It has a reputation as one of the most beautiful woods you can find – clean, creamy white, flecked with whirls and grains and resembling ivory once it’s sanded and polished. But don’t be fooled by its pretty looks; the Hornbeam is as tough as it gets, and it’s certainly pulled its weight where Britain’s economy is concerned.
For more than two thousand years, ploughing a field in this country meant shackling up a team of six or eight oxen4, and to attach those huge animals to your plough you needed a huge beam of wood twelve feet long that could take a colossal amount of stress. Step forward Hornbeam. The clue was in the name, ‘horn’ being Old English for hard and ‘beam’ meaning tree. At a time when any community lived or died depending on the success of its crops, it was absolutely indispensible to life in Britain.
But hornbeam wasn’t finished. Its intractable core strength gave it an essential role in Britain’s industrial development: mill cogs, pulleys, winches, coach wheels and mallet handles were all hewn from hornbeam before steel became widely available. And retirement is still a way off: today the wood is called on for piano parts, parquet flooring, chess pieces and chopping blocks.