Sherlock Holmes had nothing on the dendochronologists.
The complex science of fingerprinting is cast into the shade by a process which can track a piece of wood back through the millennia to identify the year it was felled.
Every year, the tree grows a ring of bark. In years of a good climate the ring will be thick; in mean, spare years the ring will be thin.
And scientists can track that. They build up profiles of the overlapping ring patterns from tree trunks using an eclectic range of sources: living trees, old buildings, archaeological sites and even peat bogs. One set of records at the University of Sheffield’s Dendochronology Lab can identify anything up to 5000 years old.
Which is how scientists identified that the roof beams in the bishop’s private rooms in Farnham Castle, Surrey, were felled in the winter of 1380.
The great black mediaeval nails left a deposit on the wood because when it was built into the roof, it was still green. They built a scissor-braced roof, a wonderful piece of mediaeval engineering which could span large spaces. You don’t find scissor-braced rooves around much these days.
And it’s the same with hammer-beam rooves: a very distinctive shape, they held up big important rooves in the 14th century and there are few of them left. The king of them all resides at Westminster Hall.
And the great ceiling timbers for Westminster Hall came from none other than Farnham Castle.
Transport required ingenuity. The joists were taken across to the Thames and floated, on this super-highway of the time, up to London.Problem solved.
Father Thames: an artery which joined huge swathes of South East England to its capital, and ultimately to the sea. Farnham is miles away from it; but other towns have capitalised mightily on their position on its banks.
Like Marlow. The little town was in the right place at the right time: it lay, not only on the Thames, but on the main road from Reading to High Wycombe. And in a canny move, as far back at least as the 13th century, they built a bridge.
The powers that be liked that. They granted Marlow a license to hold markets, and the town thrived. People from Marlow probably stood and marked the passing of those wooden beams from Farnham, making their way to London, one day in the 14th century. The Marlow townspeople built their town on the higher ground, further from the river banks. If they wanted to watch the passing traffic they needed to go down lower.
And one of the best vantage points would have been the churchyard.
The mediaeval church, and each church building since, has sat right next to the Thames; and were I a Marlow resident I cannot think of a more beautiful place to end my days than in the churchyard next to the Thames.
Which is where I stood yesterday afternoon, for a few short minutes, underneath a snow-laden sky. The Thames flows on, regardless of time, regardless of the small dramas of our lives. I watched the waterway which had carried oak from Farnham to London, 633 years before I say down on the bench in the churchyard. And I expect people will watch the comings and goings of the Thames for many millennia more.