Fascination of plants
We care for some extraordinary ancient plants which are steeped in history and a valuable habitat for wildlife.
Our very own Ancient Tree Adviser, Brian Muelaner, shares his wealth of knowledge about some of the most fascintaing ancient trees that we care for. Read on to find out more about these awe-inspiring plants, and where you can see them.
Medieval hunting forest
The most complete medieval hunting forests in Europe allows us a glimpse of what a typical English countryside looked like. The original meaning of ‘forest’ referred to an area of land for hunting royal game such as deer and boar, not a tightly planted woodland.
The practice of pollarding, removing the limbs off trees above browsing height, allowed grazing beneath while producing valuable fuel wood, winter fodder, tool handles and many other valuable materials from the regrowth.
Ancient lime tree
This ancient lime tree has decayed and fragmented, forming several independent smaller trunks. This is a natural phase some species of trees go through in ancientness.
This is the WC Grace commemorative tree, which was lost for many years before recently being found in a wood just outside the estate’s historic cricket pitch. The famous cricketer was playing a match here and hit a six; the tree was planted where the ball landed. It was given a grand wrought iron guard but over time and neglect the tree grew and absorbed the guard.
The Ankerwycke yew is thought to be our oldest tree at 2000 or more years old, and the possible location of the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. It was also beneath this tree that Henry VIII had liaisons with Anne Boleyn.
An inside view
Inside the Ankerwycke yew, which like virtually all old yew trees, is hollow. What look like branches inside the trunk are actually aerial roots which the tree grew in order to absorb the valuable nutrients from the decaying trunk. True recycling.
This tree is a lapsed pollard, that's to say it had been regularly pollarded for many hundreds of years until about 100 to 150 years ago. Pollarding allowed trees to live much longer than they normally would and created extremely valuable wildlife habitats. A beech tree would normally only live for approximately 200-300 years, whereas this tree is around 600 years old.
A living monument to a major historic event
On the trunk of the beech is carved ‘V’ for victory followed by …-, Morse Code for V, then the initials of eight USA states. It's then dated 4-5-44. This was done by a group of eight GIs shortly before D-Day. There are many other examples of Second World War-carved trees by US, Canadian and British soldiers wishing to leave a final mark before their uncertain future.
Deadwood on a lime tree with various fungi
Not only does the decaying wood create a really valuable habitat for invertibrates, birds and bats, it also looks beautiful.
The Ferry Oak
One of many named trees within our properties, the Ferry Oak is approximately 800 years old. It's a remnant of a far more ancient landscape than the present house and gardens. Each tree species grows at a predictable rate so we can estimate the age of these ancient trees by measuring their girths. Virtually all are hollow so it's not possible to count their annual rings.
The patterns on the dead sweet chestnut limb at Calke are beautiful. However, it also serves a far more important purpose as it's a rich habitat for wildlife.
Old Man of Calke
Another named tree and even older than the Ferry Oak at Stowe. It's thought to be a mighty 1,200 years old and the oldest oak we have. Oaks are said to grow for 300 years, rest for 300 hundred years and decline for another 300 years.
The small leaved lime tree at calke is what I call a ‘walking tree’. If you look at it carefully you'll see the limb arching off to the right, then touching the ground only to form another tree at this point. Over time, this umbilical cord is no longer necessary and the connecting limb will die off and decay. If you then look back at the tree you'll see another tree slightly further to the right, this also had been attached to the mother tree and the connecting limb has decayed away, but scars on both trees are visible helping interpret the story.
Sir Isaac Newton’s apple tree
Few trees are as famous as Sir Isaac's apple tree. Beneath this very tree Sir Isaac sat contemplating and came up with his law on gravity. This exceptionally old apple tree was only able to survive this long due to falling over in the mid-19th century. Luckily, the fallen tree didn’t die but instead it put down new roots from the bottom of the trunk at the point of contact with the ground and formed a new tree. It's as though the tree decided to defy the very law that was formulated beneath itself.
Magical sweet chestnut avenue
One of the most delightful avenues to experience. Legend has it that the sweet or Spanish chestnut trees derive from nuts taken from one of the shipwrecked Spanish Armada fleet. The avenue is meant to be planted in the formation of the Spanish, and in the neighbouring area are English oaks planted in the formation of the British fleet.
Yet another of the monumental old oaks within our ownership. This beauty is about 1000 years old and still growing. These old trees are said to grow down with age. At around 500 to 600 hundred years, these trees’ crowns start to die back, allowing light to reach the inner crown and trunk which stimulates dormant buds to grow. These eventually form a new lower crown, creating a very stable pyramid shaped tree which can withstand hurricane force winds.
The oaks in the wood pasture at Croft are said to represent the British fleet fighting off the Spanish Armada in the 16th century.
Ancient ash pollards
In the valley at Borrowdale are hundreds of ancient ash pollards which historically were used to provide winter fodder for the sheep and cattle. Each summer a proportion of these trees would've had their crowns removed, bundled into faggots and stored away for winter fodder. This practice declined many years ago with the advent of silage and other feeds, but we've maintained the practice to ensure the survival of this historic landscape, which is also of exceptional nature conservation importance.
This massive tree is the largest of its species in the country, made possible by having been pollarded in the past. Many species of tree were historically pollarded which allowed grazing beneath and a utilisable material above.
Another fine old yew tree, actually there are two yew trees planted next to one another, one is a female and the other a male and each is planted on a raised mound. In Victorian times the crowns of the trees were propped up and banquets were held beneath the two interlocking crowns.
Some little trees have great character. This stubbly little oak is a great example. It once had a fine spreading crown but has now grown down to a squat gnarled old thing, making it all the more photogenic.
The oaks along the north coast of Cornwall have a form which has come to typify Cornwall. These wind swept trees are created by the salt laden winds burning off the buds on the windward side but allowing them to grow on the leeward side.
An ordinary tree can become extraordinary for many reasons, this one because it has adopted the shape of a boot!
The Tolpuddle Martyr’s Tree is synonymous with trade unionism. Beneath this sycamore the first trade union was formed in 1833.
This ancient wild cherry is the biggest gean in the UK, although sadly it lost much of its crown several years ago. The tree is trying to layer, and if the lowest branch does make contact with the ground and puts down roots the tree could grow on for several more centuries.