Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Sheffield Gardens and Giants

Wednesday, May 18
     Sheffield Park Gardens is one of many parks held by the National Trust, similar to National Parks in the United States. Originally the gardens were part of the Sheffield estate. Today the manor house at the edge of the gardens is still privately owned, but the grounds have been conveyed to and are maintained by the National Trust. They are open for the public to enjoy. The extensive gardens include an incredible variety of plantings that include hundreds and hundreds of rhododendrons of all shades growing in clusters twenty to thirty feet tall along the banks of four lakes. I was startled to discover giant redwood trees! Here is a fascinating connection between the Sheffield Park Gardens and Calaveras County in California.
     In 1853, William Lobb, a salaried "plant hunter" for the Veitch Nurseries in England, was in San Francisco, California, attending a meeting of the newly formed California Academy of Sciences when the Academy’s founder, Dr. Albert Kellogg, introduced a woodsman who had been hunting in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains for game to supply a canal-digging crew. He had shot and wounded a grizzly bear, and while tracking it had discovered a grove of trees that were enormous beyond all belief. The hunter was astounded, and abandoning his pursuit of the bear hurried back to camp with his tale, where he was derided and even accused of drunkenness when he recounted his experience in the forest of giant trees. Luckily the scientific community proved more liberal-minded, and the crowd at the California Academy of Sciences greeted the specimen produced by Dr. Kellogg with excitement.
     The amazing story filled Lobb with the determination to see the remarkable trees in their native habitat, but his hurried flight to the Sierra foothills was largely fueled by thoughts of riches. He knew these "monster trees" would trigger an equally enormous craze in British horticultural circles, and he was determined to provide the owners of the Veitch Nurseries with the plant material needed to corner the market.
     Reaching the grove in Calaveras County, he collected seed, shoots, and seedlings. In fewer than two years’ time these would give rise to thousands of saplings, snatched up by wealthy Victorians to adorn great British estates. The larger-than-life conifer, so symbolic of the vast American wilderness, suddenly became a status symbol, rising boldly from expensive and highly groomed landscapes an ocean away.
In England it was proposed to name the newly discovered species "Wellingtonia" in honor of the Duke of Wellington who had died recently. The name was rejected however, when it was determined that there already was a completely unrelated plant that already had that name, and the botanical name of Sequoiadendron Gigantea was assigned to acknowledge the biological connection to the coast redwood, Sequoia Sempervirens. In England, however, these giant redwoods are still referred to as "Wellingtonia", and the specimens in Sheffield Park Gardens, more than 150 years old now have massive trunks almost 40 feet in circumference.
     We ate dinner at the Mark Cross Inn in the village of Mark Cross, Crowborough before calling it a full day and heading back to Heathfield.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Chalk Figures, the White Cliffs, and a Stroll at Eastbourne

Tuesday, May 17
            The South Downs National Park, covering 628 square miles and stretching a hundred miles from Beachy Head west all the way to Winchester is England's newest, having been officially opened on April 1, 2011.
            From Heathfield we drove to the Cuckmere Valley along country roads. As we approached the ocean I began to notice that most of the stone in the buildings we passed and in the  numerous walls along the roads was flint. I picked up a few pieces of flint and put them in my pocket so that I could try making sparks by striking them with a piece of steel.

Driving through the rolling hills near the village of Wilmington we came on an amazing sight, the white chalk figure of a long man over 200 feet tall etched into the green grass slopes of Windover Hill. Although various archeological studies may disagree on its age it surely dates back at least as far as the 1500's.

A few miles farther we spotted another hillside chalk figure, The White Horse of Litlington. This one is relatively recent. Created in the 1920's, it was painted over with green paint during World War II, as was the Long Man, to prevent these landmarks being used as navigation waypoints by German bombers. Both were scrubbed clean again in 1945.

We parked in a public wayside to hike across the across flat land meadows that lie on either side of the winding oxbow Cuckmere River. It was only a mile or two past flocks of sheep grazing in fields of bright yellow buttercups to the shingle beach at the mouth of the river where the waves coming off the English Channel made a faintly rumbling sound as they crashed on the shore. Three sturdy looking stone houses with white walls perched on the cliffs on the right, and off to the left were towering chalk cliffs of "The Seven Sisters", seven headlands in the chalk cliffs which plunge dramatically from high bluffs straight into the sea.

By the time we had returned to the car along the winding banks of the Cuckmere we had worked up quite an appetite. It was only a few minutes drive to the Beachy Head Pub. We ate and sipped a pint by the windows that overlooked the expanse of the Cuckmere Valley and the chalk cliffs all the way to Beachy Head itself.
Comfortably refueled, we proceeded down to the seaside resort town of Eastbourne, where we found blocks and blocks of walkways paralleling the beach. Next to the paths were rows of wrought iron benches, all fully occupied with people, young and old, all bundled against the slightly chilly air, chatting with each other or just sitting and soaking up a bit of welcome afternoon sunshine.
The Eastbourne Pier is a magnificent, anachronistic Victorian construction that juts out nine hundred feet over the grey water. It is everything you would imagine: electronic arcades with strange machines, a tea room, souvenir shops, a restaurant, and a fishing venue at the very end. there were only two hardy fishermen huddled against the wind and hopefully watching their lines, but no evidence of any catch they could take home with them at the end of the day. The west side of the pier buffeted by the gusty winds off the channel was empty but we saw a few people sunning themselves on the other side, sheltered by the buildings that stretched along the center.