The Tortworth chestnut – a thousand year old tree?

Yesterday I met up with an old friend and former National Trust colleague Rob Jarman to talk about PhDs, small – leaved limes and sweet chestnuts. Rob is studying sweet chestnuts for his PhD and I researched small-leaved limes for my MSc back in 1984!

Small-leaves limes are one of the UK’s legendary trees – much less common today that 6000 years ago whilst sweet chestnut is not thought to be a native species as it was brought here by the Romans – at least that is the published fact – Rob’s research is trying to get to the bottom of the sweet chestnut story.

We met for lunch in Tortworth and then visited the Tortworth chestnut. To be honest I was unaware of the Tortworth chestnut  and I think Rob took a pretty dim view of that …. but in many ways that is part of the story – a non native tree isn’t that high up the list of priorities for conservationists. But my goodness I am really pleased Rob introduced me to the Tortworth chestnut – it is an amazing thing native or not. As with many things dating back to the Dark Ages it is difficult to unravel fact from myth – this encapsulates the late and great Oliver Rackham’s phrase ‘factoids’ – repeat the story often enough and it becomes fact whether is is right, wrong or unproven!

The information beside the tree tells us that the tree was planted as a nut in 800AD during the reign of King Egbert – which would make the tree 1200 years old!

Tortwort chestnut 1
Like many veteran trees it has a huge knarly trunk

Tortwort chestnut 2With younger branches reaching to the sky

Tortwort chestnut 3What is amazing about this tree is that over the centuries branches have split away from the main trunk / tree and have crashed to the ground – instead of rotting away they have put down new roots and have grown in new trees in their own right

Tortwort chestnut 4

This picture perhaps shows that most clearly – all the ‘trees’ in this photograph are all parts of the same tree – the Tortworth chestnut.

The sign at the tree also quotes Peter Collinson – a leading tree expert from the 1700s who states that ‘in all probability it was the oldest, if not the largest see in England’. I very much doubt whether either of these comments are true. When I was working on small-leaved limes in Hampshire back in the early 1980s I found many limes which had grown into huge clonal circles of trees. The above ground branches / trunks had all had a history of coppicing  so were generally less than 100 years old but the below ground parts of the trees were probably thousands of years old and may have dated back to the original post glacial colonisation. I need to be careful now that I don’t start peddling factoids – maybe somebody in the future will research those old Hampshire limes and unravel the true story just as Rob is trying to do now with sweet chestnuts.

One final comment and some food for thought. Rob told me that historically the area where the Tortworth chestnut grows had been grazed. Today it is fenced off to protect the tree. It would appear that as a result ivy has been able to establish itself and it has started to colonise some of the trunks. Normally I am quite happy to see ivy growing on trees and would never want to remove it. However for such an ancient and venerable tree as this perhaps we should not allow ivy to establish – we wouldn’t let ivy grow on an ancient building in case it caused damage and because it would partially obscure the spectacle of the building.

4 thoughts on “The Tortworth chestnut – a thousand year old tree?

  1. Pingback: Wistman’s Wood in the rain – A Dartmoor and Devon blog

  2. Pingback: The Meavy Royal Oak – A Dartmoor and Devon blog

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