Big trees at Kew

I went to Kew Gardens to see the Henry Moore sculptures. Which were OK, I guess. It’s not easy to display such a lot of very large sculptures—28 in all—but Kew is big enough that there’s plenty of room for them, so it’s quite a good match. I wandered around desultorily looking at them but they didn’t really grab me; not that I tried that hard to engage with them. I’d be curious to know whether I would have got more out of them if they were in a field; i.e. if there was less other interesting stuff around to distract me.

Moore sculpture

The particular thing that side-tracked me most was Big Trees; and specifically, some of the oaks and chestnuts. Now there has been a botanical collection at Kew for over 200 years, so there are some decent sized exotic trees. The conifer in the picture above is a pretty imposing example. But the trees I was looking at must surely be older still. There was one particular chestnut which must have been about eight foot in diameter. I didn’t get a picture that did that one justice, but here’s a smaller one:

sweet chestnut tree

I love the deeply grooved bark of mature chestnut trees. The sweet chestnut isn’t actually native to Britain; it was introduced in the Middle Ages. The oak, Quercus robur, is a native species. Of course it’s native to the whole of Europe, so the fact that in this country it’s often referred to as the English Oak is a wee bit parochial. Still, it’s a key feature of the English landscape. And this is an impressive example. Not a great picture, but hopefully the people standing in front of it give some sense of scale.

oak

I love these big trees; there’s something so satisfying about the sheer bulk of them. It makes you wonder what England looked like when it was a genuinely wild landscape; for many hundreds of years, the normal fate of a mature oak was to be cut down and used to make a timber-framed building or a ship. But once upon a time there must have been thousands of ancient trees all over the place. That landscape, of untouched primary forest, isn’t even a folk memory now; it was long gone by the time of Stonehenge. British woodland is artificial, a managed resource. Or now that wood is less in demand, an unmanaged resource; but I don’t think much of it is likely to be left alone for the few hundred years necessary to revert to wildwood.

Here’s another chestnut. I think the shape of it, with a fat trunk splitting into lots of branches a short way up, may be a sign that it was once pollarded. But I’m not sure.

sweet chestnut

Just think, that was probably already a mature tree when George III was confined to Kew Palace, strapped to his bed by the doctors and being bled, cupped, blistered and given emetics in a desperate and ignorant attempt to cure his madness.

» All pictures are hosted on my Flickr account, and you can see bigger versions there, if you want.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. What a marvelous Hallowe’en post! More terrifying English trees, please, the girthier the better; they will walk in my dreams tonight.

  2. I’ll go to Greenwich Park one day to get some pictures of the ancient chestnuts there. Like this one and this one.

  3. WHOA MIRACULOUS FATHERLAND. Did I just become an Anglophile? I think I felt something pop.

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