Thomas’s “Adlestrop”, of course. And Frances Cornford’s wonderfully politically incorrectly titled triplet, “To A Fat Lady Seen From The Train” ( “O fat white woman whom nobody loves, Why do you walk in the fields with gloves. . . ?“). How on earth would any of those poems have got written if leylandii had been planted all along the British railwayside?


The only person who made me worry about my actions was my son, Adam, eighteen, who was openly reproachful. “Dad, I grew up with these trees. I learnt to climb in them. I learnt to smoke in them. I learnt to read forbidden comics in them.”

For a moment I was repentant. But then I remembered what one of the Green Man gang had said. “You’re doing the right thing. Leylandii aren’t trees. They’re weeds.”

And Mr O’Shaughnessy did the honourable thing and came round with a generous cheque. Mark you, he also said that even if the view of the valley was now much better, my house was still a bit in the way.

Forget it.

The house stays.

The Oldie April 9 06