The Trust are hoping to attract volunteers to the plant nursery at the Estate Office to propagate and raise tree seedlings for planting out on the Estate.
Some three years ago Ashridge volunteers collected cuttings of box from ancient trees on the Estate to restore the tree to the chalk hills – this was part of a lottery funded project run by the Chilterns AONB.
The box bush which is commonplace in gardens being used for hedges and topiary, is native to the chalk downlands of the Chilterns. Above the “White Lion” chalk figure at Whipsnade was a place called Boxtead in the 1830’s, but it is long gone as is the local box. In 1787 a certain Mr Woodward when recording trees in the Chilterns mentioned the box – “plenty on the hills near Dunstable”. The wood which is very dense and will not float, is very slow growing and was sought out by the commoners as a fuel since it gives off a very intense heat. There are some surviving strongholds of box bushes in the Chilterns at Wendover Woods and Great Kimble, but only relic outliers at Ashridge. However the Estate can boast that it retains some of the largest and oldest living box bushes in England, with a girth of thirty eight inches or ninety seven centimetres at the base, making them over four hundred years old – the oldest trees on the Estate! Since they grow in a sensitive area in Aldbury parish, the location is not disclosed. The Chiltern Preservation Board, through their “box project”, aim to reintroduce the box bush to Ashridge and Whipsnade.
Today the only example of box visible to the Ashridge visitor is in the Coombe where it was planted about 1656, in rows to create hedges to provide cover for the coneys being reared in the rabbit warren – despite being coppiced over the centuries, the hedges still remain.
It was a prized timber in the 1700’s, used for musical instruments, bobbins and chess pieces, but mainly for use in printing blocks. Engravers relied upon the box wood to create the illustrations in old books and manuscripts. In was also used locally for the rollers in the hand machines used for creating straw plait, the mainstay of the local hat industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. Nowadays the box bush is under threat from a number of “imported” pests and diseases.
The fifty or so box cuttings which were taken in 2015 were despatched to the NT plant conservation centre at a secretive location in deepest Devon – this is the only property which the Trust don’t want you to visit! The centre is dedicated to protecting the rare and historically significant plants found in the Trust’s gardens. The cuttings were propagated and sent to the Hughenden plant nursery for growing on and are probably now ready for planting out, as and when Ashridge can prepare a suitable site.
More work for the volunteers.