Willow is a very common tree of the riverside for it thrives in damp conditions; the wetter the better. There are numerous species from the graceful, but non-native weeping willow through to the smaller grey and goat willows. Crack and white willow both make imposing trees but as they are very fast growing the grain of their wood is ‘open’ and branches are inclined to fracture in strong winds. Their leaves, however, add a wonderful diversity of colour to the riverside trees as they shimmer green-grey in the breeze on summer days.
Goat willows come into flower in the early months of the year and provide an essential and bountiful source of pollen and nectar when there is little else in flower The other willows flower a little later and in high summer produce a mass of ‘snowflakes’ as they shed their down-wrapped seeds which float in the air around the riverside.
Willows are extremely accommodating when it comes to cutting and they can be coppiced down to the ground or pollarded. Pollarding is the traditional management of trees in grazing land as crops of poles can be harvested. When the willows’ incredible energy provides a mass of rapid new growth this is well above the reach of the grazing cattle. There is a very well known illustration in the ‘Wind in the Willows’ where Ratty and Mole are enjoying a picnic. The tree leaning over the water behind them is clearly a pollard willow yet whenever the charity rangers pollard willows there have been complaints.
There is one other willow that is of considerable economic value which is grown on the Sudbury riverside. In Suffolk it ought to be celebrated and cherished as our own in the same manner as the Suffolk Trinity which includes the Red Poll cow, the Suffolk sheep and the Suffolk Punch heavy horse. From the summertime cricket match on the local village green to the televised test matches on the Indian sub-continent and West Indies or the Ashes in Australia, every bat that is swung probably has a Suffolk provenance.
During the 1780s a variety of white willow was identified in Suffolk which proved to be ideal for the making of cricket bats and East Anglia still provides the best climate for this species. Well over two hundred years later these willows are still being planted on the Sudbury riverside. They grow extremely rapidly and achieve maturity in just seventeen years whereupon they are felled, cut and split into clefts, dried and then fashioned into the finished bats. Every felled tree is replaced with a new one.
The Sudbury Common Lands Charity grows a few cricket bat willows so, in this respect, is only a minor player on the riverside. The charity has recently developed a relationship with local artisan bat makers who buy and fell just two or three trees a year. It is a special relationship which retains the growing and the production of bats in Suffolk whereas most bat willow wood produced on the Sudbury riverside is exported to India and Pakistan.