Cornwall’s Ancient, Veteran and Significant Trees, and the Value of Parks and Gardens

by Peter Herring, English Heritage Characterisation Team

A three-year Heritage Lottery-funded project seeking out and documenting Cornwall’s great trees has been launched by the Cornwall Ancient Tree Forum. The project, based in the National Trust offices at Lanhydrock and managed by Great Trees Officer Dr Loveday Jenkin, aims to record Cornish examples of ancient trees (old for their species), veteran trees (not necessarily old, but developing some of the features of ancient trees) and significant trees (those with other historical, cultural or landscape associations). It will also support local communities by encouraging people to find and care for their local great trees and maybe even become tree wardens or great tree champions; it will also create tree-related educational resources for young people.

In addition to their more widely accepted natural environment value, ancient or veteran trees have outstanding historical and cultural importance. Cornwall may not be the most heavily wooded part of Britain, but it does have numerous significant woods, parks and farmland trees, the latter both on hedges and in groups sheltering windswept farmsteads. They are crucially important elements of Cornwall’s famously ancient landscape and their conservation and good management must be supported not just for their undoubted ecological value, but also for their landscape and cultural value. The purpose of this article is to reinforce to members of the CGT that many of Cornwall’s great trees stand within the designed landscapes of parks and gardens that are our principal interest. It also suggests that other great trees, in farmland, along highways and byways, and in woodland, also have enduring aesthetic value, and that this was appreciated in the past as much as it is today. Indeed many great trees were mature long before the parks that enveloped and benefited from their beauty and antiquity were ever conceived.

For four to five thousand years after the last Ice Age, that is from around 7000 BC through to the later Neolithic period (from c.2500 BC), when Mesolithic and early Neolithic people gathered and hunted their food, Cornwall was covered by a wildwood that was probably a mix of locally dense stands within more extensive wood pastures kept relatively open by the grazing of deer, wild cattle and other ungulates. Pollen analysis suggests that oak and hazel dominated while elm was locally important. Trees could be found everywhere except on the most exposed cliff tops and around moorland peaks.

Later Neolithic and early Bronze Age people substantially reduced woodland as they extended pastures and commenced cultivation. By c.1000 BC rural Cornwall probably resembled that of today with farmland throughout most of the lowlands, heathy rough grasslands on the downs (though more extensive than now), and woods largely confined to steep valleys, and also with trees on hedges and sheltering farmsteads.

By the medieval period tenants had established rights to timber and wood for certain uses, timber (from a tree’s main trunk and its greater branches) for housebote (to repair buildings) and cartbote (to repair vehicles and equipment), wood (lesser branches and pollard and coppice poles) for firebote (for domestic fuel) and hedgebote (for fencing) and so on. People learnt the particular qualities of the timber or wood of each species of tree, but more than this they developed deep cultural associations with woods and trees.

As trees satisfied various functions, they were treated differently, being coppiced, pollarded, shredded, stubbed etc. The former management of individual ancient trees can usually be followed through study of their consequent shapes; away from parks few would have been left to grow unmolested as standards. Coppiced and pollarded trees can live longer than most standards. Yews, oaks and ashes can survive to around a thousand years, forming living connections between the third and first millennia AD between us and the Vikings, and everyone in between. Beech, holly, elm and lime can also live for several hundred years.

Until the plantations of the last couple of centuries, Cornish woods were almost entirely confined to steep valley sides, and were carefully managed to satisfy particular demands. Most were oak with other species in smaller copses or planted, along with more oaks, on hedges. Cornwall’s hedge trees provided shelter, fuel, and wood and timber. Considering the range of needs that different types of wood supplied, it seems likely that most hedgerow trees were carefully planted to give the farmer or estate owner all that was required.

Oak’s great strength, hardness and durability made it the main timber used for house and boat building. Its bark provided the leather-maker’s best tannin, its acorns fattened pigs, and tin smelters valued its charcoal. Through-out Europe it is the most sacred tree, its associations with the gods reinforced by it being the tree most often struck by lightning. The oak is also the tree most often associated with the Green Man, the spirit of nature, of irrepressible life, one of the great pagan relics incorporated into Christian iconography. People swore oaths by the oak and the polypody growing on the oak was considered more efficacious a medicine than the polypody from any other tree.

The ash is traditionally the wood of the farmer. Tough and elastic, it was used for carts, wagons, tool handles, fencing, shepherds’ crooks and walking sticks as well as cricket stumps, spears and oars. Ash is a particularly good domestic fuel, burning when green. The tree warded off evil; John Gerard in the late 16th century noted that the ‘serpent dare not be so bolde as to touch the morning and evening shadowes of the ash tree’.

The long lamented elm had timber that endured water very well, hence its use for drains (hollowed stems fitted together), sluices, keels, troughs and pumps, and as pilings under buildings and bridges, and ultimately as coffins. For the same reason the elm firewood gives a sullen and slow heat.

The beech appears to have crossed the channel long before Julius Caesar briefly popped over; the myth that it is a lately introduced alien grew because Caesar never saw any in the parts of south-east England he visited. The River Fowey takes its name from the Cornish for beech, *faw, and there are many ancient woodland species (lichens, fungi, beetles etc) associated with very old beech trees along this river and its tributaries. Beech timber is stronger than oak, but less durable, at least above ground out of doors. Like elm, it survives water well and was used for sluices and pilings, and like alder was used for clogs. Indoors, beech was widely used for furniture, especially chairs. Since at least the time of Ovid, people have carved their names into the smooth bark of the beech and have watched their initials swell, twist and grow fat as they themselves have grown old.

Holly or holm, or Aunt Mary’s Tree as it was known in Cornwall, or kelin in our old language (as in Pencalenick, ‘the head of the holly place’) saw off goblins, demons and witches. It represented Christ symbolically, the white flowers Mary’s milk at his birth, the prickles the thorn of his final crown, and the red berries the blood he shed at his crucifixion. More prosaically holly was used against the whooping cough and against chilblains. Grown at gateways it protected hedge ends and some older farmers still respond to its symbolic importance by lifting their hedge trimmers when they reach a holly, believing that cutting it other than for Christmas decorations brings bad luck. The holly was also often planted in deer parks to provide an early bite in the spring.

The lime or linden, the tree of love, was used for close carving, particularly for musical instruments. In Cornwall its bark was beaten for use in rope making, and those who knew how could make an ear-splitting whistle by blowing hard on a lime leaf. When burnt, the wood of lime smells especially bad.

We tend to treat the sycamore with disdain, regarding it as an alien weed, and if we were ecological purists we might be justified: it is a tree of European mountains not introduced into Britain until the Tudor period. But when it came it was much admired and was planted in many gentlemen’s grounds. The tree of choice at Tudor Godolphin seems to have been the sycamore (lining walks and approaches), and there are other ancient examples at other early Cornish gardens. Lanhydrock’s wonderful avenue was originally of sycamore, not beech. Similarly, the Sweet or Spanish chestnut was extensively and well used in early post-medieval gardens and semi-ornamental plantations. It is partly up to those with an interest in Cornish history to recognise the value of these newcomers and champion them.


A line of veteran sweet chestnuts in Godolphin’s Tudor orchard: each tree has been coppiced at least once and probably more often.

(Photo: Peter Herring)

Many scholars have drawn together the folklore of trees, but few have done so as elegantly, thoughtfully or thoroughly as that son of Pelynt, Geoffrey Grigson, in his Englishman’s Flora (1958).

From the later 12th century in Cornwall the establishment of deer parks brought trees out of the valleys and into the open ground again. At least 75 deer parks existed in medieval Cornwall (covering around three per cent of its area). They were the earliest overtly private spaces, enclosures containing all that was required by the fallow deer (the lord’s favourite as it was the most sportive, as well as the most flavoursome deer), including woodland for cover while fawning and wood pasture for partly sheltered grazing. They brought a return to pseudo-Mesolithic landscapes with many fine freestanding trees growing great with spreading branches. Few areas of wood pasture survive now in Cornwall, or indeed in the South-West, but most are within former or surviving parks, such as that at Boconnoc.

Medieval parks were more carefully designed than was once thought. Restormel Castle served as an especially fancy hunting lodge, coming and going in and out of view as hunters with their greyhounds and brachet hounds moved across the slopes of the middle Fowey valley, in and out of woodland and wood pasture within Cornwall’s greatest deer park, created by the Cardinans in the 13th century and closed in the reign of Henry VIII. Restormel park’s pale (perimeter boundary), like that of several others in Cornwall, was run just beyond the crests of the valley sides so that it and the more mundane farmland beyond were out of view from most parts of the park. It was thus possible for the Earls of Cornwall who acquired the place in the later 12th century, and the Dukes who succeeded them, to imagine that the park extended endlessly in all directions as a sort of fantastic forest or chase.

Over 50 other deer parks were created in post-medieval Cornwall, but most were emptied of their deer by the late 19th century and many were reclaimed by farmers, their open spaces divided by hedges and most (but not necessarily all) had their great trees removed.


Lanhydrock from the air (2005)

(Cornwall County Council Licence 2009. © Geosense 2005)

This 2005 vertical aerial view of Lanhydrock shows the park bisected by the undulating avenue, now largely beech, but retaining a few sycamores. Views from the avenue across the parkland to the north were framed and screened, opened and closed by the apparently casual, but actually carefully arranged scattering of single trees and tight clumps. Some of the oaks to the north are ancient; others are veteran; but most of the trees in this familiar but nonetheless remarkable place are significant (see first paragraph of text p.17 for definitions).

Many more country houses established landscape parks from the later 17th century onwards (but mainly in the second half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th), and trees played a crucial role in their often subtle designs. Views were very carefully contrived with trees planted as frames, as screens, as avenues and as eye-catchers as well as simple signals of status early modern travellers would as instantly read a broad expanse of grass dotted with individual and clumped trees as the parkland of a notable person as we would.

Tree-laden and tree-defined views may have been appreciated either from fixed points, such as from a bastion, a seat, the house’s front door and drawing room window, or when on the move. Some of the cleverest design worked best when the observer was a visitor accompanied by the owner who could draw attention to features as they made their way along the prescribed routes of approaches, drives, rides, walks and avenues. People were encouraged to look out from the shade of an avenue past the elegant trunks of lime, beech or sycamore trees and across the more brightly lit lawns to other features: house, temple, church, lake and of course other trees. These may have been the eye-catchers, whether perfect specimen standards or twisted ancients inherited from former hedges, or they may have been clumps, set as cover for game and as plantations for commercially exploited timber as well as serving as dark splashes of colour on the parkland canvas upon which worked our greatest artists landscape designers Kent, Brown, Repton and their followers. They not only responded to the ‘capability’ of the topography with which they worked, but also in their handling of trees and other plantings, made exquisite use of early colour theory as well as the tone, texture and shape of the leaved and unleaved trees to create works that are only now in their intended mellow states.

Protecting and managing trees in these parks is the only responsible way to curate these remarkable, yet still widely under-regarded works of art. Many of those early modern parkland trees are now ancient, veteran and significant in their own right and of exceptionally high biodiversity value in addition to their historical, cultural and artistic value. Light reaches their bark as it does not in dense woodland, encouraging mosses, lichens, bryophytes, fungi, invertebrates, reptiles, birds and mammals to make these great trees even greater.

Wonderful sources for ancient tree hunters are the first edition OS 1:2500 maps of the 1870s and 1880s, made for army use. Trees would have been regarded as a key source of materials during any campaign on home soil and the maps show individually and accurately all substantial trees, coniferous and deciduous, garden, parkland and urban as well as those on hedges and in fields.



(Based on the Ordnance Survey and Landmark 1907 OS 1:2500 historic mapping with the permission of the Controller Her Majesty’s Stationery Office © Crown copyright and Landmark Information Group. Unauthorised reproduction infringes Crown copyright and may lead to prosecution or civil proceedings. CCC licence No 100019590. All material copyright © Cornwall County Council 2009)

Ethy, on the north bank of the River Lerryn, possesses a fine range of great trees, as shown in this detail of the 1:2500 OS map of 1907; all those trees shown with a shadow to their right were accurately plotted by the surveyors, making these maps a vital source for hunters of great trees. A rare survival of wood pasture stands shrouded in 1950s conifers on the steep slope west of the southern quarry; here ancient sessile and pedunculate oaks stretch their prodigious lower limbs just above the old browsing height. Younger oaks, singled stems from former coppice stools, dominate Ethy Wood in the side valley running up the left, but there are also veteran beeches here that are very important for their lichens. Other English oaks dot the park above, in front of the house, some inherited from former farmland trees on hedges, mixed with early modern Turkey and Lucombe oaks and an ancient sycamore. Younger sycamores mingle with holm oaks in the rookery to the rear (left) of the house. A Tudor-period approach from the north (out of view) has chestnut avenues.

As elsewhere in Britain, many ancient Cornish trees became revered in their over-maturity; being named and celebrated widely. Many, like the Cury Great Tree (ash), Mitchell Tree (used 200 years ago as the venue for electioneering), Lodge Tree (in Liskeard’s deer park and labelled such on a map of 1810), and the Cotehele Chestnut (downed by the 1891 Blizzard) have now sadly gone, but some are still with us. The Darley Oak may be around a thousand years old and the Rosuick Elm, on the Lizard, which fell foul of the Disease, has sent up new suckers.

The small parish of Braddock, or Broadoak, near Boconnoc with its fabulous old oaks, was apparently named at least as early as 1086, suggesting that Cornish people have long been affected by ancient trees. The Cornish language of course has its own names for species, many of which have found their way into early place-names.

The project will be encouraging people to record great trees on the Ancient Tree Hunt website or to write to Loveday at the project office or phone 01208 265276 and let the project, and the Cornwall Ancient Tree Forum, know why their tree is special to them. The CGT is well-placed to both contribute to and benefit from this exciting parallel initiative.

Thanks to Brian Muelaner, Keith Alexander, Ann Reynolds, Loveday Jenkin, Pete Rose and Colin Hawke

Bibliography and suggested further reading
Grigson, G., The Englishman’s Flora (1958; reissued 1996 by Helicon Publishing, Oxford)
Herring, P., ‘Medieval Cornish Deer Parks’, in Wilson-North, R. (ed.), The Lie of the Land (Mint Press, Exeter, 2002)
Padel, O.J., Cornish Place-Name Elements, English Place-Name Society, Volume LVI/LVII (Nottingham, 1985)
Pett, D.E., The Parks and Gardens of Cornwall (Alison Hodge, Penzance, 1998)
Pring, S. (ed.), Glorious Gardens of Cornwall, (Cornwall Gardens Trust, 1996)
Rackham, O., Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape (Dent, London, 1976)
Rackham, O., The History of the Countryside (Dent, London, 1986)
Vera, F.W.M., Grazing Ecology and Forest History (CABI Publishing, 2000)
Vickery, R., Oxford Dictionary of Plant-lore (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995)