Dame Judi Dench is walking through the small forest that forms part of the six acres of land at her Surrey home. This treasured place is what she calls her “secret woodland”, where she feels most in touch with her little-known but life-long passion for trees.
“I think of trees as my extended family, living, breathing and social, like us,” she explains, gazing up through the sheltering branches. “Whenever I can, whatever the season, this is where I escape to.”
In a new documentary exploring this fascination, Judi Dench: My Passion for Trees, she’s allowed cameras into the private copse for the first time. It is 33 years since she and her late husband, actor Michael Williams, moved here from Stratford, and they nurtured the Surrey woodland together until his death in 2001.
Early on in their time there, they began planting trees in memory of loved ones, a personal tradition Dench (who celebrates her 83rd birthday this month) continues to this day. In the programme we see her plant the latest tree, following the death this August of her friend, the actor Robert Hardy – a yew, because he was an expert in the medieval longbow, a weapon usually made from that specific wood.
“His tree is a British native that will be around for a long time,” beams Dench. “It’s absolutely perfect. I’m so pleased. That will be so good. You never know, in three or four hundred years someone may be making a longbow from one of its branches.”
She moves on through the woodland, her fingers brushing the bark of another sapling, planted in 2014. “This is Jeff, one of my brothers… And here’s Michael,” she points to a mature tree that was already planted when her husband died. “It is about remembering, but it’s through a living thing, so you don’t remember them and stop. The memory goes on, and gets more wonderful.”
These days she shares the pleasure of this enchanted place with her partner of the past seven years (“my chap”), conservationist David Mills, who lives close by. Until 1994 he farmed an award-winning herd of dairy cows, but then his marriage ended and he changed direction to fulfil a long-held ambition. He sold the herd, and used the same land to create the British Wildlife Centre, a unique educational project that is home to some 40 species of our native animals, from harvest mice to red deer.
“Judi’s programme on trees came about because the BBC do a lot of filming at the Centre anyway and they suggested it,” says Mills, 74, who features alongside her in the documentary. “She and I first met when she came here as a punter with her family in 2010. I happened to be in the office that day, saw her come in and I thought, ‘Judi Dench!’ We got chatting, and a couple of months later I asked her to open a new red squirrel enclosure here.
“It developed as a slow, organic friendship that grew. I invited her to come and have supper one night, and then she asked me to one of her things. It’s lasted because we have the same sense of humour – it’s hopeless without that – and then she’s passionate about wildlife, as I am about theatre and films, so we go into one another’s worlds. She’s a great giggler. Of course I’d seen lots of her work before we met. Loved her in Mrs Brown.”
Their relationship, it seems, is like Dench’s woodland – evolving organically, a calm refuge that both appreciate, with their mutual understanding of the environment growing all the time.
“It’s been wonderful to discover that my trees aren’t just amazing individuals, but that they are part of an extended family,” Dench says of her documentary discoveries. “When I plant my trees, I always hope that they feel part of a community, that they would be communicating with each other. And now it’s so reassuring to find out that it’s true.
“I have loved trees all my life and after this year, I will never be able to look at them in the same way again. I shall never be able to walk so nonchalantly through a woodland again without thinking of all that incredible work that’s going on underneath the surface. We think we live in a society. But it’s no comparison to what goes on around here, how these chaps live. It’s mind-blowing. Wonderful and very, very exciting. I don’t know how I’ve lived so long without knowing. But I know now.”
The couple live four miles apart, an arrangement that suits them both. “We make time to see one another,” says Mills. “It works very well. Like her, I was completely surprised that something like this developed in later life. Neither of us set out for it. We laugh and joke so much, and enjoy one another’s worlds so much, it’s great, especially when you get to our age. We do normal things – watch telly like everyone else. We love Strictly and Blue Planet. We go to the local cinema – most recently we saw Dunkirk there, because Kenny Branagh’s in it. Thoroughly enjoyed that. We do quite a lot of entertaining with friends. Her red-carpet world is totally different to mine. It was daunting to begin with for a little old simple country boy who’s used to milking cows. But I’ve met a lot of very interesting people…”
One of the many happy consequences of their relationship is that Mills will be creating a walkthrough red squirrel enclosure at Kew Gardens in partnership with his wildlife centre. “They get 1.7 million visitors a year, so it will be huge for us,” he says.
Mills’s contribution to British conservation is such that he received the MBE last year. (“I thought it was a mistake, or a wind-up.”) While Dench is something of an old hand at gongs – she has been an OBE for 47 years, a Dame for 29 years, and was made a Companion of Honour in 2005 – this time when she went to Buckingham Palace, it was in proud support of Mills as he received his award from Prince Charles.
“Actually I’d met him half-a-dozen times before because he is the patron of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust,” says Mills. “He told me once that he would love to have a tame red squirrel run up and down his arm, so I suggested creating a squirrel aviary at Highgrove, but it hasn’t happened yet. He’s also a great fan of Judi’s. He writes to her, and we’ve been to stay at his Sandringham house for parties a couple of times. It was great.”
The mutual happiness of the Dench-Mills union is evident. Nonetheless, she has declared publicly that they are too old to marry, and Mills laughs heartily at the suggestion that the secret woodland chez Dench would make a romantic setting for a proposal. “I agree with her,” he smiles. “Having two houses allows us space. It works extremely well. So we’ll keep the woodland as it is, watching the trees together through the seasons, blossoming and bearing fruit, seeing the leaves change colour and fall. We’ll carry on as we are. No proposals. We are very lucky at our stage to have found this path together. Why change it?”
Judi Dench: My Passion for Trees is on Wednesday 20th December at 8.00pm on BBC1