PUBLISHED: 08:22 23 March 2015 | UPDATED: 08:22 23 March 2015
Manu Palomeque 07977074797
Trees are the lungs of the planet and conifers make up 30 per cent of the world's trees, which makes Bedgebury Pinetum - celebrating 90 years since it was established as the National Conifer Collection - a rather special place right here in the Garden of England
Strolling along a path lined with cherry trees whose blossom in spring seems to stand for all the beauty of the Garden of England, Bedgebury National Pinetum dendrologist (the science and study of wooded plants) Dan Luscombe pauses to reflect.
“It’s funny, isn’t it?” he says, as we admire the view. “You’ve got trees from all over the world here in this tiny part of the county. The world of trees is here on the people of Kent’s doorstep.”
Britain is a tree-loving nation and there are many fine collections across the land to visit, including mighty Kew Gardens and Wakehurst and the preserved ‘old-world’ glories of medieval hunting forests like Hatfield and Windsor Great Park.
Bedgebury, however, has an appeal which is entirely its own. It was established as the National Conifer Collection 90 years ago this year, but while the awe-inspiring pines are the chief asset, the rolling landscape and diversity of plant species add an extra dimension to the visit.
“Our sister organisation is Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire which, like us, is managed by the Forestry Commission,” explains Dan.
“But whereas that is essentially 600 acres of arboretum, our collection is surrounded by forest. The site is not flat, it’s got rolling hills and water, and supports an immense diversity of flora and fauna.”
It’s also a rising success story as a visitor attraction. “It used to be the case that only the Pinetum was open to the public. But since we opened up access to the forest in 2005, the numbers of people coming has risen from 40,000 a year to 300,000.”
Conifers have attracted a poor press over the years, partly on account of the blanket plantings of species like the Sitka spruce or Douglas fir on hillsides by the Forestry Commission in the last century, a policy which has since been put into reverse.
There’s also a belief that evergreens are boring, lacking the varieties of shape and colour across the seasons of broad leaf trees. Dan, however, is happy to extoll their virtues, agreeing that they are sadly underappreciated. “It’s partly because they are often planted in places where they are out of context,” he explains.
“But here people can come and see them as towering individual trees. And conifers can provide shape and structure to a garden. Not far from us at Great Dixter there are the topiaried yews you can enjoy all year round, and there’s lots of fine winter colour in species like Golden Pines and the Japanese Red Cedar.”
The dark ensembles of firs you look down upon from the more elevated viewpoints at Bedgbury have an eerie stillness. Avenues of them have the calming air of the cloisters of monastery.
And if you’ve ever looked out the window of your home and scowled at your neighbour’s rapidly expanding conifer hedge, see if you can find Bedgebury’s ‘secret’ Leyland’s Cypress avenue.
The two rows were planted as recently as 1976, probably as a boundary marker at a time when the land on the other side was outside the Commission’s ownership.
Now they soar to an astonishing 100ft on either side. It’s like walking down the narrow aisle of a French Gothic cathedral.
Yet it’s the individual conifers which are the most impressive of all, though you sometimes need to step off the pathways to properly experience them.
A Japanese Cedar, so old and vast its trunk has split into three, is a like dark furry beast. A Western Hemlock, which Dan describes as one of his favourite trees and which is often considered the loveliest of all conifers, has delicate, pendulous foliage adapted to snowfall. Its lower branches droop and curl to the ground like the tentacles of an octopus.
The bark of a Montezuma Pine is fluffy and tactile. A Grand Silver Fir soars to 50m, and the row of tall Coast Redwoods, at the end of which is a huge-girthed California Redwood, also known as a Giant Sequoia or Wellingtonia, is simply overpowering.
In their natural terrain of the west coast of America, these two species are among the biggest living plants on the planet.
The Giant Redwood known as General Sherman, which stands in Sequoia National Park, California, has a stem of more than 8m in diameter and a crown width equal to the length of three buses.
One Coast Redwood has been measured at 115m tall. Dan says he has climbed 60m up the side of one to gather its seeds on one of his expeditions. The examples at Bedgebury don’t reach that high but, with their totem-pole straight stems, they are still completely overpowering.
But the purpose of the Pinetum isn’t just to stand there looking grand or pretty. “We’re a botanical collection, not solely a treescape,” explains Dan, outlining how, since the time of its first curator William Dallimore in the 1920s, there has been a serious scientific purpose to its existence. He takes taking me into one of the big sheds where there are rows of pots containing seedlings from his plant-collecting expeditions, which have taken him round the globe, including the Pacific Islands, Australasia and South America.
More than 400 conifer species in the wild are under threat, so continuing support for the work of the living gene banks at places like Bedgebury, Kew and Wakehurst, notwithstanding the recent severe government cuts to funding, is absolutely critical.
Also in here is the world’s newest-discovered conifer the Vietnamese Golden Cypress, accidentally found by orchid collectors in 1999. These are the only seedlings of these extremely rare trees in the world, and the idea is that if they die out in their natural locations, propagating from the germinations here offers hope of saving the species.
For most people, however, the Pinetum offers time out in a lovely setting, with the added benefit of a new café which opens this Easter. But we shouldn’t underestimate the psychological impact of a place such as Bedgebury on raising sensibilities about conservation.
When the plans to sell of huge tracts off forestry were announced by the Coalition shortly after coming to power in 2010, a chorus of disapproval rolled across England. The subsequent names on petitions doubtless included many whose awareness was raised by the memory of happy afternoons at places like Bedgebury.
Unlike short-sighted politicians, visitors to the Pinetum can see the value of both the woods and the trees.
FIND OUT MORE
Friends of Bedgebury Pinetum
Park Lane, Goudhurst TN17 2SL
Bedgebury Pinetum is open every day except Christmas Day. Entry is free, but there is an admission fee for car parking. Annual membership of the Friends of Bedgebury Pinetum (£56) allows unlimited free admission for a year along with other benefits.
Call 01580 879842 or visit: www.bedgeburypinetum.org.ukm