The secret arboretum

Along a footpath from an unassuming road in Little Kingshill is a secret treasure trove for tree-lovers.

The origins of Priestfield Arboretum lie back in the early 20th century with Thomas Priest, a local solicitor who planted up to 400 trees in six acres of his garden, after he bought the land in 1917.  The site changed hands during World War II,  and has stayed in the ownership of the same family ever since. Though neglected and overgrown after the war, the arboretum came to the attention of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the Forestry Commission.  A massive scrub clearance in the early 1980s enabled the discovery of 98 of the original trees.

The Arboretum now comprises around 200 trees and opens twice a year to the public, thanks to the sterling maintenance efforts of volunteers on behalf of the owners.  There is an element of zoning – silver firs are mostly in one area, spruces and pines in others.  Coralie Ramsay, the honorary curator, comments: “We aim to be ‘chemical free’ and to encourage biodiversity that will help optimize the health of the soil and, therefore, the specimens.”

Highlights include a giant redwood tree and aromas which can be evocative or alarming.  Look out for the cercidiphyllum japonicum (Katsura) whose heart-shaped leaves turn yellow and smell of candyfloss if you rub them.  That’s probably preferable to the pungent leaves of umbellularia californica (California bay laurel or Oregon myrtle) which can apparently cause headaches – though we suffered no ill-effects.

High as a (red) kite

“I don’t like red kites,” says one Chilterns resident of our acquaintance.  “Too many of them, and they make that horrible whistling sound.”

It’s a point of view.  There may now be over 1,000 breeding pairs of red kites in the Chilterns, so it isn’t possible to monitor all the nests and give an accurate figure for the local population. And they do make quite a bit of noise as they wheel merrily overhead.

The irony is that there may be “too many” red kites here because of an extremely successful programme of reintroducing them between 1989 and 1994, using birds from Spain.  The reason for needing to reintroduce them? The English had hunted red kites to extinction by the end of the 19th century, because of the belief that they killed lambs and gamebirds.  So if we hadn’t done that in the first place…

Image of red kite courtesy of Joe Pell via Flickr

An American in the Chilterns

“So clear you see these timeless things that, like a bird, the vision sings.”  These words from a John Arlott poem, which now adorn the late broadcaster’s gravestone on Alderney, could just as easily describe the act of watching a cricket match at Wormsley.

It seems remarkable that, just a quarter of a mile after you leave the M40 at junction 5, you’re nudging the car along one of Buckinghamshire’s sunken lanes, avoiding a quixotic pheasant as it waddles towards you.  Eventually you come to the back of the charming pink-facaded pavilion. If you’re lucky (or early) you may bag one of the handful of benches on which to sit.  From that moment, you’re part of the ritual. It doesn’t need many spectators; the day we visited, their numbers only narrowly outnumbered the players.  The home side, a Getty XI, were playing I Zingari, that famous club of itinerant cricketers whose striped caps and blazers have adorned grounds since 1845.

The Getty whom we have to thank for this occasion was John Paul Getty II, later known as Paul Getty (1932-2003), an American philanthropist who donated, among much else, £50 million to the National Gallery.  Getty fell in love with England, becoming a naturalised British citizen, and bought the 2,700 acres of the Wormsley estate in the mid-1980s when it was in a sad condition.  Thanks to the efforts of Arlott’s fellow Test Match Special commentator Brian Johnston, and others, Getty also came to love cricket.  Johnston’s distinctive beaky silhouette adorns the weather vane on the pavilion of the cricket ground which hosted its first game in 1992.  This is no amateur effort – Harry Brind, groundsman for many years at the Oval, helped to ensure that the wickets and ground are of high quality.  The England women’s team has played several Test matches here and there’s a busy schedule of matches every summer, some for charitable purposes, others offering free entry.  In the days before the international schedule crowded just about everything else out, male Test stars such as Brian Lara and Graham Gooch played. Lara is the only visiting player to have his feat of a century marked with a special plaque in the pavilion – Wormsley’s version of the honours boards at other venues.

The cricket ground is only one aspect of this amazing, vast estate.  Garsington Opera has become an annual summer fixture here too, having relocated a few years ago from its original Oxfordshire home.  The walled garden and the Library in the family home are also open to visitors on a selective basis.  But arguably Wormsley is most famous for cricket thanks to the paradox that, deep in the Chilterns Hills, it was an American who chose to recreate a timeless English idyll.

Faith, hope and reconciliation

Around the corner from the hubbub and excitement of Whipsnade Zoo lies a remarkable landmark, Whipsnade Tree Cathedral.  The site was the original inspiration of Edmund K Blyth, who served in the British infantry in World War I and lost two friends in the conflict, with another wartime comrade dying in a car crash in 1930.  On a visit to Liverpool that autumn, the colour and beauty of the unfinished Liverpool Anglican cathedral impressed Blyth and his wife deeply:

“We talked of this as we drove south through the Cotswold Hills on our way home and it was while we were doing this that I saw the evening sun light up a coppice of trees on the side of a hill. It occurred to me then that here was something more beautiful still and the idea formed of building a cathedral with trees.”

Blyth, who had previously bought two cottages in Whipsnade for use as holiday homes for poor London families, envisioned a cathedral of trees as a fitting memorial to his friends and a symbol of faith, hope and reconciliation.  The cathedral has never been consecrated, but is used for wedding blessings and interdenominational worship and there is an annual service on the second Sunday in June.  The cathedral takes the layout of medieval cathedrals as its inspiration, so you enter through a porch of oak trees into a lime tree lined nave before coming to a chancel of silver birches and yew hedging. Four chapels reflect the seasons with different trees in each, and a garden of flowering shrubs framed by cypresses is the main feature of the cloister area.  Despite the occasional sounds of a strimmer or of small infants running amok, the cathedral remains a beautiful, tranquil space in which to relax and reflect.

Watercress Walk

Inspired by last weekend’s visit to Ewelme Watercress Beds, today we decided to pay a visit to a fully operational watercress bed. E Tyler & Sons have been farming watercress at Sarratt in Hertfordshire since 1886. Today theirs is the only remaining watercress farm on the river Chess.

More on that later.  Our walk started in the pretty village of Chenies with its Tudor manor house.  The route took us through a wheat field and water meadows before climbing a steep hill to reach the village of Sarratt.  With vague memories of reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I was half expecting to see a secret training camp for spies (or at least a gateway with a ‘Top Secret – Keep Out’ sign.)  Sadly not.

What I did see was the Church of the Holy Cross; a lovely church dating from the late twelfth century, with a rare saddleback tower roof set at right angles to those of the chancel and nave. Looking at it, I thought that it had probably escaped the ministrations of the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott who had a hand in the restoration of so many of our local parish churches.  How wrong can you be?  According to the church guide booklet, he not only directed a major programme of restoration here in 1864-6, but actually worshipped at the church.

After pausing for a cheese ploughman’s at the Cock Inn, our walk took us downhill again, re-joining part of the Chess Valley walk. After a while we reached the watercress beds; an incredibly pretty spot.  An even prettier sight for my eyes was the ‘shack’ offering fresh watercress and refreshments for sale via an honesty box.  Although it was not that long since lunch, it would have been a pity not to take the opportunity to sit on the thoughtfully-provided bench and enjoy a tub of local Beechdean ice-cream, before packing a bag of watercress into my camera bag and setting off home to look up suitable recipes.

HM

Conserving a 20th century industry hub

It looks like a timeless scene, basking in the August sunshine.  In reality the Ewelme Watercress Beds ran as a going business concern for only just over a century.  George Smith, a publican from South Weston, a small hamlet just north of Watlington, bought the land in c.1886 and organised the digging out of the beds so that watercress could be grown.  From there it was packed and went by wagon or cart to Watlington station and on by train to the Midlands and Manchester.  Regulatory pressures meant that the site stopped selling watercress in 1988. Four years later, the Chiltern Society bought it and a team of their volunteers now runs the site as a nature reserve.

“You’re not seeing it at its absolute best today,” said Tom Stevenson, one of the volunteers, as he showed us around.  August is a couple of months too late to enjoy the 130 orchids, of five different species, which flourished this year.  Though Tom was reluctant to use the word “weed”, the team is keen to give wild flowers every chance to appear and has been using yellow-rattle in an effort to control the wild grasses which might prosper instead.  In similar vein, meadowsweet has become rather invasive and the team is looking at options to prevent it taking up too much space.

Animals and insects get a chance, too. Pupils from a local school have built a “bug hotel”, while the team at Tiggywinkles persuaded Tom to see if the site could be a good home for some of its hedgehogs.  “Sixteen of them,” Tom says wryly. “I had to get them here in my car. Have you any idea how smelly hedgehogs are?”

Smells notwithstanding, we wish the Ewelme team the best of luck as they work towards a diverse local habitat – hedgehogs, bugs, flowers and all.

How do you make a hedgehog blue?

Also, what flavour of food do they dislike?  These were a couple of the questions to which we heard the answers on a trip to Tiggywinkles, the world’s leading wildlife hospital.

Tiggywinkles – named after the Beatrix Potter character – became famous for its treatment of injured hedgehogs, and there were over 300 in for treatment on the day we visited. But clearly the organisation has expanded in recent years.  There is now a badger sett, for example. Just as each person in a hospital for humans has their own problems, the same applies to badgers. Rachel has fractures in both front legs, so she cannot dig and therefore can’t return to the wild), while Stevie is blind and Logan was found starving after the human family which used to feed him moved away. Christmas, meanwhile, is thus named for being found on 24 December, not for being white (but not albino)!  There is also a new Red Kite education centre and aviary, along with a hide for observing muntjac, Chinese water deer, roe deer and fallow deer in a paddock.

Having said that, Tiggywinkles is still closely associated with hedgehogs.  Its museum covers almost everything you can think of, including military formations, Royal Navy memorabilia… but not the “hedgehog sandwich” sketch from Not the Nine O’clock News.  The hedgehog talk revealed that hedgehogs typically have 5,000 spines and like cat food or dog food, as long as it isn’t tuna or other flavours of fish.  One resident of Tiggywinkles apparently enjoyed eating crisps, while another was known as Blue because – he fell into an open tin of blue paint.  As well as the talks, you can view, through a window, baby hedgehogs and other animals and birds as staff feed them.  You’d have to have a heart of stone not to say “aaaah”…