The Evelyn Chestnuts
by Peter Erridge
Peter Erridge tells the story of an ancient avenue of chestnut trees lining the way to Felbridge Park
Did you know there is an ancient chestnut avenue in Felbridge? Pass along the Crawley Down Road and there they are. On the north side of the road from Felbridge School westwards are the remnants of two lines, originally each of 52 Spanish chestnut trees (Castanea sativa); only 42 survive today. Not easily seen, just to the north, is a second line which together formed two avenues, one towards Crawley Down the other to Copthorne. They were planted in 1714 for the estate owner William Evelyn and are now known as the Evelyn Chestnuts. The trunks of some are two metres in diameter.
Extensive research has been carried out by the Felbridge & District History Group to determine when and why these trees were planted. The two lines of trees are shown on ancient maps dated 1748 and 1768 leading to Felbridge Park, west of the present A22. Within the park there was just one avenue leading to the house. It has been concluded that they were planted to mark the restoration of the Protestant Monarchy. The results of the research can be viewed at www.felbridge.org.uk
Until broken up in 1911, Felbridge Park estate managed the chestnut avenues, since then it has lacked the earlier protection. Ancient trees are always under threat, judged as being unsafe and then felled, whereas judicious cutting back of unsound branches might suffice; the Evelyn Avenue is no exception. On occasion local residents and Felbridge Parish Council have interceded and limited the damage to this local landmark.
Since the estate breakup new landowners have wished to develop the area for housing, which has necessitated removal of some of these old trees. A few felled trees have been replaced and are now up to 60 years old. These will eventually blend in; but not the Horse Chestnuts (conker trees) planted in 1969!
Avenues of trees were first planted in mainland Europe during the 16th century to form shaded walks; this became fashionable in England during the next century. Other purposes for the planting included leading the eye to an edifice, a mansion or manor house, or to form a decorative route along which carriages brought visitors. A variety of medium height deciduous tree species were used, usually sweet chestnut, lime or oak.
At the end of the last ice age Sweet Chestnut trees spread from south-eastern Europe possibly by invading armies. With an edible seed, the chestnut was carried as a food source. The Romans are thought to have planted the nuts in Britain to produce future food. This was long term planning as it is about 20 years before a crop of chestnuts can be harvested and used to produce chestnut flour.
The trees in this avenue have deeply furrowed bark and decay of the wood is evident. This is a natural process in the life of trees creating habitats and food for insects and fungi, whilst holes in the trunk and branches serve as nest sites for birds and bats.
Spanish chestnut trees are known to live for 700 years so in a plant caring community these remaining trees could be around in the 24th century.