Author and Photographer Archie Mile Interview
PUBLISHED: 17:56 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:09 20 February 2013
Corinne Westacott talks to author and photographer Archie Miles about his life-long passion for trees
"There's an aura if you sit under big old trees. It sounds flaky and esoteric, but there's something about them..." Archie Miles particularly loves yews. But he's also partial to a good beech. Or a delicate silver birch. He says there's now no more room on his land for trees of any species and has had to ask everyone to stop giving him them for his birthday.
There is a reason for Archie's ardour. He is one of Britain's foremost tree photographers. He is also the author of Silva: the Tree in Britain, which has become a classic since its publication nine years ago.
Archie Miles has lived for eighteen years with his artist partner Jan in a converted barn, full of colour and vibrancy, near Stoke Lacey. They moved here when their two daughters, now grown and flown, were small. They currently share the space with two black Scottie dogs and 300,000 transparencies. Archie's picture library is one of the best tree-related collections in the country. His photographs don't merely catalogue trees; each one is a portrait. Archie does for trees what Lord Snowdon did for the Royals.
"It's a lovely field to be in." Archie Miles speaks with the enthusiasm of someone whose passion has become his job. It all began when he was a child in Yorkshire: "My folks were into taking us for walks and we would stuff Observers books into our pockets and go off into the countryside and look for trees, and butterflies and flowers and birds. They were very good at communicating what we were seeing and it stayed with me." Adolescence and its own particular interests intervened for a while but his love for the natural world resurfaced when Archie went to Trent Polytechnic to study photography.
"It's always been at the heart of what I do; it's my passion although it's not always been the thing that's earned me money. I've photographed people making widgets on production lines; I've photographed some of the grimmest factories you can imagine; I've done hotel brochures; I've done the oil industry. I've travelled all over the world doing industrial stuff but when I came back I always wanted to go out and shoot landscapes and plants - trees in particular."
Then came Silva, which is such an oak-heavy book it is housed on the heavyweight shelf at Hereford Library - the librarian books your chiropractic session as you carry it out. It was the result of an idea Archie had nurtured for a long while: "a book that would tell people the things I'd wanted to know; the whole cultural overview of British trees - what they've meant in the past and what they mean now". Publishers smiled, said "How lovely!" but then showed him the door. Eventually, help came from an unlikely source.
Felix Dennis is one of the richest men in Britain. A co-editor of Oz, the 60s hippy magazine, he was put on trial back then for 'conspiracy to corrupt public morals'. He was acquitted and has since gone on to make a fortune in publishing. He also happens to be passionate about trees. Egged on by Jan, Archie put aside his qualms about begging letters and wrote to Dennis in 1996 asking if he would be interested in funding a tree book. It was three months before Archie arrived home one day to find that an excited Jan had received a phone call "from a mad bloke in New York". Dennis was interested and undertook to get the book published, underwriting its eventual publication by Random House.
To date Silva has sold 27,000 copies, which is remarkable for so large a volume. It is full of tree knowledge, tree science and tree fancy - biology, folk-lore, history, woodcraft and, of course, beautiful coloured photographs.
Silva took two and a half years to complete but it looks as if it should have taken much longer. Archie looked a bit nonplussed when I said this. I suspect he has no problem meeting publishers' deadlines, no problem getting it down on paper. He tends to start writing in the evening and works well into the early hours. The daylight hours are for going out with the camera to photograph more trees. We used the afternoon I was with him to visit some of his Herefordshire favourites.
It is fitting that, after Yorkshire, Nottingham, London and the Cotswolds, Archie and Jan found, loved and settled down in Herefordshire. If there were Michelin stars for trees, this county would get the full Gordon Ramsay three-star quota. "Herefordshire is fantastic for trees. I've travelled all over Britain and I would have to say that here we've got as great a diversity as you'll find in any county. We've got lots of ancient trees, lots of semi-natural ancient woodland, we've got forgotten treescapes like the ancient orchards which people tend to skim over. People come to visit in spring time - or in winter when there's the mistletoe - and they say 'This is fantastic!' We take it for granted."
The trees we went to see are among Herefordshire's most famous - the avenue of aged and arthritic sweet chestnuts at Croft Castle. They are around four hundred and fifty years old. If you want to witness character wrought in bark and bole, this is the place. Archie's portraits of these ancient geezers of the tree world are among his best, caught in the orange light of sundown - the time movie cameramen call 'the magic hour'. These trees remind you of the Ents from Lord of the Rings: they probably march and talk after dark.
So what does it take to make a really good tree photograph? "Patience," says Archie, "patience to get the right weather, the right season, the right light. People think trees are rooted in the ground; they don't go anywhere, it should be easy-peasy. But to get it spot on, often I'll go back to a place many times, whether to get the right conditions or to see how something varies. With some of these ancient trees, if you shoot it from a different side it becomes a completely different entity."
He also likes to get skin-close to his trees: "I'll often home in on detail and find a face or something like that. Looking at ancient trees is very much like looking into a fire or looking at clouds. You see what you want to see. And when I do lectures and I put on some of these slides I think people must think I'm off my trolley when I say this, but actually they get into it as well. They say, 'I've seen that sort of thing but I didn't like to say'."
Archie only works in colour and has not gone digital. He says he still gets better results from his slow, fine-grain film than he would on even the best digital camera. There was a panic a few years ago when Fuji said they were going to stop producing their 50ASA film. He spent a fortune filling a freezer with the stuff. Luckily, just as it was running out, Fuji announced they were re-issuing it.
As for colour, he enjoys it and says, "it's an intrinsic part of me making a picture." Having seen his fridge covered with coloured polka dots I could understand that he wouldn't want to work in moody monochrome.
Archie also enjoys the thrill of the chase. Well, perhaps 'chase' is the wrong word when we're talking about things which stay in one place for centuries. But there are still many ancient or rare trees out there to discover. Archie 'discovered' a great one not so long ago. Local hearsay led him to an undisclosed location on private land. There he found an oak which, with a girth of 42 feet, turned out to be the joint biggest in Britain: a Champion Tree, probably more than twelve hundred years old.
"It makes you think," he says, "what has this tree seen? It was here at the time of the Norman conquest. That is astounding. And if you think that's a lot, go into the realm of yew trees. Well, you can double that age, so you're looking at two to three thousand years. Take the yew in Much Marcle churchyard. You really can't estimate its age because it's hollow, and yews can also go into stasis for maybe a hundred, two hundred years."
Archie's latest book, Hidden Trees of Britain - A Regional Guide to the Country's Secret Treescapes, shares his personal discoveries of Britain's best, if little known, tree wonders. It took him on a tree journey from Wester Ross in Scotland to the southern tip of Cornwall. It includes local places such as Craig Y Cilau, high above Llangattock in the Usk Valley, where extremely rare whitebeams hang by their toenails from the limestone cliff; the old beech avenues on the side of Abergavenny's Blorenge; and the Chepstow aspen which, in a very unassuming way, covers two acres and is Britain's biggest tree.
It's not only exciting to find such trees, he says, it's also important for the nation. The Tree Council is co-ordinating a Green Monuments Campaign which Archie supports. "They want to get new legislation to give proper protection to trees. At the moment all our ancient monuments like Stonehenge or Windsor Castle - if you chipped a piece off those, your feet wouldn't touch the ground. But if you knock a tree over, or set fire to it, or pull a huge piece off it, you might get your wrist slapped a bit but nobody can do anything much about it. The biggest oak tree in Scotland was lost a couple of years ago because some kids set a fire in it and that was it - gone. A thousand-year-old tree, lost in half an hour. It's tragic."
Luckily, we British do love our trees. The Woodland Trust has close on 200,000 members and, since the success of Archie's Silva, publishers have realised that trees do sell. Archie thinks we are constantly in awe of the longevity of trees. He admires their resilience. "They hang on in there through all sorts, sprouting a branch lower down if things aren't going so well up top." At Croft Castle he showed me how one of the ancient sweet chestnuts was holding itself up by just one thin remaining skein of living bark.
You can see why he loves them. He struck a pose of mock defiance, squaring up to any prosaic detractors: "I have been known to hug a tree," he said. "And I don't mind that being in print."
Hidden Trees of Britain - A Regional Guide to the Country's Secret Treescapes by Archie Miles. Ebury Press 2007. 25.
Readers can buy Hidden Trees of Britain for the special price of 22.50 including free UK p&p. To order please call 01206 255 800 and quote the ref 'Herefordshire Life'.
Signed copies can be obtained from the Archie Miles website: www.archiemiles.co.uk.
Archie will be talking about Hidden Trees of Britain at the Hay Festival.