RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Roman roots give our woodlands a regal ring of trees

Chestnut tree at Petworth Park
Chestnut tree at Petworth Park
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There are some mighty trees in Sussex. Which one is king?

Cowdray’s Queen Elizabeth oak at 58ft around its historic shell still has royal sap.

There Her Majesty shot a deer 400 years ago. It was a good size then. It could be 1,000 years old.

Our beech trees across the county have the girths and skins of elephants.

But they grow quickly and hurricanes play dominoes with their height.

Their roots are shallow in the chalk and flints, and in a night the dynasty could be wiped out.

Yew trees then? Their black shadows may have pagan ancestry, as old, some say, as the Romans; even the conquered tribes before the birth of Caesar. Who knows?

I think yews in Sussex are enigmas in age and life. Their history is hollow, their heartwood rotted into black oblivion and, while their heads are evergreen and youthful, they play smoke and mirrors with your thoughts of everlasting life, shaking their clouds of spring pollen in your face like the dust of dreams.

Personally (and you probably won’t agree) I think the sweet chestnut is pretender, if not contender. Look at this giant in Petworth Park.

The trees were majestic a quarter millennium ago. The sand of that dredged Ice Age landscape allows deep penetration for its roots so it can hold like Mayhab to the helm in hurricanes.

The monsters in Bignor Park make humans look like dwarfs. Goodwood too has some giants in the hedgerows around its fields. The Gallops rue of Cowdray northeast of Midhurst are almost unbelievably rich with their timber and the crops of chestnuts they hurl down at your feet in autumn.

Then if you visit Greenhill wood on this week’s walk on the county border near Haslemere, you will find that sweet chestnuts are there, still helping to drive the economy too.

This Wealden woodland is a vast factory of coppiced chestnut planted centuries ago and still harvested. The crops are cut as regularly as wheat.

The posts they produce are used in the county and across the borders for railed fences on road and paddock, in gardens and forests.

I used to work in chestnut forests in my youth, producing posts. I could usually make 100 a day.

First I felled the gun-barrel stems, sawed them into lengths with a cross-cut salmon-bellied saw, then split each length into quarters.

It is a lovely wood to rive. The grain runs straight and long as the hair of a Saxon maiden. The sap smells sweet, the blue tannin oozes like liquid lapis lazuli. You just felt good handling the wood, and tired for the deepest sleep at night.

Pliny said the tree came west from Asia in 504 BC, and then the Romans brought it here to us.

Well done Romans! With your 800 square miles of chestnut forest presently in Italy, your Royal Dynasty continues to this day in England. Veni vidi vici.