Friday, 29 December 2017

Petworth Park

Setting  Off

Sometimes you don't have to walk far to pack a lot of scenery and interest in and that is certainly the case for this one.  We did this walk when autumn was at its zenith and were keen on making a trip to Petworth Park so we could see both the trees in colour and the rutting deer.  Petworth Park does not appear in any of the Guidebooks we have so we decided to have a go at one of the estate walks provided by the National Trust instead.  There are many such walks to explore so they will probably be a feature of future expeditions.

Autumn Colours
It was one of those glorious autumn days where there is still a little residual warmth in the air from the sun.  We had by now had quite a lot of autumn rain though and conditions in places promised to be a bit sticky as a result.  The walk starts at the north end of Petworth Park at the car park close to the A283.  It is possible to start at one of the other car parks but you will have a different starting point and will almost inevitably have to walk further as a result.  Be warned about this car park though - it is extremely popular and you may struggle to find a space on the nicest days.

Initially the walk runs parallel with the main road heading south.  The walk is designed to highlight the most notable species of tree in the park which was landscaped by Capability Brown back in the 1750s.  I wonder what Mr Brown would make of today's planning laws?  I find it unlikely that he would have got very far with any of his landscaped parks if he were building them now and yet it is unthinkable that these most celebrated parks should not exist.

Great Oak
The first of the highlighted trees we reached were some mature specimens of English oak (Quercus robur), beech (Fagus sylvatica) and aspen (Populus tremula) in the woodland surrounding the car park. Soon the path took a route through trees on both sides. It wasn't much further on that we encountered a tree with a plaque behind it on the wall declaring it to be the Beelzebub Oak.  It derived this name because the land beyond the boundary was considered to be spiritually suspect!  The tree itself is at least 250 years old, suggesting that it may have been planted at the same time the park was laid out

Lower Pond
A little further on was the Lower Pond, a smaller and less celebrated body of water than the one immediately in font of the main house.  Some of the trees that surround the pond were already mature when the park was laid out, which gives some clue to their relative ages.  The largest oak and sweet chestnuts are reckoned to be at least 350 years old.  It seems that the pond was an attractive way to deal with the problem of flooding as this area was a swamp and was described as ‘fowle and deepe of myre’.

Climbing Up To Lawn Hill
When following a walk such as this you get a different insight into the landscape.  I have walked past dead trees many times but only fleetingly have I given much thought about their importance as a habitat.  We passed by one just the other side of the pond dam which has been cut back only to make it safe. As the guide pointed out wherever possible standing dead wood, fallen wood, twigs and leaf litter is left to support a wide variety of fungi, insects, birds and bats. Leaving the dead wood enables nature to carry out its recycling work and is credited with the difference in recovery from the 1987 Hurricane in managed and unmanaged woodlands.  Those where the dead wood was left behind largely recovered more quickly than those where the wood was removed.

By now we became aware of barking dogs and quickly realised that we were passing a boarding kennel.  I suspect they were doing brisker business than usual on account of it being half term.  When I rechecked the guide at this point to make sure we were taking the right path I was astonished to read that a bypass was planned to come through the park here in the early 1970s.  An act of vandalism on that scale would have been unforgiveable but fortunately the plans were shelved, I imagine as one of the victims of the Oil Crisis of 1973.

Upper Pond
As we headed up the hill we passed possibly the oldest tree in the Park, one of three very old English oaks. This ancient tree is estimated to be some 940 years old, so would have been a very young tree at the time of the Norman invasion. At the top of the hill we crossed Lawn Hill to a fallen sweet chestnut which was a casualty of the 1987 storm and was a mere 265 years old at the time of its demise.

Main Track
The Upper Lake was now in view as we continued across the brow of the hill.  From here we could see the South Downs and the Greensand Ridge to the north. For my money this was the best part of the whole walk - you could really get a feel for the vision that Capability Brown had from this spot.  It would have been hard to imagine how the park looked in his day for clearly many of the trees would have been much reduced in size and the water features would still have looked rather imposed on the landscape.  We soon dropped down the hill to meet the shoreline of the lake and followed around it for a short distance.

Clouds and Tree in Harmony
Within the copse around the lake we noted the mature Swamp Cypress (Taxodium distichum), which were introduced from North America in 1638. I remember seeing these when I walked through another park in London while undertaking the LOOP many years ago.  The shoreline path follows some metal railings and these are designed to exclude most of the browsing deer and allow scrub to grow beneath the trees.  This then provides a haven for wildlife, supporting breeding birds such as chiffchaff, willow warbler, black cap and nectar for insects
View Across the Park

As the trees thinned we climbed up and away from the pond. When we came upon to a very old hollow Common Lime (Tilia x europaea), we stopped to explore it a bit.  Experts have found aging this tree rather difficult as the trunk has fragmented.  It could be is 500 to 600 years old with a girth of 7.46m. It could continue as a hollow shell for several hundred years and certainly didn't seem to be in distress.  We paused here for a period of time and had the lunch that we had brought with us.

Once refreshed we continued to the top of the hill.  Once there was a farm up here but it has now long gone. We turned right on to the main track and this followed an obvious route initially through trees before opening out to another splendid view to the north.  Below us we got the first sight of the deer which call Petworth Park their home.  It was rutting season and even at a fair distance we could hear the bellows of the stags wooing the lady deer.  No doubt this is a very important season for male deer and the racks of antlers on show were quite impressive.  Many of the female deer seemed rather uninterested - they were too busy browsing and getting enough calories inside them for the winter months ahead. In fact we were so busy watching the deer that we didn't pay attention to the route and missed the opportunity to walk to the top of Monument Hill.  Perhaps we will do that another time?  I have a hunch that this would be a tremendous walk for a summer's evening.

After walking along the largely level track for some time and enjoying our vantage point for the deer below I suddenly became aware that we were approaching the car park once again and took a turn to the right to follow the line of trees that lead down to our car.  By now we were joined by other families out for a stroll and the half hour or so we had to ourselves was over.  Despite the lovely sun and the undoubted popularity of the park we did well to have solitude for that long.  I have no doubt we'll be back - that summer's evening is beckoning!