From small acorns tall oaks do grow

THE BUILDING MATERIALS COMPANY TARMAC is not a company that you might immediately associate with leisure activities. Yet, today, our good friends in Hertfordshire, Gareth and Moyna, took us with their two dogs to a park that has largely been created by Tarmac. Panshanger Park is owned by Tarmac Holdings, who extract sand and gravel from the area. After taking what they need, they restore the ground they have dug to render it attractive to humans, wildlife, and cattle.

William Cowper (c1665-1723), First Earl Cowper and once the Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, acquired the Cole Green Estate, which includes the land on which Panshanger Park is situated, in about 1700. His descendant the Fifth Earl Cowper commissioned the architects Samuel Wyatt (1737-1807) and then later William Atkinson (c1774-1839) to design a house to replace the existing one. It was designed in the ‘Regency-Gothic’ (Gothic Revival) style and its construction commenced in 1806. The grounds of the new house were landscaped by Humphry Repton (1752-1818), who also landscaped the grounds at London’s Kenwood House. Seeing the grounds at Panshanger reminded me of those at Kenwood. Sadly, the house was demolished in the early 1950s. All that remains of it is a grassy mound and the roofless ruins of the extensive orangery, whose supporting pillars and lintels remain. The lintels bear a bas-relief of floral wreaths, crumbling in parts. The ground in front of the mound sweeps down towards a lake, just as is the case with the lawns in front of the still extant Kenwood House.

A path leads from the remains of the orangery through woods towards an enormous oak tree circled by protective cast-iron railings. This huge oak tree is said to be the largest maiden oak in the country. It is defined as ‘maiden’ because it has never been subjected to pollarding (artificial control of growth by trimming selected branches). One of the tree’s long branches has grown towards the ground and, unusually for oaks, set down new roots, rather like what is commonly found in banyan trees. This tree is said to have been planted by Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603). Whether she planted an acorn or a sapling, we cannot say. My uneducated guess is that planting a sapling rather than random acorn would have been a more reliable way to be sure that the tree would thrive. The tree trunk’s circumference is at present 75 feet (www.chilternsaonb.org/ccbmaps/489/137/panshanger-great-oak.html) and increasing because the tree looks remarkably healthy.

Saplings taken from this royal oak have been used to grow the Prince Consort Oak in the Forest of Dean, and another in the same forest planted  (as an acorn) by Queen Elizabeth II, as well as another tree planted by Sir Winston Churchill, which has outlasted this former Prime minister.

Apart from the amazing oak tree and the intriguing remains of the Panshanger orangery, the park is well worth visiting to enjoy its views of lakes, its variety of trees, the long-horned cattle grazing in the fields, and the lovely vistas of the valley of the River Mimran and the rural Hertfordshire landscape. It is gratifying to see that a company, whose activities, such as digging gravel and sand, can easily wreck the countryside, have managed to carry out their work and at the same time to preserve the estate in superb, unsullied condition. Once again our friends in Hertfordshire have opened our eyes to another wonder in the depths of the English countryside.

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