Petworth ancient trees walk
Discover more about the ancient trees that dominate the skyline of Petworth on this circular walk.
A fascinating woodland walk exploring truly ancient trees
Marvel at some of the oldest and largest trees in the country, and see an ancient oak that's 940 years old and has survived all the major landscape changes since the 12th century. The gnarled and twisted bark of our magnificent ancient specimens make natural and amazing works of art.
Petworth Park car park, grid ref: SU966238 (not Petworth House car park)
From the ticket machine in the car park and with the Park wall on your left, walk through the gap in the low fence and continue down the grass path (keeping the wall to your left). Of note are the mature specimens of English oak (Quercus robur), beech (Fagus sylvatica) and aspen (Populus tremula) in the woodland surrounding the car park. As you reach the open parkland notice to your left, the trees bordering the park wall laid out initially in Brown’s time to obscure the wall and make the parkland seem more expansive and connected to the surrounding landscape. After approximately 500m. trees will also start on the right of the path. Shortly you will find a stone square in the centre of the path, turn left and walk toward the wall. Here you will find an English oak with a plaque behind it on the wall declaring it to be the Beelzebub Oak.
An oak is shown on maps as far back as 1779 when it marked the parish boundary. The girth of the current oak gives its age as approximately 250 years old, so the oak we see today is probably a replacement. It has been suggested the oak is so named because the land beyond the parish boundary was considered spiritually suspect!
Continue towards the Lower Pond. On the right hand side you will see a large English oak which is around 360 years old. As you approach the pond you will pass a stand of mature Red oaks (Quercus rubra), these have large lobed leaves which turn yellowish brown in autumn. Next to the pond shore you will see one of the Parks many old sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa), it’s approximately 350 years old. In 1603 this area was described as ‘fowle and deepe of myre’. ‘Capability’ Brown designed this pond and culverts that feed it in his 4th contract with the 2nd Earl of Egremont (1756-57).
Gnarled old beauties
The lower pond acted as a focal point for views from Brown’s new park roads. The combination of the pond on the eastern boundary and the roads running along the escarpment on the western boundary radically altered the established views across the northern parkland and the landscape beyond it.
As you walk along the pond dam you will see a dead tree on the left which has been cut back to make it safe but left standing (standing deadwood). Wherever possible standing dead wood, fallen wood, twigs and leaf litter is left to support a wide variety of fungi, insects, birds and bats. The dead wood in all its forms provides habitats for saproxylic fungi and insects, whilst the nutrients and minerals produced by the breakdown of woody material are taken up by mycorrhizal fungi and thus recycled back to living plants. Continue down the slope at the end of the pond dam keeping the Park wall on your left.
At the water’s edge are several self-sown alders (Alnus glutinosa), this a common native tree on river banks which has an orange heart wood when cut. The seeds within its egg shaped cones provide a good source of food for wintering flocks of siskin and redpoll.
Pass the hound kennels (Leconfield Estate) and then the house on the left hand side. To the right you can see the two clumps of trees which were planted between 1968 & 1972 to hide the planned Petworth northern bypass which fortunately never came. Walk away from the wall at this point diagonally right on a grassy track up the hill.
When you meet the gravel track turn right onto it and continue to walk uphill. You will soon meet the wall that encloses the Pleasure Ground. At this point on the crest of the hill there is a very old and gnarled sweet chestnut, some 500 years old, a young tree in Tudor Britain.
Recent archaeology has revealed the remains of a large Tudor building on the hill promontory to your right, it is thought that this may be the remains of Henry VIII’s banqueting or hunting lodge.
Further on the path on the right is possibly the oldest tree in the Park, one of three very old English oaks. This ancient tree is estimated to be some 940 years old, so a sapling around the time of the Norman invasion. As Petworth house comes into view turn right off the track, across the hill known as Lawn Hill, to a fallen sweet chestnut which was a casualty of the 1987 storm, a ring count revealed it was 285 years old.
William the Conqueror granted lands to his followers as one measure to help stabilise his rule. One of the major beneficiaries was the Percy family who were granted extensive lands in the North of England. The Manor of Petworth came into their possession as a royal gift of the widow of Henry I in 1150. The oak tree has survived all the landscape changes since the 12th century and now has hollies growing from decomposing wood in its cavities. These are not detrimental to the tree as long as they are not allowed to become too large.
Cross Lawn Hill to the view over the Upper Pond. As you walk through the ancient oaks and chestnuts note how many have holed trunks that provide nesting for jackdaw, spotted flycatcher, stock dove and starlings.
The upper pond went through several design changes between 1752 and 1756, as the park boundary was moved and adjacent buildings removed. Originally it accommodated the old course of the Petworth to Tillington road and the adjacent 6th Dukes stables. To create the pond Brown built a dam across the valley, it is on the left as you look from here to the pond. Brown swept away the formal gardens and terraces on Lawn Hill adjacent to the west front of the house to create a naturalistic landscape that came right up to the house. Viewed from the Pleasure Ground the Upper & Lower ponds are designed to simulate a river flowing through the landscape. For 2017 we have carried out major conservation work to preserve the Upper Pond just as it was captured by JMW Turner in his 'Dewy Morning.'
With the lake on your left hand side continue along the edge of Lawn Hill, follow the grass path until you come to the saddle between Lawn Hill and another hill known as Arbour Hill. In front of you are some very old sweet chestnuts aged between 300 to 600 years old, their gnarled forms make a magnificent sight and some of the trees bear witness to lightning strikes. Go down the hill to the copse around the Upper Pond, which is surrounded by metal railings.
From the saddle there are excellent views over the parkland to the surrounding countryside, looking east across the weald to Leith Hill, north to Blackdown and south to the South Downs. The ramped wide grass track leading north was part of the earlier approach to the park added by the 10th Earl of Northumberland in 1636.
Turn right and follow the railings around the head of the pond. Turn right up the slope between two trees as you approach a metal gate into the copse near the railings end. Within the copse you can see mature Swamp Cypress (Taxodium distichum), the species was introduced from North America in 1638. The railings around the Upper Pond exclude most of the deer allowing scrub to grow beneath the trees providing a haven for wildlife, supporting breeding birds such as chiffchaff, willow warbler, black cap and nectar for insects.
The 2nd Earl was a keen landscaper and horticulturist, he was succeeded in 1763 by his son George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont, who continued the development. Through the 3rd Earl's contacts with plant importers he brought many new species, particularly from North America, to Petworth.
As you climb the hill turn right at a cross path onto another grass path which leads diagonally up the hill away from the Upper Pond. You will shortly come to a very old hollow Common Lime (Tilia x europaea), this is difficult to age as the trunk has fragmented but perhaps is 500 to 600 years old with a girth of 7.46m. It could continue as a hollow shell for several hundred years.
In order to preserve the tree the vertical growth is reduced periodically to minimise the risk of failure of the detached trunk sections in gales.
Keep walking on this path up to another hill known as Snow Hill and at the stone track turn right. Opposite on the fence line to the paddocks is an ancient London Plane tree (Platanus acerifolia) with a girth of 5.7m, approximately 270 years old. Alongside the track to your left are some fine examples of Small Leaved Lime (Tilia cordata). As you walk to the right along the track you pass some ancient sweet chestnuts on the top of the hill, behind these trees to your left is the area formerly occupied by Snow Hill Farm. If you walk the short distance to where the house stood you can see one of the few Common Walnuts (Juglans regia) at Petworth. This tree would have been planted on the house courtyard boundary.
The various lime species provide an important source of nectar in early summer in the Park, a resource much in demand as the fallow deer eat most of the herbs in the grassland. Snow Hill Farm had an access track from the village of Tillington, Primrose Lane, which can still be seen as a sunken lane.
Follow the stone track down the hill with a fenced enclosure on your left. Again because deer have been excluded this area has scrubby undergrowth which provides good bird nesting habitats. On your right you pass an old Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea), this tree lost a major limb in 2015 during high winds. The tree has glossy green deeply lobed large leaves that turn a brilliant scarlet-red in autumn, far more reliable in colour than the many Red oaks (Quercus rubra) in the park, both are North American species. At the end of the enclosure walk up the hill to two huge sweet chestnuts these are 500-600 years old and have fantastic trunks. Return to the track and continue down the slope. Immediately on your right is another of the Parks three ancient English oaks. This tree has a lot of epicormic growths on the trunk making the girth difficult to measure, but it is probably around 850 years old. To avoid the climb up the hill known as Monument Hill (point 13) you can take a shorter, reasonably level route back to the car park. After passing between the two mature sweet chestnuts on the main track take the diagonal grass path on the right and continue on this ignoring cross paths to the foot of Half Moon Piece and walk up the hill to the car park.
Epicormic growths arise from a previously dormant bud on the trunk or a limb of a tree, and is how the tree survives stress or loss of growth above the dormant buds.
Shortly after the track reaches the bottom of the hill and after a small grass path joins on the left from the village of Upperton there is a broad path rising diagonally up the hill to your left, follow this path. This path leads up to Monument Hill where you pass some ancient Common Beech (Fagus sylvatica) on the edge of the hill just before the start of the grass path around the concave. None of the trees on either side of the concave path were planted by Brown, they either predate him, the two English oaks some 350 to 400 years old or postdate in the Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) and clump of Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris).
This path around the concave was laid out by Capability Brown, originally designed as a coach road linking the gate at Upperton to the Brown’s park road, the track you left earlier. The gate was removed by the 3rd Earl when parts of Upperton Common were brought within the park in the late 18th century. Access from Upperton is now by footpath only.
Continue around the path enjoying the benches and magnificent views across the weald and back to the house and notice how the planting merges the Park with the surrounding countryside. Turn right on the broad grass path that goes down Monument Hill. As you descend on the right hand side is an ancient sweet chestnut some 500 years old which is ageing in a wonderful way with one of its limbs fallen arched to the ground. Where you meet the stone track at the bottom of the hill is a fine example of a mature Pin Oak (Quercus palustris). Continue across the track onto another grass track leading down a slope. On your right is another plantation of beech, amongst them as in the lawn on the Pleasure Ground is an Oriental beech (Fagus orientalis) from the Caucasus, Asia Minor and Crimea, it is very similar to the common beech but has longer leaves, darker and less shiny. At the bottom of the slope to your right is a stream and small pond. As you climb the slope up Half Moon Piece hidden amongst the trees on your left are several mature specimens of Southern Beech, Nothofagus Obliqua, dombeyi , betuloides and antartica as well as a mature Aspen (Populus tremula). Continue across the top of the hill back to the car park.
You will have noticed throughout the Park there are wooden cages with recent tree plantings, it is important to ensure a succession of young, mature and ancient trees to continue the aesthetic and wildlife value of the Park. The stream and pond is one of the sources which Brown used to supply water via covered culverts to the upper and lower ponds he created. There are several miles of underground drains and tunnels which criss-cross the park beneath your feet. The pond is rich in wildlife providing a breeding pond for frogs.
Petworth Park car park, grid ref: SU966238 (not Petworth House car park)
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