Tim Kellett is Chair of Cornwall Ancient Tree Forum. On Saturday 25 June 2022, as part of our Opening Weekend of the Gustav Metzger: Earth Minus Environment exhibition, he will be talking about the ecologies, cultural significance and wildlife of old and special trees. He has also researched and produced a self-guided tree and woodland walk starting from Kestle Barton for visitors who want to test their new knowledge!
In Tim Kellett’s talk, you will learn the difference between ancient, veteran, notable and champion trees and the critical role they play in preserving biodiversity. You will discover what they can tell us about the landscape and how it was used in the past and how current practices may be threatening them.
Tim Kellett’s talk is part of a series of 3 x talks on trees on Saturday 25 June from 11am – 2:30pm
The whole series is £5, please contact the gallery to book a place
Walking East from Kestle Barton and across the lane.
The lane drops steeply down, soon coming to dense woodland on either side. On the left, south side, there is a big oak, 4.43 girth, which splits into two trunks. At the bottom of the hill the main path bends to the left and eventually crosses the stream, but instead take the adjoining path off to the right, this is a permissive path alongside Frenchman’s Creek.
As you walk northwards along this path you will spot some big sessile oaks growing out of the steep banks overhanging the creek. On the right of the path the trees are much younger. On an 1880’s Ordnance Survey map for this area, the woodland did not exist. The fields came down to the waters edge. Probably only a few of these older oaks on the bank did exist with a smattering of holly and hazel. Tree no 2 is very noticeable though. It is a big oak with two wide spreading lower limbs indicating it did not grow up in a dense woodland. The tree is 3.96m girth which would indicate its age at about 250 years.
A little further northwards there is a narrow path that runs off to the left. If you follow this for a short distance you come across the two huge trunks of a multi-stemmed holly tree. This is remarkably large for a holly and the biggest stems measuring 2.68m girth at 0.40cm height that is starting to hollow puts it in the category of ancient. We know it as the Helford Holly, one of the oldest is Cornwall and a splendid example of the large population of very old hollies along Frenchman’s Creek and the Helford River. It is hard to tell whether these stems are one tree or two. It is more likely to be one, and you can see other smaller stems in the vicinity which might be part of one coppice. One branch appears to be reaching out to the Creek and has rooted in the ground, this is called “Layering”, one of the ways trees can regenerate. Look for more hollies in the woodland edge along the creek, there are more and may even be one older!
Carrying on clockwise, this permissive path turns inland, alongside a field with a great view across the Helford, turning south until it reaches a junction where the route turns east again. On this lane you may see some small oak pollards with their tops sitting just above the hedgebank on the left. Soon you will see a single oak on the right by the side of the track. This is not a huge tree, but it is recorded as a veteran. However you should see the size of the ivy growing up the trunk and then you realise most of the canopy consists of ivy leaves. There is a misconception that Ivy strangles trees – it doesn’t. But if covering an ancient tree that is shrinking in height it may restrict the growth of a new lower canopy of leaves. This process is called “re-trenching” and is part of an ancient trees natural process of adapting in its old age. In the meantime Ivy is great for habitat with flowers and berries and shelter for roosting.
At this point you can carry straight on the main public footpath into Helford or turn left an continue up or a hill , going past “treetops”, where you get a high level view into a woodland. This extra leg of the route will take you to an interesting permissive footpath into the woodland that edges the Helford River. Part way along this route you will come across a wide gate which at first looks private but is also signed as a permissive route. Following this path into the woodland you should very soon take a branch off to the right. This path leads down to a tiny stone chapel whose pitched roof you may spot between the trees. This is the miniature chapel to Saint Francis of Assisi, really only a chapel that one person can fit inside. In 1979 he was declared by Pope to be the patron Saint of Ecology, an apt point to pause and reflect on this tour. Back on the main path, it now completes a loop in this woodland taking you past twisting oaks and more large hollies but interesting to note this woodland did not exist in the 19th Century, so these trees are not that old. Passing back through the gate the route continues south and crosses the head of small beach before dropping into Helford, walking past the thatched Shipwrights Arms and crossing over the stream to the other side via the bridge or the ford if the water is low.
Walking south on the woodland path is very interesting but there are no veteran trees within easy view. Looking down you can see the stream and to the west beyond the stream there is an older woodland. This is called “Underwood” and exists even on the 1811 surveys field map when they were first creating the Ordnance Survey. The path continues for short while until you come to a path on the right (west) dropping down and crossing the stream. This will take you on a direct route back to Kestle Barton.
Alternatively you can follow the route straight on to take an optional leg of about 1km to Manaccan. To the left of the path just beyond the junction there is a large veteran Sycamore. These trees have great habitat value and support many species of plants a fungi, insects and animals. In the seventeenth century they were planted as stately trees in the great estates. Tomorrow they may well replace most of the ash in our woodlands and hedgerows and are more resilient to climate change. Looking to the right again, as you walk along this older woodland you can see many examples of wood banks and ditches, sometimes with very old oaks sitting on them.
The path continues south to a junction of paths by a large oak in the hedgebank, where you take the left (western) route. Looking to your left you may soon see a huge pine tree of 4.5m girth soaring up above its neighbours – but don’t be taken in by its size. This tree may only be 150 years old. This is a Monterey pine, first introduced from California relatively recently in 1833, but now synonymous with the Cornish skyline.
Further along you may glimpse a veteran oak on the left down by the stream. This is a relatively young tree of around 200 years at 2.97m girth. It is a taller slender oak showing it has grown up in a woodland but still has many habitat features such as deadwood in the canopy and gardens of ferns and mosses on its branches.
When the path emerges from the woodland you could take the diagonal narrow footpath across the field, but I suggest you keep to the path on the woodland edge. In a hundred yards or so there is a slight opening in the woodland where you can drop down to the stream. If you notice a low concrete marker in the ground you know you are in the right place because this is next to an ancient Alder. The Alder loves to be beside water and this one is intertwined with a holly as well. Strangely this tree is a curious shape and is in two parts that seem to be connected, each sitting on a slightly raised bank. The tree has a lot of twiggy epicormic growth which is typical of the alder. It is a very large and very old specimen.
Carry on walking along the woodland edge and uphill across the field, crossing the road and following the path into Manaccan village. Once you find your way to the main street you can drop downhill until you find the entrance to the churchyard. The Church of St Manaccus and St Dunstan is ancient with origins back in the 12th Century, but it has a curious tenant of a living Fig tree that grows out of its south wall. The Fig probably grew from a seed deposited by a bird in its crumbling wall and has found space to root in the rubble filled interior of the walls structure. The tree could be 200 years old. Every ten or 15 years it is effectively “pollarded” by cutting back the canopy which slowly re-grows. In the early 1900’s there were many postcards published of the tree and one in the 1930’s even showed its very large branches propped. Today it has recently been cut, so you can’t see the full spread of its canopy, but it does reveal the huge area of convoluted stem embedded in the wall. Yes, it could survive in the wall with careful management and occasional repair of the stone. Interesting too that it has a sister tree growing in the wall of the stone church at St Newlyn East near Newquay. (Before you return to Kestle Barton on the same route, you might want to view the Yew tree in the churchyard on the south side. This is a characterful tree of 3m girth but take note – at around 200 years old it is a youngster for Yew! – a tree that could live to 10 times older! )