Musician Robin Bennett tells Tim Hughes why he is staging a tuneful celebration of trees in a new woodland

We think of our country as a green and pleasant land, but just 13 per cent of the UK’s total land area – and 10 per cent of England’s – is covered in trees.

In contrast, the EU country average is about 35 per cent.

With government planting falling short, The Woodland Trust reports England is in danger of deforestation. As William Blake said: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.”

Thankfully, there are innovative and creative organisations out there working to counter this trend, and we have one of the best on our doorstep in Oxfordshire: The Sylva Foundation (‘Sylva’ is Latin for wood).

Our roots together go back nearly a decade – we invited Gabriel Hemery and Alistair Yeomans from Sylva, which was founded in 2009, to our second Wood festival that year, and they planted 10 oak trees on our site at Braziers Park, near Wallingford.

In recent years they have established an amazing headquarters in Long Wittenham, hosting their work on sustainable forestry, a range of businesses working with wood, and a project to plant a Future Forest in an adjacent field.

This new woodland contains a host of different species of trees; plots were paid for by people and groups all over the country, and local schools joined in too. We planted 100 trees in our plot and it was an incredibly satisfying experience – over the coming years we will be able to watch the forest develop. It seemed appropriate to contribute some music to the project, so on Thursday we will be clearing out the main workshop at Sylva Wood Centre and putting up a stage.

Although it’s cold outside, it ‘ll be heated by a giant stove (wood-burning, of course).

We are lucky in this area to have two incredible folk artists, Jackie Oates and Megan Henwood, who are acclaimed solo performers in their own right, but for this evening only they will reprise their wonderful duo set, and are searching their musical libraries for some special tree-related material.

Danny George Wilson is known to many locally from numerous festival appearances and gigs as leader of Danny and the Champions of the World. My brother Joe and I were members of the line-up which recorded the band’s debut.

One of the stand-out tracks was Red Tree Song, so if Danny plays that one, no doubt Joe and I will join in. The event also features tree-related verse from Fiona Stafford and photography from Gabriel himself.

The Oxford Times:

Root and branch: Danny George Wilson with his Champions of the World

I’ll be opening the show with one of my first ever solo sets. I have been working on an album over the past year with Wallingford musician and producer Nick Holton, of the band HOO (he’s also a member of Black Hearted Brother with Slowdive’s Neil Halstead), which will be released next year.

The phrase 'shapes of trees' is from a song we co-wrote. The album is a bit of a departure from the sound of my band The Dreaming Spires, and some of the songs try to capture the connection between nature and our human wellbeing.

To me, shapes of trees are the opposite of the straight lines and binary approaches with which we tend to approach modern life. Shapes of trees are twisting, ancient and interlinked.

On a practical level, faced with the uncertainty and anxiety of climate change, planting a tree is a simple and meaningful act that we can all participate in.

There is certainly a deep wisdom in trees, and a healing presence that is good for our mental and physical health.

One of reasons I joined the Green Party – I stood in this year’s General Election – is that a voice for nature is missing in mainstream politics. Our natural environment is not something to protect for ornamental reasons.

It is an outer reflection of our inner state as a society. The shapes of trees are reminiscent of the bronchioles in our lungs and the synapses in our brains.

I have spent much of this year touring as part of the band Saint Etienne, promoting their new album Home Counties. Having been an occasional live band member since 2014 – the band have been together for over 25 years - it’s been exciting to travel to places as diverse as Seattle and Barcelona and seeing the committed fans that greet the band wherever they go. The album loosely celebrates many of the things they love about the countryside around London - including Oxfordshire, though it’s not strictly a Home County. Sarah Cracknell, the band’s lead singer, is a local resident and my brother Joe, from Steventon, and Carterton drum maestro Mike Monaghan are also in the live band.

The Oxford Times:

In a good way: Sarah Crackenell of Saint Etienne at Oxford's Common People festival.

On General Election night in June we were in Gateshead, up until the early hours watching the results (including my own, which was fairly surreal). Tomorrow, as I write this, we will be in Helsinki. I’m aware that the travelling we have to do as musicians has an impact, and I don’t know the solution to that.

Music is such an important way to bring people together, share creativity and keep up morale, and I realize after 20 years making music, it’s important for my wellbeing too.

Planting trees is as good a thing to do as any – maybe the best thing to do.

I’m really glad to be able to put on this concert to raise funds for the important work done by the team at the Sylva Foundation.

Shapes of Trees forms part of a festival weekend to celebrate the new Charter for Trees, Woods and People, which will include the unveiling of a special tree sculpture and a Christmas art weekend.

The Charter, developed by in association with the Woodland Trust, sets out ten principles by which trees and people in the UK can stand stronger together. That’s something we can all get behind.

  • Shapes of Trees takes place at the Sylva Centre, Little Wittenham, near Didcot, on Thursday. Go to sylva.org.uk/festival
  • The Oxford Times: