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My Last climbing hurrah !

By David Humphries aged 48 and ¾

 

I often read and see with great interest (and with more than a tad of jealousy), the various exploits of the host of climbers both young and mature that gallivant around the northern and southern hemisphere,  exploring & climbing some of the world’s oldest and tallest tree specimens.

The majority of my own humble climbing career took place in and around London during the 1990’s when we were still battling both the tree and the climbing equipment to get up & into the canopy. 

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I moved away from climbing on a day to day basis into a supervisory/management role (something I’m starting to regret if I’m honest, as it was a bit too early) and have ended up as the Trees Management Officer for the City of London Corporation looking after the (20,000) tree population at one of London’s finest Open Spaces – Hampstead Heath.

I continued climbing by playing around the rocky playgrounds of the south coast and cairngorms, but even that time came to an end due to family commitents.

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My interaction these days is more around the managing and organizing of climbing works on mature, veteran and ancient trees rather than clambering about them. Although I still get the itch to pull a harness on it seldom materializes and pretty much has become in reality something I used to do rather than something I actually do.

So when an opportunity came knocking in 2009 to have a week of climbing in the Basque region of Spain to learn from and assess/measure lapsed ancient Beech pollards for a Conservation Arb project, I pulled rank and jumped the queue in the team (much to the annoyance of some of my colleagues) to offer up my rusty climbing skills for the cause. 

I borrowed a tree motion and learnt a few (new to me) friction hitches to go with the hitch climber (again, new to me) to help me get back up amongst the leaves.

The trip was organised by Helen Read (Ecologist/Conservation Officer at Burnham Beeches) It was part of an on-going European wide study she had undertaken looking at traditional and sustainable pollarding practices and an opportunity for a group of Ecologists and Arborists from the City of London, together with a couple of members of the Ancient Tree Forum, to climb, record and evaluate regrowth and failure of a number of trees that had been worked on three years previously using a trial of experimental pollarding techniques carried out by a collaboration of Spanish, Swiss and British Arbs. These techniques included using both axe and chainsaw and cutting the lapsed poles at various heights.

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The data would hopefully build a blue print of how and when to return very old lapsed pollards back in to cycle, to a state where vitality is enhanced and self-destruction via decay and biomechanical stress was mitigated.
The Ecological importance of these trees continuing to be being maintained, both in mainland Europe and back here in the UK is considerable. They support the micro habitats of a vast range of fungi, lichen, invertebrates, mammal and avian life with many of these being the on Red data lists of threatened species.  

The trees themselves were spread across large tracts of hill and lower mountain side on common pastures and traditionally used for domestic fuel or as wood for charcoal used in the coastal iron foundries. Some were also shaped to provide particular curves and forks which were used in ship building.

             

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Most UK pollards have been lapsed for over a hundred years but the pollards in the Basque have been more recently cut and there are still people around who remember how & when to cut them.

Meeting one such local was a privilege and inspiration and has left me with a far deeper understanding of mans’ place in nature.

We travelled down to the Basque country by train via Paris and spent a week between the two sites of Oieleku and Leitza.

Stunning areas of natural beauty! My camera was never out of my hand.

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We had a little bit of R&R involving site visits fung’ hunting and imbibing the local fuel but were mostly focused on the task at hand.

 

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Splitting into teams of climber and recorders, we climbed the 40 pollards that were cut a few years before. Due to their history and nature they were not monster trees in any imagination, the majority being stumpy old gnarly things but a few were around the 50/60’ mark. The climbing was interesting

as the roots and trunks were significantly decade and structurally compromised. We were also mindful not to break any of the newly formed epicormic and adventitious shoots. The old cut stubs were sometimes covered with a moss mat to protect them from the sun and drying out. Rock Lizards had made their homes under these and the loose bark and cavities had resident bats.

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We recorded and measured if the branches were alive or dead, number of eruptions of new shoots, length of extension growth from terminal bud scar and whether the stubs were showing callous, and how far below the dead stubs if there was any live cambium.

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The data was sent off for collating to a UK University and the findings were published in The Arboricultural Journal in January 2013.

‘Restoration of lapsed beech pollards: Evaluation of techniques and guidance for future work’

Helen J. Read, Jeremy Dagley, Jose Miguel Elosegui, Alvaro Sicilia & C. P. Wheater

Lots of variables, but if time, vigour and expense allow,
then ‘gradual’ pollard restoration is the way to go. The less leaf area removed enables the trees to generate more energy and produce a better response from dormant shoots, leading to fewer pollards likely to fail and die.

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This was a fascinating and inspiring trip to be involved with and opened many doors for me with my own thoughts and experiences around veteran tree management and also gaining access to like minded individuals who are much further down the road to understanding and appreciating tree ecology. I also got to learn a little about the fascinating culture that is the Basque & its people.

 

Here's a link to an earlier thread of images from the trip.........

I’ve not really climbed much since, (last time was a parting team image for our apprentice, below) There’s been the odd tree inspection here and there, and I know I’ll regret stopping being a tree climber for a living but my passion with trees has taken me down a different path which I still thoroughly enjoy.

The Basque climbs were a nice way to put a full stop at the end of my climbing career and I’ll reflect back on it with good memories. 

 

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David Humphries

Trees Management Officer

City of London Open Spaces                                                                        

Hampstead Heath

David.humphries@cityoflondon.gov.uk

 

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Entries in this blog

 

A day in the working life of........

Snap shot of a random typical day as a Trees Management Officer, at the City of London’s Open Space of Hampstead Heath   June 2017                                                                                                                                                                      05:10 hrs   Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head……….   well, turned the alarm off before the wife elbows me in the ribs!                                                                                                            It’s early and I’m faced with a coffee fuelled drive in to work from deepest darkest sub-urban Suffolk.   In to work for 06:50, unlock the park and office, make a brew, fire up the computer to check the weekends e-mails (already checked on the duty work phone to be honest, but I don’t let the better half know I’m keeping an eye on work at the weekend)   The office is a porta-cabin in the Arb yard at a Victorian park in North West London. I’ve been employed here variously since the hazy summer of 1985, at first as a horticultural apprentice, then as a climbing Arb before becoming team supervisor then the job morphing in to a TMO. I run an in-house Arb team of four, we inspect our tree population using Arbortrack within a risk sequencing system. We sometimes cut our trees, we sometimes airspade our trees, we sometimes talk to the locals about our/their trees. Anything tree related, from safety to ecology, is basically our remit. The Heath has approximately 20,000 trees and sprawls out across parts of the London Boroughs of Barnet, Camden & Haringey but the trees have no conservation area or tree preservation orders.   07:30 hrs This particular morning I’m off to Queens Park (one of our satellite parks) over in the north east of the London Borough of Brent to check for the presence of Oak Processionary Caterpillars. There are only a couple of dozen oaks here out of the local 580 tree population, and the critters have been sniffing them out for the last couple of years.                                                                                                           During a walk over inspection I pick up on a few new potential Massaria affected London plane branches in the park, so note them for climb inspection and potential removal by the team possibly this week or later in the month.     09:30 hrs Catch a breakfast in the park café, chatting to the (fleet, constabulary and park) manager about vehicle & equipment (mewp) disposal.   10:00 hrs                                                                                                                                                     Drive back over to Hampstead.                                                                                                                                                      There’s a phone call report of a large branch failure on an Ash near to property on the other side of the heath. Turn up, check on the tree failure (Inonotus hispidus decay at an old pruning wound) Clear the branch failure and note that the tree should go on to our priority tree works list for reduction, as its lost another branch in the past probably also due to I. hispidus.  
  11:30 hrs Meet up with my boss in Highgate to sign off the team’s end of year performance/development reviews……….blinkin paper work !   12:00 hrs Back to the yard.                                                                                                                                                                    I order in some climbing & rigging equipment & vehicle parts for the team Land Rover.                                                 Send a few e-mails off.                                                                                                                                              Sample of emails include……                                                                                                                                       Brent Tree Officer (about OPM)                                                                                                                                               My boss (about a work experience enquiry from France)                                                                                                                                                                         In house Ecologist (asking me for a fungi ident)                                                                                                           My boss (about some training issues)                                                                                                                     A student (about why dressing parts of one of our trees in tin foil for an photography project, is not the type of thing we would ideally condone)                                                                                         Boss again (about team members sickness trigger level meeting) Grab a coffee   13:30 hrs Catch up with team out on site where they are clearing & lifting a few trees where the horticultural team are building a new stumpery.     14:45 hrs Back to the office.                                                                                                                                                        Putting together a list of veteran trees to work on over the next 18 months as part of an Ecology, Conservation & Trees team annual work plan.     16:00 hrs Up to the head office on the Archway Road to catch up with the admin team (about receipts &  purchase card issues......blinkin admin) then the boss to have the bi-monthly 121 meeting, talking budgets, work plans and stuff.   17:30 hrs – 20:00 hrs Finish the day up by having a look at a few unread threads at the UKTC, LTOA & Arbtalk forums       Chatting on line to an American Arb about Subterranean Root Girdles !                                           Edit some photographic images for my archives.     tree day done..........now where's me beer !    

David Humphries

David Humphries

 

Trasmochos (pollards) of the Basque

A return to the trees of northern Spain   Beech pollards at the Urkiola Monastery October 2017   Context                                                                                                                                                                     A 10 year project sharing experience from the UK, Sweden & Spain on the ecology, cultural importance and vulnerability of pollarded trees across Europe.      The Basque area (as well as similar UK sites) have many examples of where pollards left out of regular cutting succumb to dysfunction, decline and fungal colonisation by Kretzschmaria deusta, Meripilus giganteus , Fomes fomentarius, Ganoderma pfeiferri & G. australe leading to part or whole tree failure.   The project has been focusing on the most successful ways of restoring lapsed pollards by a range of reduction techniques, to mitigate failure & decline.         Wind loaded pollard failure associated with Fomes fomentarius 2017                   Root plate pollard failure associated with Meripilus giganteus 2009   2007                                                                                                                                                                A comparison of pollarding techniques was undertaken across the Basque region at various sites.                                                                                                                                                                      A total of 38 lapsed pollards were cut in the Basque tradition (using axe/chain saw, down to just above the bolling) and in the Epping Forest and Burnham Beeches styles (using chainsaw and handsaws at a higher level in a phased 5-10 year cycle. 27 trees were cut by Spanish arborists  and 11 cut by UK arborists , with both sets of climbers mixing styles.    Basque style                                            Epping Forest style                                             Burnham Beeches style (Image taken by  H. J. Read)   2009                                                                                                                                                  After three growing seasons a team of ecologists and arborists from the UK visited the three sites and measured the vitality of the canopy growth and decline of the target trees to assess the response and reaction to the cutting.                                                                                                   Among other things like general vigour, the length & diameter of cut stubs, how many new shoots and clusters of epicormics growth were recorded from 10 cut branches from all cardinal points per tree.   Measuring on an Epping Forest style  repollard                                                                                 Measuring on a Basque style repollard   See previous blog entry & thread on the 2009 trip for further context…..       Jan 2013.                                                                                                                                                         Observations of the 2009 measuring/recording were presented in the Read et al paper published in the Arboricultural Journal - ‘Restoration of lapsed beech pollards: Evaluation of techniques and guidance for future work’                                                                                                                      Helen J. Read, Jeremy Dagley, Jose Miguel Elosegui, Alvaro Sicilia & C.P. Wheater.   In conclusion the paper suggest that the pre-cutting vitality of a pollarded tree is an important factor and that retaining stubs of at least 500mm may be significant in the development of dormant buds. Avoid cutting branches over thirty years old as the ripe wood begins to deteriorate and the tree is less able to occlude wounds.   2017                                                                                                                                                                 A UK team from the City of London Corporation Open Spaces spent a week at the European Symposium on Pollarded trees, visiting sites, discussing experience on lapsed pollard restoration & looking at the natural heritage of the Basque region of Spain                                                                                      Image taken by Jez Young   Monday                                                                                                                                                         On a drive south from Bilboa in to the Navarre region, our group stopped off at the Monastery at Urkiola to see large numbers of lapsed beech pollards.                                                                                                                           Tuesday                                                                                                                                                                          Pollard Symposium at the Leitza Town Hall                                                                                                                   The conference started with a  set of presentations on the veteran trees and pollards at the four Open Spaces of Burnham Beeches, Epping Forest, Ashtead Common & Hampstead Heath. Followed by presentations from Ted Green MBE, Ecologists and Arboriculturists from Sweden and Spain.   Image taken by Jez Young     Question time followed by a fantastic exhibition of cross sections of local ring & diffuse porous tree species          Wednesday.                                                                                                                                                    Urkizu - pollard restoration work.  Revisiting some of the 2007 cut pollards.   2009   2017   After an interesting hike up into the hills above Leitza, looking at pollards and Basque living heritage on route, the group participated in a field work shop with Spanish Arborists (Samuel Alvarez  & Oriol the axeman) with the aim of further restoring a lapsed pollard (last reduced in 2007) by axe & chainsaw being directed by CoL Ecologists and Arborists.         Thursday                                                                                                                                                      Urbasa-Andía Natural Park in western Navarre                                                                                            A visit with Swedish ecologists and members of the Ancient Tree Forum to see oak, beech & maple pollards in wood pasture grazed by horses & cattle.   Maple pollards   Oak Pollards   Friday                                                                                                                                                           Oianleku - Aiako Harria Natural Park                                                                                                                      Revisit to the 2007 City of London cut pollards as well as assessing an area of Spanish hard cut pollards which appeared to have a high mortality rate.       The Future         Whilst the tradition of pollarding younger trees for winter fodder continues in the mountains and foothills of the Basque country, the project is ongoing with a few keen people cutting just a few old pollards each year and trying to source funding for the restoration program into the future. There is an appetite for an ongoing collaboration with Basque & Spanish arborists with the potential for working visits to the UK to work with Arborists in Suffolk and with the City of London Teams whilst working on the veteran pollards at Burnham Beeches in 2018.   This was yet again an amazing and inspiring trip and I very much hope to return to enjoy the heritage and tradition of the Basque way of life.   david.humphries@cityoflondon.gov.uk

David Humphries

David Humphries

 

The Hidden Heath

'The hidden heath'
David Humphries, trees management officer Hampstead Heath   The following article is taken from a series looking at the hidden treasures to be found in London.
Lonely Planet Magazine
January 2012
Words by Matt Bolton
Main Photo Matt Munro   David Humphries on Sandy Heath. His latest obsession is studying how fungi and trees cohabit.   'You don't just stumble across this place,' says David Humphries a man whose excitement at clambering up the nearest trunk puts even the keenest five-year-old to shame. 'It's a place for locals only really. You'll be lucky to see two or three dog walkers a day here, unlike the rest of the park.' Here on Sandy Heath - a serene wooded Glen in the western section - there is a preternatural serenity. It's difficult to believe that this peace can be found just a couple of miles from the frantic tumult of the City, nor in an open space that attracts seven million visitors a year. 'In spring, when it's in full leaf,' says David, 'you can't hear anything except the rustle of leaves.'  
David has worked at the Heath since 1985 first joining as a sixteen year old apprentice. Despite being London bred, he says that he was never a city type, and was always drawn to a more rural lifestyle. The remarkable character of Hampstead Heath has allowed David to fulfil his dream.
Unlike London's more sedate Royal Parks, the true mark of the wild remains in the Heath. Trees are allowed to grow in crooked angles or to fall to the floor, and dead stumps slowly rot (they are a vital habitat for insects and bats) while leaves are left to pile up and decompose. 'Some other parks are more sanitised, like a Victorian pleasure park, 'says David. 'Every leaf is cleaned away so people don't get their shoes dirty. On the Heath, we're more about leaving nature to its own devise.'     A short walk from Sandy Heath are the ruins of Pitts garden, which once belonged to the 18th century prime minister, William Pitt the Elder. A red-brick arch is all that remains, incongruous amid the woodland. A huge Beech has sprung up beside it, the roots pushing the wall of the arch over to such a crazy angle that David had to insert a support frame to stop it keeling over- a quick intervention to satisfy both the historians and the naturalists.    Across the road is the Hill Garden, perhaps the greatest of all the heaths hidden treasures. The huge stately home had been turned in to luxury flats, but the long serpentine pergola walkway that winds its way above the grounds for a third of a mile is open to the public. It's stone path is lined with pillars that in spring are wound with wisteria and roses.
'Spring is a time of natural noise. You can actually hear the sap rising,' says David. 'Summer is a time of buzz, the insects and crickets. And the winter is a time of dormancy and silence. That's my favourite time of the year , when the Heath feels at complete peace'   The viaduct bridge was built in 1845 as part of a failed attempt to turn the Heath into private gardens.    Hampstead Heath, NW3    

David Humphries

David Humphries

 

London's fruit tree heritage & hidden orchards

London’s fruit tree heritage and hidden orchards    Remnant veteran pear tree in Victorian planted orchard at Golders Hill Park in north London   There are an estimated 400,000 apple trees spread across London today, this is approximately 5% of greater London’s 8 million trees.   For many centuries whilst London was still growing, there was a need to feed the city’s population with local produce, many large commercial market gardens and fruit tree orchards would of been found in and around the capital supplying the market traders with apples, pears, medlar's, quince and mulberry's.   Same orchard as the pear above, taken circa 1920's   But with a growing need for housing these enterprises eventually succumbed to become the building sites of the urban sprawl and the fruit trees would have been mostly felled. The occasional tree escaped the axe and would of been left at the back of long narrow gardens hidden away to all but the home owner and the wildlife that would make the most of natures free food. Many of these trees would have grown tall and leggy and lappsed out of cycle of being productive fruit producers due to the lack of light, correct pruning and good maintenance. Remnants of this market garden heritage remain throughout the capital, in private back gardens, parks and public squares.   A number of areas across London still retain names associated with a fruity heritage such as Plumstead (place of plum trees) Perivale (pear tree valley) and many street names perhaps reflect a link to their past via their fruit tree names.                                                                                                                                                                                                       Heathrow airport's runways have replaced orchard nurseries, just a few meters away from the  cemetery where Richard Cox is buried, the gardener who developed the Cox Orange Pippin.   Today there is a resurgence in fruit trees being planted in gardens with garden centers and nurseries providing a wide choice of old and new varieties and for old veteran fruit trees to be restored and conserved by skilled arborist. There is also a concerted effort to discover hidden orchard remnants in public parks and to bring them back to being productive trees for local community and school projects.   Apples harvest from my own old remnant apple tree in the back garden in north London   Recently I had the pleasure of supping cider from a newly formed brewing company in London called Local Fox Their cider and apple juice is crafted from apples harvested across the capital by volunteer orchardists.   Very nice it was too........hic !     https://www.theorchardproject.org.uk/drinks/     For more information on this visit the website of the Orchard project. http://www.theorchardproject.org.uk/home     Video on how to restore old fruit trees by the Vetree project http://www.vetree.eu/en/page/86/Video+fruit+trees     .

David Humphries

David Humphries

 

My Last Climbing Hurrah !

By David Humphries aged 48 and ¾   I often read and see with great interest (and with more than a tad of jealousy), the various exploits of the host of climbers both young and mature that gallivant around the northern and southern hemisphere,  exploring & climbing some of the world’s oldest and tallest tree specimens. The majority of my own humble climbing career took place in and around London during the 1990’s when we were still battling both the tree and the climbing equipment to get up & into the canopy. 
I moved away from climbing on a day to day basis into a supervisory/management role (something I’m starting to regret if I’m honest, as it was a bit too early) and have ended up as the Trees Management Officer for the City of London Corporation looking after the (20,000) tree population at one of London’s finest Open Spaces – Hampstead Heath. I continued climbing by playing around the rocky playgrounds of the south coast and cairngorms, but even that time came to an end due to family commitents. My interaction these days is more around the managing and organizing of climbing works on mature, veteran and ancient trees rather than clambering about them. Although I still get the itch to pull a harness on it seldom materializes and pretty much has become in reality something I used to do rather than something I actually do. So when an opportunity came knocking in 2009 to have a week of climbing in the Basque region of Spain to learn from and assess/measure lapsed ancient Beech pollards for a Conservation Arb project, I pulled rank and jumped the queue in the team (much to the annoyance of some of my colleagues) to offer up my rusty climbing skills for the cause.  I borrowed a tree motion and learnt a few (new to me) friction hitches to go with the hitch climber (again, new to me) to help me get back up amongst the leaves. The trip was organised by Helen Read (Ecologist/Conservation Officer at Burnham Beeches) It was part of an on-going European wide study she had undertaken looking at traditional and sustainable pollarding practices and an opportunity for a group of Ecologists and Arborists from the City of London, together with a couple of members of the Ancient Tree Forum, to climb, record and evaluate regrowth and failure of a number of trees that had been worked on three years previously using a trial of experimental pollarding techniques carried out by a collaboration of Spanish, Swiss and British Arbs. These techniques included using both axe and chainsaw and cutting the lapsed poles at various heights.            The data would hopefully build a blue print of how and when to return very old lapsed pollards back in to cycle, to a state where vitality is enhanced and self-destruction via decay and biomechanical stress was mitigated.
The Ecological importance of these trees continuing to be being maintained, both in mainland Europe and back here in the UK is considerable. They support the micro habitats of a vast range of fungi, lichen, invertebrates, mammal and avian life with many of these being the on Red data lists of threatened species.   The trees themselves were spread across large tracts of hill and lower mountain side on common pastures and traditionally used for domestic fuel or as wood for charcoal used in the coastal iron foundries. Some were also shaped to provide particular curves and forks which were used in ship building.                 Most UK pollards have been lapsed for over a hundred years but the pollards in the Basque have been more recently cut and there are still people around who remember how & when to cut them. Meeting one such local was a privilege and inspiration and has left me with a far deeper understanding of mans’ place in nature. We travelled down to the Basque country by train via Paris and spent a week between the two sites of Oieleku and Leitza. Stunning areas of natural beauty! My camera was never out of my hand.             We had a little bit of R&R involving site visits fung’ hunting and imbibing the local fuel but were mostly focused on the task at hand.                  Splitting into teams of climber and recorders, we climbed the 40 pollards that were cut a few years before. Due to their history and nature they were not monster trees in any imagination, the majority being stumpy old gnarly things but a few were around the 50/60’ mark. The climbing was interesting as the roots and trunks were significantly decade and structurally compromised. We were also mindful not to break any of the newly formed epicormic and adventitious shoots. The old cut stubs were sometimes covered with a moss mat to protect them from the sun and drying out. Rock Lizards had made their homes under these and the loose bark and cavities had resident bats.   We recorded and measured if the branches were alive or dead, number of eruptions of new shoots, length of extension growth from terminal bud scar and whether the stubs were showing callous, and how far below the dead stubs if there was any live cambium.
  The data was sent off for collating to a UK University and the findings were published in The Arboricultural Journal in January 2013. ‘Restoration of lapsed beech pollards: Evaluation of techniques and guidance for future work’ Helen J. Read, Jeremy Dagley, Jose Miguel Elosegui, Alvaro Sicilia & C. P. Wheater Lots of variables, but if time, vigour and expense allow,
then ‘gradual’ pollard restoration is the way to go. The less leaf area removed enables the trees to generate more energy and produce a better response from dormant shoots, leading to fewer pollards likely to fail and die.                   This was a fascinating and inspiring trip to be involved with and opened many doors for me with my own thoughts and experiences around veteran tree management and also gaining access to like minded individuals who are much further down the road to understanding and appreciating tree ecology. I also got to learn a little about the fascinating culture that is the Basque & its people.   Here's a link to an earlier thread of images from the trip......... I’ve not really climbed much since, (last time was a parting team image for our apprentice, below) There’s been the odd tree inspection here and there, and I know I’ll regret stopping being a tree climber for a living but my passion with trees has taken me down a different path which I still thoroughly enjoy. The Basque climbs were a nice way to put a full stop at the end of my climbing career and I’ll reflect back on it with good memories.      David Humphries Trees Management Officer City of London Open Spaces                                                                         Hampstead Heath David.humphries@cityoflondon.gov.uk  

David Humphries

David Humphries

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