May Hill is blessed with the warmth and moisture required for healthy tree growth. We are lucky to have such a range of trees to enhance our local landscape. Some of the more noteworthy trees are described below - but they are best appreciated in situ - I hope this description encourages people to search for them and enjoy their beauty!
The history of these trees has been documented by Russ Green in his short history of May Hill compiled to mark the Millennium in 2000 and updated for HM’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. Most of the taller trees were planted to mark Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887. Longhope Parish Council raised the money and planted and fenced as many Corsican Pine as they could afford. One story is that one acre was planted with over 2000 trees - another that the number planted were “as many as the Queen’s Horse”. There are now reputed to be no more than 99 trees – try counting them yourself !! (there are more, but as these older trees continue to succumb to old age ( 5 in the gales of early 2020) the magical number may soon be a fact!) Amongst the Corsican Pine you will also find a few Scots pine, beech and sycamore.
These trees were not, however, the first on top of the Hill. There is said to be an engraving of Thomas Foley of Newent of ca 1800 which shows a distinct clump of trees at the top and the late Mabel Beech, a font of knowledge of the Dean area, noted that in “The Diary of a Cotswold Parson”, the Rev F.E. Witts writing about August 26th 1820 has this to say about his approach to the Hill “.....in front, May Hill, a conspicuous round topped hill distinguished by a plantation on the summit”. Isaac Taylor's map of Gloucestershire (1777) shows the ring at the top with trees and reference has been made to 2 Scots Pine said to be ca 100 years old at the time of enclosure (1873). The 1840 tithe map depicts "the firs" in a circle at the top of the hill, so the trees were clearly conifers (trendy at the time! - the first conifers known to be planted in the Dean in 1781 were Weymouth Pine brought from the eastern USA - the May Hill trees may have been planted before these). The remnants of conifer trees still existed by the end of the nineteenth century - a reference to a photo of an Edward Bliss taken in the 1880's stated there were only 4 small trees, but a map from 1883/4 prepared for the sale of the land clearly names "the firs" and depicts many trees. In addition, a few years later their outline was said to resemble a ploughman and his team and was known to John Masefield who regularly saw May Hill from the Ledbury-Gloucester road and who described them in his poem “The Everlasting Mercy”.
The ploughman patient on the hill
Forever there, forever still,
Ploughing the hill with steady yoke
Of pine-trees lightning-struck and broke.
I've marked the May Hill ploughman stay
There on his hill, day after day
Driving his team against the sky,
While men and women live and die.
Amazingly, there is still one Scots Pine of the previous generation remaining on the south-west side of the plantation – although it lost all its limbs except for one in an ice storm early in 2012.
The planting of pines was probably related to the drovers who passed this way and used the top of May Hill for overnight grazing ( whilst they no doubt sampled the delights of the White Horse Inn near Bearfoot wood!). They would often plant a clump of pine trees ( which were relatively unusual in the landscape) to mark a site offering overnight grazing for their stock.
Younger pines were planted around the Corsican Pine in four blocks. The Parish Council planted some, the May Hill Preservation Society planted some for HM Queen Elizabeth’s silver jubilee, and another batch was planted for HM Queen Mother’s 80th birthday. These trees are predominantly Scots Pine - they are tolerant of exposure and long lived, but are slower growing than Corsican Pine and are still substantially shorter than the older trees they surround.
Many of the pines, both older and younger, are now being affected by red band needle blight (Dothistroma septosporum ). In the older trees this has caused substantial thinning of the canopy and this will affect their ability to withstand adverse conditions. The younger trees are more tolerant, being predominantly Scots pine, but until 2013 they had not been thinned and so a number of the suppressed trees had died or were in very poor condition. Regular thinning should maintain air flow through the trees and assist in lessening the impact of the disease.
Perry pear trees are very important in the landscape around May Hill. There is a traditional saying that all the best perry is made within sight of May Hill. Those who have ever tried eating a perry pear, and suffered its bitter astringent tannin taste, will appreciate the myth surrounding this assertion.......
A giant was climbing up May Hill one day in autumn and passed a perry pear tree, so he put a couple in his pocket to eat later. When he got to the top he was over-awed by the view, and gazing around he fished a pear out of his pocket and took a bite. PWAH! He spat out the offending fruit – and the pips were spread over the surrounding countryside – to ultimately grow into trees.
Perry pears are thought to be derived from crosses between the native pear and a domesticated pear introduced by the Normans. The trees don’t start producing pears for a few decades, but then continue producing well beyond 100 years, and many in this area are considered to be two hundred years or more old, which are magnificent specimens. There are said to be over 100 varieties of perry pear with more than 200 names in Gloucestershire alone (the same variety can be known by a different name within a few miles!!) One of the most notable very old local varieties is the Taynton Squash – renowned for making a medium flavourful perry considered to rival champagne. Perry was particularly popular in the 18th and early 19th century when wine imports were restricted, and huge quantities were shipped from our area to London and Bristol.
Go and admire the splendid lone perry pear tree by the side of the Gloucestershire Way in the heart of the village, south of the Chapel. Or marvel at the line of huge pear trees on Glasshouse Hill – these are the uncommon Flakey Bark variety, known only from half a dozen sites. Once you can recognise the tall distinctive shape of perry pear trees you will see many all around May Hill. And later in the day, don’t neglect to toast the beauty of May Hill with a glass of perry!!
The Glasshouse Yews
After the pines on top of the hill, the best known trees on May Hill are the yews at Glasshouse. There are three yews, but most people only notice two - the “small house” in the garden of Glasshouse Villa and the “bower” in front of the Glasshouse (or bus-shelter as it is referred to in the pub!). These are great examples of the art of topiary.
Topiary is an ancient art, first referred to in the Latin writings of Pliny the elder who credited Gnaius Mattius, a friend of Emperor Augustus (38BC-14AD) with developing the process as part of ornamental gardening. Although the Romans in Britain practised the art, the trend really took off in the late 1580s and there was another upsurge in popularity in Victorian times. To achieve and maintain this standard of clipping is a skilled and long-term undertaking. Although yew is naturally a squat spreading tree, it is particularly amenable to topiary - its needles are clustered densely on the branches and the foliage grows thickly after clipping. The leaves and fruit of yew are very poisonous to man and stock, but places with a number of topiary yew are able to sell the clippings for medicinal purposes. Chemicals called taxyols are extracted from the needles and used in the treatment of breast cancer.
Yew are very long lived. Some topiary yew at Levens Hall near Kendal have been clipped continuously since 1689. The Glasshouse yews are much more recent than this. These are all mere youngsters compared with the real veteran yew to be found in the churchyard at Much Marcle. This magnificent tree is probably well over 1000 years old.
By far the best way to appreciate this combination of nature and art at the Glasshouse is to sit in the shade of the bower with a cold drink on a hot summer day - try it and see!!
The Venerable Oak
May Hill falls within five parishes, and those following the parish boundaries will know there are some interesting trees along the way. The reason is that in the past, trees were used as ideal boundary markers - highly visible and long lasting. An example close to the village illustrates this admirably.
Take a stroll down from the village hall to the scout camp and admire the line of oaks alongside the camping field. These oaks mark the boundary between Taynton and Huntley Parishes and were possibly deliberately planted for this purpose. One tree has been clearly pollarded - in the past the tree was lopped about twelve feet above the ground and all the branches have regrown at this height. This method of tree management was commonly used to encourage the production of a sustainable supply of smaller dimension branches above the browse height of stock. These were easier to utilise and transport than large logs. The resulting trees are then very distinctive. There is a notable large pollarded small leaved lime by the quarry on the west side of May Hill. The trees weren’t always pollarded, though - another boundary tree marker is the large oak on the roadside on the south-west of the hill which marks the county boundary between Gloucestershire and Herefordshire.
Back on the boundary by the camping field are some remants of elm – there are a few others in the woods below. Dutch Elm Disease inflicted a great loss to the English countryside and most elm are now seen as young suckers - as they grow, the saplings succumb to the disease again at an early age.
However, in the line of trees close to the camping barn, pride of place is taken by “the Venerable Oak”. This tree is probably well over 300 years old - and may be the oldest living thing on May Hill. A large veteran oak such as this is undoubtedly host to a myriad of other organisms - fungi, lichens, insects, birds and bats - and as it continues to age, even as its health declines, its value for wildlife will continue to increase. The tree is typical of the English Oak – it has a large spreading crown and its leaves have no stems and the acorns have long stalks. This reinforces its planted origin – the natural oak found hereabouts is predominantly the sessile oak – which is now much rarer here than its widely planted relative (but they do hybridise, just to complicate things!!). What changes this tree must have seen during its long residence on the Hill!!
On the Western Side of May Hill is another large oak tree. The Yartleton Oak, which grows in the grounds quite close to the house of the same name, does not appear to mark a current or historic boundary. Regrettably, this fine tree suffered collapse of its upper branches earlier in the millennium and required drastic surgery. Some of the timber was used by the Dean Oak Co-operative to make trinkets etc. As the image shows, some twenty years on the tree appears to be thriving.
The Graffiti Beeches
Beech is a distinctive tree which is considered to be within (but close to the boundary of) its natural range here. Although it grows well, big trees are not common on May Hill. Beech casts a deep shade which suppresses most understorey vegetation - apart from bluebells which grow well and flower before the dense canopy forms each year. The trees have smooth thin bark which renders them susceptible to squirrel damage, sun scorch and graffiti.....
Grey squirrels, introduced from the USA, have a dramatic impact on thin barked species such as beech. During early summer the males strip bark from the trees, apparently for territorial display rather than food. You can often find beech disfigured by squirrels close to the ground - it is less easy to see damage to branches in the canopy until they die and/or snap off. In recent years, planting of beech has declined due to the ravages of squirrels.
Beech is also susceptible to drought. The most recent dry summer in 1995 caused a dramatic reduction in growth in beech, and the trees took some years to recover their rate of growth. A drought year such as occurred in 1976 is much more serious, and many beech simply die. Predictions of climate change suggest southern Britain being unsuitable for beech by 2041.
Two beech on the Hill are distinctive because of attacks from pocket knives!!! The posh term for the results are arborglyphs !! One is to be found on the NE side of the Hill in the National Trust woodland adjacent to May Hill common. It sits proud in the middle of an area of chestnut coppice. Rumour has it the young men of the village carved their initials on it prior to departing for the war (the initials RJ, IJ, AB, KB, JB, HH, RH, NP, BP, ES, and JL are to be found). Someone also added a creditable image of Popeye - now becoming less clear as the bark grows around the carving.
Another landmark beech is found at the bottom of Bearfoot wood along the bridleway from the water tank. This tree stands at the junction of six tracks - it must have been a distinctive marker here for over a century. Apart from PH and RF, someone has enigmatically labelled it the Nipple Tree! At the other side of the tree a clear image of Chad indicates wartime carving. There is another beech similar in size to these trees hidden deep in the woods below. This one escaped the taggers of an age when every lad had not a mobile phone, but a knife in his pocket!!
The Cathedral on the Hill
Some may be aware of a cathedral planted on the Hill, but few have seen it for it was designed to be viewed from aircraft. The cathedral is a memorial to Flying Officer David Ackers, the only son of Major CP Ackers, the owner of Huntley estate at the time. David was killed in action in 1944 when aged only 22 and the memorial planting was designed in his memory.
Trees were planted in a full scale layout of Gloucester cathedral in Bearfoot wood - directly between the water tank and the top of the hill. Dr Cyril Hart, Senior Verderer for the Forest of Dean, was agent for the estate at the time, and he used a diagram of the cathedral to derive a scaled up planting layout. The outline was pegged out on the hillside in autumn 1946 - the whole scheme being 440 feet long and 200 feet across.
The first trees to be planted were Californian Redwood in autumn 1946. These were planted around the outline of the walls in three rows at ten feet spacing. The following spring, Lawsons cypress were planted at five feet spacing in three rows around the Redwood, and 32 Wellingtonia were also planted at corner points and between, 18 feet apart. The matrix of the whole design was filled with European Larch, planted at five feet spacing. Unfortunately, most of the Wellingtonia failed, and so 17 replacements were planted in spring of 1954.
An oblique aerial photograph, probably taken in the late 1950’s, clearly shows the outline of the planting, with the Lawsons cypress appearing to be most successfully established. Since then, the stand of trees has been thinned, which has had an impact on the outline. Some of the continuity of the rows has been interrupted, and the Californian Redwood which have been thinned have sprouted coppice growth and made looking through the plantation difficult. Today, flying over the wood in summer it is not possible to discern the layout, although it can just be identified on the aerial images on Google Earth/Maps. It is hard to appreciate the project from the ground, although the space of the cathedral can be appreciated inside the cypress. However, when you see these trees from the regular track up the hill you will be able to note this landmark on the hill - even if you are not best able to appreciate it.
The Lime of Brights Hill
On the western side of Bright’s Hill, below Plantation Cottage, is a huge lime tree towering over the conifer plantation. This is a common lime – a naturally occurring hybrid between the native large and small leaved limes – identified by the sprouts emanating from the base of the tree. Lime trees, also known as Linden trees, were fashionable for planting in the 18th and 19th centuries – often in avenues (one lime avenue in Clumber Park is two miles long!). They are amongst the largest broadleaved trees in Britain growing to over 40m – this specimen is 27m tall and is far taller than the surrounding woodland, but its potential height has been affected by apparently being pollarded years ago at about 5m above the ground. Its substantial girth of 5.8m would suggest it was planted ca 230 years ago ( it is significant that the first edition of the OS map in 1831 and the 1840 tithe map show this area having the names The Plantation and The Park). Lime had many uses – its stringy inner bark was used for ropes and mats and is known as bass or bast ( in USA limes are known as basswood). The timber was sought after for speciality uses – eg piano keys and it is renowned for wood carving – in the 17th Century Grinling Gibbons carved his detailed masterpieces out of lime. The charcoal was considered the best for producing artists’ charcoal. Close by the tree is a dipwell, now overgrown, which would have supplied the occupants of Plantation Cottage with their water before a piped supply arrived in the 1960’s.
The Giants of Home Farm
Alongside the footpath below Home Farm are two wonderful trees – a sweet chestnut and a field maple. The size of these indicates they were planted over a century ago – they possibly date from 1862 when Huntley Manor was built – and maybe were part of landscaping the grounds.
There are many sweet chestnuts around the Hill – they grow well and were usually planted not for their delicious nuts, but because of their timber. Chestnut has three desirable properties – it coppices very readily, it cleaves very easily and it is naturally durable. These features are why it is commonly used in wire and paling fencing – Huntley estate used to have its own machine to manufacture this type of fence. But the large mature timber is also useful - it was sometimes used as a substitute for oak in beams for building. This specimen has the typical bark of this species – but the tree has clearly seen better days - large branches have now died – but parts of the tree are still quite healthy, so it is hoped it will survive yet for some time.
The field maple which is growing alongside the chestnut is of a quite remarkable size for this species. Field maple is a native tree that is found quite commonly in hedgerows, but rarely attains much stature and is often overlooked. Field Maple is unusual for a maple in that it does not develop good autumn colours. The wood has fine grain and was used for wood-turning, carving and for making musical instruments, particularly harps. The sap, like all maples, can be used to make maple syrup – although there are no signs that anyone has attempted this with this tree!
The conifers of Newent Woods
Newent woods were traditionally used for charcoal production – there are still many old charcoal hearths to be found throughout the woods. In common with many woodlands in Britain, however, they suffered because of the desperate need for timber during the two world wars which meant many trees were felled. The woods were carefully replanted due to the diligent management of the owner of Huntley Estate, Major Ackers, who was a very knowledgeable and dedicated forester ( e.g. he became Chairman of the Royal Forestry Society ). His philosophy was to create attractive woodlands which were also economically viable. As well as planting oak and chestnut, he planted many species of conifers - including Douglas Fir, Norway Spruce, Western Hemlock, Western Red Cedar, and larch. These have been continually managed ever since. Major Ackers’ daughter, Torill Freeman, has continued the tradition of carefully managing the woods. Today, many of the trees planted by Major Ackers have matured and now been felled, and the sites replanted. There are, however, a few older conifers left which are now magnificent specimens.
In the gully in the heart of the woods known as Jacobs Ladder, situated on the side of the stream and between the stoned road and the public footpath, is a magnificent Sitka Spruce. This species is very common further west in Wales, but the rainfall in this part of Gloucestershire is considered to be marginal for the species. The tree has attracted a poor reputation because it is usually grown in large dark plantations which are rarely thinned, and the trees are felled quite early. The location of this particular tree, however, enhances its stature and it was retained when the surrounding trees were felled recently.
Throughout the woods are various areas of Californian Redwood. Major Ackers was very fond of this tree - he had purchased the oldest and largest stand of Redwoods in Britain in 1931 ( at Leighton, in Powys) and subsequently gifted it to the Royal Forestry Society in 1958. In Newent Woods, his plantings are now some of the finest Redwood stands in England. The species is distinguished by its thick spongy red bark and superb height. It is also unusual in being the only conifer that coppices - this means that between the trees the tree stumps from smaller trees that have been thinned out often sprout young stems. The easiest place to admire these Redwoods is by the footpath which heads up into the woods just south of Cliffords Mesne ( now part of the Greenway network of tracks) – go there and imagine you are in California!!!