Trunk call

10th June 2020

For centuries, Goodwood’s mighty sweet chestnut trees have been an invaluable source of timber, fuel and food.

Words by Darren Norris

  • trees

  • nature

  • estate

  • farm

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Sweet chestnut is thought to have been introduced into Britain by the Romans and has remained a much-loved feature of the landscape since then. Goodwood’s specimens don’t go back quite that far, but there are some very fine and ancient examples on the estate, as well as almost 100 acres of sustainably managed, coppiced trees.

These coppiced trees have two distinct roles at Goodwood. Because the timber is fast-growing and durable, it is ideal for fencing. Festival of Speed requires 6,000 chestnut posts each year, used to hold the bales in place on the Hillclimb. We can’t produce that many ourselves, so we supplement our own posts with some bought locally. The other main use is as biomass fuel for heating and hot water at Hound Lodge – chestnut timber is particularly suitable for this as it has a high calorific value when burned.

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In contrast to the coppiced workhorse of the woods, a sweet chestnut, if planted singly with plenty of room, will grow into a magnificent tree, up to 30m tall, with a wide, spreading canopy. Within the park there are five of these ancient chestnuts with broad, gnarly trunks, deeply fissured bark and stag-headed branches. The leaves are shaped like serrated spear-heads and the bright yellow flowers hang on 15-25cm catkins that shed their pollen in late June. These aged stalwarts of the park are thought to be of 16th-century origin, when the planting of sweet chestnut as a parkland tree was very much in vogue.

By far the largest group of these standards can be found in Halnaker Park – also part of Goodwood and formerly a deer park in medieval times – which are the most impressive specimens on the estate. Many of them have died back in the crown from their former glory and now stand with great curved tops of bare wood, bleached almost white by the sun and hard as stone. These are now home to families of jackdaws and rooks, with the occasional owl hiding within their dense lower canopies. My favourite among these great trees is in Redvins Copse. This tree is surrounded by a mixed plantation of ash, oak, hazel and grand fir. It stands proudly showing its scars from the devastation of the 1987 storm, great branches ripped off to jagged stumps and only a hint of what presence the tree once held within this wood. All around it was flattened in the storm and replanted in 1990.

Time is the great healer with such ancient trees and a new lower canopy has grown from the reckage, with new limbs growing up from the base and into the crown. It is scarred but full of life, with blue tits and treecreepers using the broken bark as nesting sites and greater spotted woodpeckers creating nesting holes in the deadwood stumps.

Perhaps the greatest gift from the sweet chestnut is the nut itself. Encased in a spiky cover and nestled in a soft inner lining, these shiny nuts are the best of eating for woodland creatures and humans alike. Boiled or roasted over a fire, the flesh becomes soft and floury, adding sweet depth to any dish. They have the perfect shell for easy storage over the winter months and, for the past 2,000 years, would have played an important role in helping the inhabitants of this corner of the South Downs survive the lean months into spring.

Darren Norris is forestry manager of the Goodwood Estate.

  • trees

  • nature

  • estate

  • farm

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