Knole Park January 2020

knole park

An intrepid bunch of U3A nature lovers managed to slip in between two stormy ridges of very low pressure to spend a relatively calm morning walking around Knole Park. The aim was an "orienteering" experience to discover how to plot compass positions simply by looking at trees. Since trees generally remain standing whatever the weather, we went for it!

Knole Park - the 1000 acres of parkland surrounding Knole House - was first enclosed in the 1400s.  The house was built in 1456 by the Sackville Family and originally housed the Archbishop of Canterbury. Of course Henry 8th was there too - he pops up everywhere in this area - and used it as a hunting lodge in 1538. Now run by the National Trust, the building is known as a "calendar house" as it consists of 365 rooms, 52 staircases and 7 courtyards. The parkland is famous for its herd of fallow deer and the smaller, shyer Sika deer who are more likely to be seen during the evening and early mornings (although one later joined our group!). The park lost 70% of its trees in 1987, although it is looking good again now and many young trees have been planted and fenced around to stop the deer nibbling.

From an orienteering viewpoint winter is a good time to look at trees because their shapes are so obvious. We immediately spotted examples of "the tick". This is the asymmetrical shape formed by each tree in response to wind, water and sun.

Growth is stronger and more horizontal when facing the sun (south) and branches are thicker and lower. Facing north the branches tend to grow more vertically as they aim for the light.This creates a fuller look on one side and a more upright look on the other.  Sometimes it is quite subtle, but if you look carefully you can be sure that the stronger lower branches are facing south/south west and towards the prevailing wind and sunshine. Equally, moisture-loving moss will grow on the north side of a tree trunk as water evaporates on the sunny side. We saw many examples of this.

Outside the front of the house is a 200 year old sycamore, now protected. These trees can live for 400 years. We walked along the Sweet Chestnut and Beech Walk where we also saw English and sessile oaks. We all know the familiar rounded shape of an English oak - a sessile oak is much taller and thinner with smaller oak leaves. Apparently one of the tallest in the UK can be found at Knole. The roots of an oak tree are between 2-3 times the width of the crown! An amazing thought when you imagine them spreading out under your feet. A number of oaks and chestnuts were disfigured by wart-like growths called "burrs" caused by previous injury or pest invasion. These burrs are much sought after as they sculpt beautifully into grainy bowls. They certainly give trees character.


We had a method for measuring oak trees with a simple piece of string and discovered two isolated, heavily decayed, trees at least 600 years old so they would have been saplings when the house was built and Henry 4th was on the throne! What a tale they could tell. Trees grow bigger and stronger if they are lone as they build "muscles" to keep them upright in the wind. We are all aware of the surprising sight of seemingly random fallen trees hiding in the middle of a wood. This is because they are generally tall (seeking the light) and spindly (as being surrounded by other trees they have not built big muscles) - so when a strong gust of wind cuts a swathe through the wood, down they go - usually pointing North.East!

Our route was very wet and muddy so it was no surprise to see whole areas of grass thick with star moss. Dead bracken broke the green with a splash of burnt orange - bracken has "branches" and grows well generally in the light; ferns form frond -like fingers of leaves and enjoy a wet environment. Along the way we spotted tree creeper, goldcrest and a beautiful green woodpecker - pecking away in the sandy soil. As we walked along a line of coppiced hazel, sporting early catkins, we were joined by a cheeky sika!

Trees can tell us so many things. If you find yourself lost in a wood at a join in the path where holly is growing, take the route where the holly is most prickly as these prickles are formed in response to the stress of people and animals passing so this will be the most frequently used track which will hopefully lead somewhere useful. Orienteering through our landscape is a big subject, one that we only touched on at Knole - lakes, rivers, woods, hillsides all have their story to tell and can be signposts to the past and present - but that is all for another day.  

As forecast on the BBC weather app - at precisely 12 noon heavy winds brought rain and the next stormy patch, so we scurried back into 2020 and the café for warmth and refreshment.