Wivenhoe Park Cork

Outside Wivenhoe Park

Here at Thorogood, we travel the whole world to bring you the absolute best timber we can get our grubby mitts on, but it isn’t just our timber buyers who rove far and wide. This intrepid reporter has made it all the way to deepest, darkest Colchester (some three miles away!) to bring you the fascinating tale of the trees in the gardens of Wivenhoe House, an 18th century stately home that sits in the grounds of The University of Essex.

Over the course of five articles, we’ll be exploring the tree collection of this country pile, which together provide a fascinating insight into not only some interesting and unusual trees but also the social history of Great Britain. Aided by the lovely Sarah Manning, resident tree expert in the University’s estates department, we’ll see how the trees planted in the house’s grounds tell the story of this country from the earliest days of the house’s life in the 1760’s, through to the modern day. So, without further ado, let us take a look at some of the most impressive trees in the grounds of the house…

The Cork Oaks

Cork oaks are members of the oak family with some special adaptations that allow them to flourish in areas prone to wildfires. Found across the Mediterranean, from Spain to North Africa, the cork oak’s thick bark handily insulates it against the raging heat of a forest fire.

In the cork oak the cambium layer, the thin band of living tissue that sits beneath the dead bark and the nutrient-rich sapwood beneath, is unusually large and rich in a chemical called suberin. This thick cambium, sometimes 4-5 inches deep, has some extraordinary properties of water resistance and compressive strength and finds widespread use in a number of industries. But, if we are being honest with ourselves, the one that we are most familiar with is on bottles of wine – the fact that cork from these incredible trees is used in compression joints in thrust-vectored solid rocket motor nozzles is probably new to you (Full disclosure, I copy and pasted this bit and I have no idea what it means either, but it sounds impressive, right?).

Cork can only be harvested by hand, using the same tools and techniques that people have been using for hundreds, if not thousands, of years – it’s a completely sustainable technique which doesn’t harm the tree when done properly, making proper cork corks by far the most environmentally friendly way to stopper a bottle.

There are two very mature examples of these trees in Wivenhoe Park and their sprawling trunks and reptilian, heavily textured bark is instantly recognisable as something alien, something definitively not of this place.

So how did these amazing specimens end up here?

Well the house’s second owner, General Francis Slater Rebow, served in the Peninsular campaign in Spain and Portugal, helping to beat back Napoleon’s forces and secure freedom for the people of Iberia. Men like Rebow spent long years in the hot Mediterranean sun, developing a taste for some truly exotic delicacies that made their way back to the cold and windy shores of Britain.

Sherry and Port, which were well known in the UK amongst the rarified circles of the upper classes, became favoured tipples among the rank and file who had served. There is actually some evidence to suggest that even mayonnaise became known for the first time among Brits because of Napoleon’s meddling!

This was long before the days of straw donkeys and kiss me quick t-shirts, so instead of normal tourist tat Rebow bought back two unusual cuttings.

Inline with the Georgian mania for collecting the strange and unfamiliar, especially when it came to plants and animals, Rebow had bought back (secreted in his riding boots) a pair of young cork oaks. He had them planted in the grounds and with careful tending, in time they became mature and established trees: which probably served as a memento to the General of the years he had spent fighting the French and Spanish with the household brigade in Portugal where they were a common sight.

Rebow distinguished himself in the war but is perhaps best known for the connection he had with one of this area’s other famous sons, John Constable. Rebow had been a friend of Constable’s father and was one of the fledgeling artist’s earliest patrons, commissioning from him a pair of paintings, which prominently feature the trees in the grounds of his properties in Arlesford and Wivenhoe Park.

It’s funny that sometimes even the most unassuming things have an incredible story behind them.

Just like Rebow must have walked past those oaks all the time and, thinking back to his days with the household brigade, remembered campaigning in Iberia.

Whilst you may not have a sprawling country pile where you can plant enormous trees, or be connected to one of the most famous artists in the history of British art, it’s true that a piece of furniture or an item in your home can bring back memories of an important time in your life. Sometimes that’s an older piece of furniture that belonged to a loved one, but it could also be a newly commissioned piece – sometimes a bit of beautiful natural timber can just speak to you, so why not come in and see if any of our milled timber speaks to you?

Blog | 5 years AGO