Thursday, July 26, 2012

Ancient Trees of Ashdown

There are many old trees in the woodland at Ashdown Park and two that The Woodland Trust has identified  as being officially "ancient.". There is no precise definition of an ancient tree but there are some guiding factors: They are trees of interest biologically, aesthetically or culturally because of their age, they are trees that are in the ancient stage of their life, and they are trees that are old relative to others of the same species. Trees grow at different rates and so a 100 year old willow or birch tree would be ancient whilst a 200 year old beech would be only just starting to age, a 200 year old oak would be beginning to mature and a 200 year old yew would be very young!


At Ashdown our two ancient trees are both beeches. One has a girth of 4.96 metres, the other a girth of 5.15 metres. It's difficult to assess the age of a beech on the basis of girth alone but both of these trees are several centuries old and may well have been standing when the house was built 350 years ago. Accordingly, as a tribute to Ashdown's anniversary this year, we have unofficially named them the Elizabeth Beech and the William Beech. Elizabeth stands on the back boundary of Hailey Wood. William stands at the back of Upper Wood. Both stand beside the medieval Park Pale. According to the Woodland Trust this is no co-incidence; many of the surviving ancient trees in the UK stand in what were once Royal hunting forests and medieval deer parks. It's wonderful that at Ashdown we have this link with the early history of the estate.


The Ashdown Park Pale was built in 1204 when the Ashbury estate belonged to Glastonbury Abbey and Ashdown was a hunting forest. Park pales consisted of a bank and ditch with a wooden palisade, or fence, 
on the top. They were designed to let the deer in through gaps in the pale called deer leaps, but once inside the emparkment the deer could not get out again. At Ashdown the entire existing wood was emparked.  Changes to the estate and the parkland during the 18th and 19th centuries have altered the appearance of the landscape, and the park pale that surrounded Middle and Hailey Woods has mostly been either ploughed out of the fields, demolished or worn away, although the later ha-ha is still visible. 

However to the south of the sarsen field and most particularly around Upper Wood, the park pale is still a magnificent earthwork rising up to 9 metres high on the escarpment of the hill. The photograph above shows the remains of the park pale where it intersects with the Lambourn road to the south of the estate. There is a footpath that runs up the back of Upper Wood (where the William Beech stands) and around the top of the park pale and from this vantage point you get a superb view of the surrounding landscape. You can also see what a huge embankment the park pale originally was.

There is one other verified ancient tree at Ashdown that is currently not on the map. A couple of years ago English Nature paid Ashdown a visit to assess the elm avenues. In the course of their work they also discovered an oak tree on the edge of Upper Wood. Measurements taken showed that this oak was old enough to be part of the original 13th century hunting forest. In honour of its ancient status and the connection to Glastonbury Abbey this has therefore been named the Glastonbury Oak. We are very proud to have ancient trees at Ashdown. They are living relics that inspire awe and mystery and have helped to shape our history.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Caversham Park - A King's Prison

On Monday I had the great pleasure of talking about Ashdown House on BBC Radio Berkshire’s History Hour. It was wonderful to be invited and I hope it brings in some more visitors to see “our” special house. Ashdown gets so little publicity and is such a jewel – it deserves to be more widely known!

Visiting Caversham Park for the interview was in itself a treat because it was one of the Craven estates that I had not previously seen. The parallels with Ashdown are striking. Both can trace their origins back pre-Conquest and both were established as hunting chases in the 13th century. During the medieval period one of Caversham’s most famous owners was William Marshal, a close advisor to both King Richard I and King John, who rose to become regent for Henry III. William Marshal was the embodiment of the chivalric ideal and a celebrated knight. Arguably there are parallels there with William Craven five hundred years later.

The Craven family acquired Caversham Park in the early 17th century as part of their extensive investment in land. By 1643 it had been sequestered by the parliament along with all of William Craven’s other estates apart from Coombe Abbey. King Charles I was imprisoned at Caversham in July of that year. As at Ashdown, trees on the estate were felled to build Cromwell’s Navy. The Elizabethan manor house and the estate suffered much damage during this period but when William Craven regained his lands in 1660 he rebuilt Caversham Park, probably with William Winde as the architect. By 1689 it was the sixth largest house in Oxfordshire. (Like Ashdown, Caversham has moved county!) It was sold on Craven’s death in 1697 and came into the Cadogan family.

The terrace at the front of the house dates from the Georgian period when Capability Brown landscaped the grounds. The current mansion, however, dates from the 1850s. I was allowed a special peek into the grand Victorian reception rooms on the ground floor. The atrium, (pictured above) which was once the entrance to the stables, is particularly impressive.

I’m looking forward to doing more research into Caversham Park during the period of Craven ownership so if anyone has any information, please get in touch!