Underneath the Spreading Chestnut Tree – But For How Long?

I’d meant to wait to talk about the fabulous chestnut trees in Greenwich Park until the autumn, when they fruit – and are the traditional source of much merriment for centuries of people from sundry backgrounds (more about that later). But things have escalated, and I am writing about them now as I am beginning to seriously fear for their safety.

Greenwich Park as we know it was laid out in the early 1660s – a time when the Restoration was still fresh, as were the tastes of the new King Charles II (and Samuel Pepys, of course, who often walked through the park with lecherous thoughts of “Bagwell’s Wife…”)

Charles wanted to forget the destruction caused in Greenwich by the Commonwealth and create something new for us to be proud of. He fancied something a bit like Versailles and commissioned Andre Le Notre, who’d designed the French palace’s gardens to come and work a bit of his magic in Greenwich.

Of course, it’s unlikely that Le Notre ever made it here – if he had, it’s just possible he wouldn’t have designed the park quite like it is now – his drawings are glorious on paper, but frankly they look a bit – well, quirky, given the amount of ups and downs that Greenwich Park’s geography actually has. But no matter. It’s our quirky – and for centuries we’ve loved his lines of chestnuts, curious paths and his nearly-cascades (just below the Observatory, that strange, undulating hill is what remains of steps which had been intended as a grand cascade – Charles, of course, being Charles, ran out of cash before it got any further…)

Tree-planting began in earnest about 1664, once the main groundwork was done. John Evelyn, a local – and famous for two things – his diary and his almost obsessive love of trees, got very excited indeed:

“March 4th, 1664 – This Spring I planted the home field and west fields about Sayes Court, with elms, being the same year that the elms were planted by His Majesty in Greenwich Park”

Naturally, it wasn’t His Majesty himself that did the spade-work – it was the Keeper, Sir William Boreman’s gang of trusty gardeners. 600 Elms and, rather more interesting for us, rows of Spanish Chestnuts, brought over from Lesnes Abbey, plus all kinds of other botanical goodies. It cost £545 just to plant them up. There were also coppices and dwarf orchards (we’re still clinging onto one of them – a little haven of hope in a worryingly bleak time for the park.) There’s also a mulberry tree listed – the first in England, planted by King James – I have no idea whether it survives and if so, where. Any clues?

But the best bits were those chestnuts, with their curiously spiralled, gnarled trunks and their majestic canopies – loved for generations of hungry locals for their fruits. A few got banged up in Queen Elizabeth’s Oak for pilfering the chestnuts, but for most it became a bit of a local autumn sport. Luckily the trees are tough enough to have withstood the annual chestnut beating by eager locals hoping for a bumper crop (see above pic). Curiously, they still do. Suburban Bushwacker sent me a pic last year of a sign in the park (in both English and Chinese, interestingly) forbidding any kind of tree-human contact in the harvesting of chestnuts:

AD Webster, writing in 1902 comments that:

“The collection of trees, shrubs and other plants is extremely valuable.”

Funny. You know, I thought that was a given. I thought that this huge natural resource for Londoners and wildlife alike was somehow important to our heritage. To Britain. But ever since I wrote that piece last week about the forthcoming Olympics, I’ve been receiving worrying emails that make me think that perhaps none of this matters to certain people who would rather see Greenwich Park decimated for their own aggrandisement, and who are in a position to directly affect the fate of our most valuable natural asset, than actually protect our heritage.

AD Webster points out that the peculiar Greenwich soil – very gravelly – is particularly suitable for the Spanish chestnuts. But this soil is also very susceptible to compaction. Hooves, feet, crowds, stands, toilets, jumps. Think about it. This isn’t a couple of Chinese grannies nicking a few nuts – this is wholesale destruction. Especially if the course is to be full, rather than gymkhana-sized. In that case, we’re talking actual cutting-down rather than just giving trees a slow death.

Of course it’s not just 300-year old chestnuts that are in the firing line. Who, like me, has sheltered inside one of those old holly trees, so ancient they’re totally hollow, in a sudden downpour? What about that fabulous herbaceous border down by the Queen’s House? Literally first against the wall, I’d wager. I wonder if the future King Charles III knows about this?

Sadly everything I have so far is opinion, and I cannot repeat it without putting myself in the firing line for a libel case, but I am beginning to believe that our concerns are just the tip of a much bigger iceberg. Folks, I am beginning to think that we need to worry about this and worry a lot.

Without actual evidence I can go no further so far. But I implore you. Start asking around. Ask awkward questions. And ask everyone. Time is running out. Major decisions are just about to be made, and mostly behind closed doors. We will be presented with a fait accompli which will possibly mean the closure of Greenwich Park for years and, in the long run worse, wholesale destruction of not only our park but large swathes of the heath.

You can’t just go to B&Q and pick up a few 300-year old chestnuts after the event. This isn’t Ground Force doing a quick makeover in three days with a spot of decking and some blue paint. Gardens and Parks take years to mature, and yet these selfish, selfish people are, I am beginning to get the horrible feeling, intent on decimating centuries of wildlife and culture combined in harmony within the space of a few months. We cannot let this happen.

I repeat. Ask questions and ask them now. If you get any hard evidence, broadcast it. Don’t necessarily send it to me – send it to the people who will make the loudest noise (by all means, copy me in though!) Trust no one.

Comments are closed.