Discovering Claremont's guided tree walk
On 17 December last year, I was invited to join the popular guided tree walk – run by Claremont Landscape Garden’s expert guide, Hilary. Claremont is a fascinating site, loved by royalty and embedded in British history and nature. While Royal dramas played out in the grounds, the trees stood fast as witnesses and landmarks in this historical site’s story.
Despite the weather being cold, wet and muddy, the walk was well attended. Several of the walkers were regulars and were already knowledgeable about trees.
The walk starts at the bottom of the amphitheatre, by the lakeside. It follows a trail across the Ha Ha, up to the camelia terrace with views across Surrey towards London and ends at the top of the amphitheatre. It is easy to see why the Duke of Newcastle, Clive of India Princess Victoria, Princess Charlotte Augusta and Prince Leopold thought of Claremont with affection. It was a place of escape, reflection and freedom, with the trees standing guard.
At the end of the year, the deciduous trees like Silver Birch and Copper Beech display stark and dramatic shapes and outlines as they shed their leaves. Hilary encouraged us to step back and look at the different shapes of pretty silhouettes and skeletal frames lining the lakeside, with their strength, grace, delicacy and sway. Turn around and you’ll see lime trees higher up the amphitheatre with balls of mistletoe in silhouette.
The garden shows the trademark stamps of its garden designers from Charles Bridgeman, William Kent and ‘Capability’ Brown. There is a symmetry and formality to the way the trees were planted with a mix of indigenous species and more exotic species transported from different countries. These in themselves trace the travels of British explorers and the other lands they visited.
Standing by the lake is an enduring symbol of Britain’s woodland. The English Oak, or Quercus robur (Robust) with its short strong trunk gives way to a delicate lace of branches. Further on, you’ll find the evergreen Holly Oak, or Quercus Ilex. The leaves are darker and more solid during winter, with prickles on the lower leaves to stop animals grazing. The leaves higher up are spineless.
And then there’s the Tulip Tree. Tall and strong but with a swooping droop to a delicate shape of branches. And the Silver Birch – not as strong as the oak and more twisty with delicate ends.
The Deciduous Larch is a conifer that loses its needles in winter. It has a tall straight trunk with drooping branches. Described as ball gown shape or wizard hat, it is one to watch in the spring. This contrasts with the Bishops Pine, which is still very fluffy looking with long, green pine needles despite winter taking hold.
We follow Hilary past Chinese Fir and Sweet Chestnut. She shows us London Plane which has a lovely sparkle in the sun. it’s efficient at dealing with pollution and cleanses itself by peeling off its bark, so it’s popular for lining avenues and roads.
There is Hazel with branches splaying out like a fan from the base. Sycamore with its reddish patchy double trunk, solid and strong. Pin Oak with dense but delicate branches. Easy, graceful Silver Maple with long, narrow branches.
And then we come to the Camelia Terrace – a formal setting created for Princess Charlotte. This flowering evergreen was brought to Britain from South and East Asia. Despite the terrace’s formality, the layout throws different shapes and textures against the winter skyline.
Next is the Belvedere Tower built by Sir John Vanbrugh for the Duke of Newcastle as a symbol of his power and wealth. We can see the lovely contrasts of the informal sway of Birch trees lining the border and the stiff, formal Beech hedges leading up to the Tower.
At the top of the Amphitheatre, the Lime trees we saw from below are more defined - full of mistletoe balls and throwing atmospheric shapes perfect for a pre-Christmas walk.
And finally, back down to the lakeside to finish off with a hot drink in the café. There are History walks as well tree, nature and dog walks so there’s something to suit everyone, all year round. Put on your walking shoes and join Hilary to explore the secret history of Claremont Landscape Garden. The scenery changes with the season so there’s always something new to see.