By Graham Chalmers
Genteel and civilised with a nationwide reputation for high standards, the last thing you expect to see in the hands of a member of Bettys staff is a spade.
But there she is, the company’s ethical projects officer Sam Gibson in her Wellington boots and raincoat digging a muddy hole in the moist soil.
She’s not the only person planting a tree in RHS Harlow Carr Gardens.
There’s a dozen or so other people all doing the same thing at the top end of the woods under a dark Friday morning sky.
The occasion is the opening of a stunning-looking new woodland learning shelter designed to spread the word about Bettys & Taylors’ Trees for Life project.
It’s been built with local timber; its central pillar is made from one of Harlow Carr’s own oak trees, while its attractive handcarved decorative leaves were sourced from the very trees they represent.
Despite the very modern interpretation boards, this rustic construct created by Joblings of West Tanfield smells of the forest.
The aim, Sam explains, is to enable visitors, particularly schoolchildren, to put the wooded scenery around them in context.
“Trees have been so important in Britain’s history. Even before climate change became such a worry, Bettys & Taylors felt it was important to plant and protect trees.
“All the projects we support are really community projects. Our beautiful woodland shelter itself was built by local craftsmen. ”
From now on, schoolchildren who come to visit will have a central point to gather, schoolchildren like the ones from Western Primary School in Harrogate responsible for the neighbouring willow whose spindly branches have crept gradually into life since the excited youngsters planted them back in March.
As I attempt to plant a tree myself with some dubious spadework, I talk to Paul Cook curator at RHS Harlow Carr.
He tells me the RHS sees the new shelter and woodland as a unique opportunity to create a feature of benefit to the gardens and its visitors.
“Tree planting on this scale has not happened since the gardens were first opened here in the 1950s. It’s allowed us to open up a seldom visited area of Harlow Carr.”
Bettys’ little wood and shelter may look modest at the moment but, by its very nature, everything about Trees for Life is as much about the future as the present. Since the project was set up in 1990 under former chairman Jonathan Wild, Bettys & Taylors has helped plant three million saplings in ten countries round the world.
Sam said: “It’s exciting and different but it’s also the right thing for a business like Bettys to do. It’s not just about looking after the planet, it’s about looking after our suppliers.
“At the end of the day, everything we do, from our coffee to our cakes, comes from the land.”
Helping to prevent the destruction of rainforests involves more than just planting trees.
It also involves working with indigenous communities in terms of cooperation, education and finance.
The message is simple - ensuring the rainforests of Peru don’t fall victim to logging means helping ensure cocoa farmers live and work in a sustainable way.
It’s a big task and one which has taken Sam all over the world on behalf of Bettys.
“I suppose I have got an unusual job description. I have to admit I’ve been abroad a lot. I’ve been lucky enough through Bettys to do some of the most adventurous travelling I’ve ever done.”
Trees for Life began 25 years ago when there was little, apparently, in it for this award-winning family firm which likes to stick to its principles.
In those days, few companies saw much to gain from boasting about their ‘green’ credentials.
Typically, Bettys decided to make the commitment anyway. If anything, its efforts in this area seem to have intensified of late. In 2009, it started working with Rainforest Foundation UK, raising and donating £1 million to rainforest protection in the process.
Collaborating with other people is the way ahead, Sam says, whether that’s with the RHS on the woodland learning shelter or the lovely Trees for Life logo on Bettys’ new cotton shopping bag designed by local artist Mark Hearld.
A recent development has seen Bettys join forces with regeneration charity Groundwork to encourage schoolchildren to get involved with planting trees in Yorkshire.
The aim in the first year is to plant 3,000 trees locally with seeds nurtured from native British species.
Trees for Life is clearly one climate change project which doesn’t pause for breath.
When I talk to Sam, she’s just returned from another ‘digging job’ in the wind and rain at a woodland near York where Hagge Woods Trust is creating a 25-acre nature haven with local schoolchildren.
As the old line goes, ‘it’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it.’
l Bettys will make a 50p donation from a range of Trees for Life products, including its new cotton carrier bag featuring artist Mark Hearld’s linocut.