[A] passionate group of Cumbrian heritage attractions and great houses – Cumbria’s Living Heritage – is encouraging visitors to appreciate the past by focusing on the stories surrounding some of its members’ most amazing trees.
Its ‘Tales of the Long-Ago Tree’ adventure involves a number of members’ gardens, from Kirklinton close to Carlisle in the north, to Holker on the Cartmel peninsula in the south.
At Dalemain, near Penrith – the Historic Houses Association’s ‘Garden of the Year’ 2013 – the Grecian Silver Fir tree has a unique story to tell, as well as being the biggest tree of its species within the British Isles. This magnificent tree was planted by Dorothea Hasell in the 1840s and was a gift from Joseph Banks, a plant collector who sailed on the Endeavour with Captain Cook. This 85-foot high and 19-foot wide colossus shares its gardens with a 200-year-old Tulip tree and Spanish Chestnuts.
In Dalemain’s Stumpery, visitors can also see the result of more recent history – a collection of 200-year-old tree stumps. These were felled when the mother-in-law of current owner, Jane Hasell-McCosh, needed to raise money for roof repairs at a great house that has stunning medieval, Elizabethan and Georgian features.
Those heading slightly north, to Kirklinton Hall and Gardens, will find trees enchantingly festooned with tiny models of Flower Fairies, which they can seek out with the help of Kirklinton’s ‘little guide’. If they wander a little further, they will discover that these trees are trying to tell them the story of faerie princess, Maelgwyn the Fair, whose face is carved into the cliff face and well worth viewing.
At the idyllic Mirehouse, near Bassenthwaite Lake, the Scots Pines – Britain’s only species of native forest conifer and located beside the drive, were planted around 1784. This was during the lifetime of the Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who visited frequently and spent his honeymoon here. Those taking one of many glorious walks from Mirehouse – that to St Bega’s Church – will also find Sessile Oaks planted in 1812. This location inspired much of the action in Melvyn Bragg’s ‘Credo’, so seeking out these trees will provide another literary connection during your visit to Mirehouse and its tranquil gardens.
Over on the West Coast, Muncaster Castle’s most famous tree is ‘Tom Fool’s Tree’ – a magnificent Sweet Chestnut underneath which the last Fool of Muncaster, Thomas Skelton, (thought to be the Tom Fool of legend) would sit, back then in the 16th century, and determine the fate of passers-by who asked for directions. If he liked these folk, he sent them onwards on a safe route; if he did not, he sent them to their death on the local quicksands! This iconic tree’s persona changes with the seasons and is recorded in watercolours dating back to 1810, when it was 40 metres tall. As for Tom Fool, you can find out all about him during a visit to Muncaster!
Another ancient tree – and one of the Tree Council’s ’50 Great British Trees’ in Her Majesty the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Year – is described as magical, venerable and animate, by its owner, Lady Cavendish, of Holker Hall and Gardens, situated on the Cartmel peninsula. This is the ‘Holker Great Lime’, 400-years-old and with a girth of around 25 feet. The tree is a wonderful place to hide, if you are a child, or shelter if you are trying to keep out of the rain, and seems to whisper stories of the 17th century, when it was probably part of a formal garden.
Another 17th century story sharer can be found at Levens Hall and Gardens near Kendal. Here, the Umbrella Tree, shortlisted for the Woodland Trust’s ‘Tree of the Year’ in 2016, was planted in the 1690s and is a stunning example of its era’s topiary. It is part of the finest, oldest and most extensive topiary garden in the world, comprising 100 pieces of Yew Taxus baccata and Golden Yew Taxus baccata ‘Aurea’, as well as Box Buxus, clipped into unusual designs including chess pieces, a King and Queen, a judge’s wig and a jug of Morocco Ale. Tree whisperers getting close to the latter, may encourage the tree to mumble where in the garden the recipe for Levens’ very special Morocco Ale was hidden during the English Civil War, to prevent it falling into the hands of Cromwell and his troops!
The tranquil woodlands around Stott Park Bobbin Mill near Newby Bridge have tales of the Industrial Revolution to impart, when Birch, Ash and Sycamore were all used to make bobbins for the cotton mills of Lancashire and beyond. A large coppiced Ash in the grounds of the 1835 mill allows people to imagine the process of bobbin making, whilst a tour, and the sight of the the mill’s steam power being stoked up, will help you appreciate the working conditions that 25 men and boys endured.
Moving on to the volunteer-run Holehird Gardens overlooking Windermere, you should seek out the marvellous Handkerchief Tree – truly befitting of an Enid Blyton novel – or perhaps the huge Californian Redwood or magnificent Tulip tree. The story here is that of the dedication of the volunteers who keep this garden looking so amazing, all year round, and who between them manage four National Plant Collections – Astilbe, Meconopsis, Daboecia and Polystich – to make Holehird Gardens an unmissable place to visit for those who love plants and gardens.
At exciting Grizedale Forest, the trees’ tales relate to sculptures hidden deep in the woods, but easily found by intrepid visitors ready to explore and seek out amazing pieces of outdoor art. They relate how Grizedale became the UK’s first ‘Forest for Sculpture’, back in 1977, and now boasts 40 outdoor-sited artworks that encourage you to navigate the forest in search of contemplative cultural treasures.
But that’s not all. Grizedale is also home to a rare Lime tree, located in Rainsbarrow Wood and planted around 400 years ago, even though many of Grizedale’s trees date back to the 18th century. Between 1782-84, Grizedale’s owner, Agnes Ford, planted 77,000 broadleaved trees, many of them oak. After her marriage in 1785, her husband, Mr Henry Ainslie, continued the planting, receiving a gold medal in 1812 for having planted 142,000 trees.
Some trees stand out more than others, including a very special Beech tree, which thrills those exploring the Bogle Crag trail. This must-see tree carries a carving of a helmet – believed to be the work of a German Prisoner of War held at Grizedale Hall POW camp between 1939 and 1945. Your imagination can run wild when it comes to its creator, as the camp held the most elite of the German officers. Who he could have been and where he came from is for you to decide! Add to all this an unusual Monkey Puzzle tree, planted in the 1940s and to be found on the all-access Riddingwood trail, and Grizedale’s trees are the guardians of many secrets.
At both Grizedale and Brockhole – the very first National Park Visitor Centre in Britain – you can jump from past to present whilst enjoying a zip wire or tree-top adventure. At Brockhole, you can use your elevated height amongst the trees to survey a lakeside property on Windermere that was frequently visited by author Beatrix Potter, whose cousin lived here. This might give you the impetus to explore as much of the 30-acre grounds as possible, or maybe hire a boat, or have a go at archery.
The final journey on your ‘Tales of the Long Ago Tree’ adventure should be to The Rum Story, Whitehaven, where you will be transported back to 1785, when the port was in its heyday and part of the spice, sugar and slave trade triangle. A tropical African rain forest puts this historical period in context for you, before you discover everything about rum making, American prohibition and those who made their rum fortunes!
Commenting on the ‘Tales of the Long Ago Tree’ initiative, Cumbria’s Living Heritage’s Chair, Peter Frost-Pennington says: “Hugging a tree is one thing, but looking at its historical roots and using it as the catalyst for heritage exploration is far more fascinating and rewarding. We hope people will visit some of our amazing trees in September and October and make them the staring point of an amazing voyage into the past.”
Enjoy your Tales of the Long-Ago Tree adventure with Cumbria’s Living Heritage and you will soon discover other quirky facts about the group’s members. To fast-forward this process, just download an intriguing Heritage Past-Port from www.cumbriaslivingheritage.co.uk