Tales of Trees at Ashridge – part one

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Ashridge opened a new exhibition on Saturday at the Visitor Centre – “Root & Branch”. A veritable feast for tree-huggers. The mature forest is really our equivalent of the rainforest. The exhibition will run for a year, and crystallizes the recollections of Bob Davis during his forty three years of service to the National Trust as a forester.
Fronted by Lawrence and Lalenya, and attended by Bob and staff members, the volunteers and visitors were addressed by the Head of Forestry from the N T.
Woodland on the Ashridge estate extends to some two thousand acres nowadays and is the largest concentration of of trees on any of the N T properties. According to Richard Mabey in his book “Beechcombings”, the Normans had their eyes on Berkhamsted beeches from the start, when around 1070 William’s half-brother Robert of Mortain erected his timber castle on the site at Berkhamsted. From the top of the keep he could see the tree savannah stretching out to the north. A tempting prospect, with vast lands for hunting, with timber for building, for fuel and for generating taxes. Twenty years later at the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, the Normans valued it as “wood for a thousand hogs”.
Lawrence confirmed that the mapping of the veteran and ancient trees on the Estate amounting to over nine hundred specimens, had been completed. A tree has to have an age of over four hundred years before it can be considered as ancient. Phil Penn was congratulated for his diligence in completing the tree survey, and was presented with a gift for volunteering.
Lalenya commented on the many hours which she had been spent walking the woods and being introduced to the fascinating trees by Bob. Hugh Mothersole who photographed the trees for the exhibition was also presented with a gift for volunteering.
Ashridge has had a number of celebrated trees growing on the Estate over the years which are no longer with us.

King Beech
The largest and finest beech, from a timber point of view, at Ashridge, known as the King Beech, was blown down about 1891, and was purchased for £36 by Messrs. East of Berkhampstead. Loudon says that this tree in 1844 was 114 feet high, with a clear trunk of 75 feet, which was 5 feet 6 inches in girth at that height. The Ivinghoe parish map of 1809 shows the tree growing in Golden Valley at SP997123.

Queen Beech
The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland, by Henry John Elwes and Augustine Henry, published Edinburgh, 1906, tells us that at “Ashridge Park, Bucks, there are perhaps the most beautiful and best grown beeches in all England. Not in small numbers, but in thousands. Though the soil is neither deep nor rich, being a sort of flinty clay overlying lime stone, it evidently suits the beech to perfection, and in some parts of the park there is hardly a tree which is not straight, clean, and branchless for 40 to 60 feet, whilst in other parts, where the soil is heavier and wetter, and where oaks grow among the bracken to a great size, the beeches are of a more branching and less erect. But the celebrated Queen Beech remains, and though in one or two places it shows slight signs of decay, it may, I hope, live for a century or more, as it is in a fairly sheltered place, and has no large spreading limbs to be torn off by the wind. This extremely perfect and beautiful tree was photographed with great care and was carefully measured by Sir Hugh Beevor and myself in Sept. 1903. We made it as nearly as possible to be 135 feet high (certainly over 130), and this is the greatest height I know any deciduous tree, except the elm, to have attained in Great Britain”. The Queen Beech was growing in Golden Valley, according to the Invighoe parish map of 1809, at SP994126.

Harry Potter Beech
So named because of the appearance in the film Goblet of Fire, it’s remains are to be found in the area of Frithsden Beeches, in a sensitive area so the location is not sign-posted. Pollarded when some twenty years old by having the crown removed, this encouraged side growths which were then regularly cut for timber, or for firewood by the commoners. Pollarding normally occurred at a height of some eight feet so that the resulting growth could not be browsed by deer or cattle.
Aggressively cut for fodder over the centuries by the cattle drovers until the 1860’s, when they ceased their trade, the new growth was left to develop into the branches we see today. Richard Mabey based his book “Beechcombings” on the tree which he named as the Queen beech. The death of the Harry Potter tree came in June 2014, when a local storm took out the “Queen” and she now lies as a fallen idol, admired and remembered in pictures and in pages.

King Ash
Henry John Elwes speaking in 1906 of the King Ash. “But though it is doubtful whether any place in England can boast so many perfect beech trees as Ashridge, this park contains also some of the finest limes, the largest horse-chestnuts, and the most thriving and bulky chestnuts; and in a wood not far off is an ash which is much the best-grown tree of its species, if not the largest, that I have seen in England”. It was said to be one hundred and twenty five feet high, with a straight stem of seventy five feet and a girth of nearly twelve feet. It was stuck by lightening and completely destroyed on the 27th May 1929. It’s timber height was one hundred feet and it had one hundred and thirty two rings, and the butt was hollow for nine feet. The remaining butt fell in 1953 after it had suffered abuse with graffiti and fires lit by picnickers in the hollow trunk. All that remains of the tree today are the side plates of the original trunk, and new growths have developed from the side plates over the last fifty years. It is located to the east of the Mansion at SP996122, and is probably a descendent of the original ash trees which grew on the ridge giving rise to the place name of Ashridge, or Asscherugge in Medieval times.

Watch this space for the existing celebrated trees, and reflections by Bob Davis in part two.

This entry was posted in Events, Flora and Fauna, History, Walks. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Tales of Trees at Ashridge – part one

  1. Richard Gwilt says:

    Excellent piece, there are some really interesting trees in Ashridge, so much choice to see!


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