The day was organised by the Chiltern Box Woodland Project which is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and was designed to illustrate how volunteers, woodland owners and organisations have worked with the project to discover a rich Box heritage in the Chilterns that had fallen into obscurity. The event took place near Wendover in Buckinghamshire at Halton House which is the home to RAF Officers Mess. Commissioned by Alfred Rothschild, Halton House was completed in 1883 and for the next 30 years was the venue for Alfred’s dazzling weekend house parties, attracting the cream of British society, including stars of the theatre and even Royalty. When Alfred died in 1918, the House was acquired by the fledgling Royal Air Force and, for the past 90 years, has served as the Officers’ Mess for Royal Air Force Halton.
After a welcome by Heather Barrett-Mold, Chilterns Conservation Board Member, the story of how the project came about and it’s aims were explained by Project Officer Sarah Wright. The aims include the propagation seedlings for future box woodlands – something they have done in conjunction with the National Trust, also to trace the history of boxwood objects in archives and to carry out surveys of ancient trees and wildlife, something they have achieved with the help of local volunteers.
After hearing about the successes of the project as it draws to the end of it’s three years of funding, Dr Martin Bridges of Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory gave a talk on how dendrochronology is now being used to work out how old some of the boxwood in the Chilterns is. Dendrochronology uses the rings produced when trees grow to work out the age of the specimen, this is not quite as simple as just counting the rings, but looks for patterns in the rings that point to specific events that affect the growth of the plants – draught, storms etc. The project have given him some samples to study and the initial results are beginning to come through.
Next it was time to get out into the Wendover Woods to learn more about the ecology & history of box in the Chilterns. Sarah lead the tour with the assistance of Colin Bradley one of Forestry Commission rangers. Blight has begun to affect the wild boxwood in the Chilterns so in conjunction with the Forestry Commission the project has tried a number of techniques for removing and burning on site blight affected growth to see if this can help stem the spread. Being open to the public means there is free movement in the woods so the blight spores are moved around the woods on visitors boots and clothes. However when the team work in an area they are careful to disinfect clothing and shows so that they don’t contribute to it’s spread.
Returning to RAF Halton we were given lunch and a chance to look at an exhibition of boxwood items and information. These included boxwood that had been prepared into blocks for printing by Chris Daunt who later gave a lecture on how he uses box to produce his prints. In the talk Chris explained the history of how boxwood and particularly English boxwood had allowed printers to included images in there productions without the cost and inflexibility that was associated with copper plates. However its use is almost certainly what has contributed to the massive reduction in plants around the country having been cut down for printing. He also talked about Thomas Bewick and the influence he had on boxwood engravings. As well as using boxwood for printing Stuart King had set-up a display of items that had been turned from the wood demonstrating the detail and strength it can provide in an object.
Sarah & Colin explain the ecology and history of the Wendover Woods
An example of boxwood seedlings self seeding
An example of how the wild box trees & bushes are being affected by blight
Sarah points out how having cut back the blight affected areas of some of the large box trees they are now starting to regrow
Another example of re-growth after the removal of affected branches
The ‘Champion’ Box tree which is the oldest tree they have found to date (based on stem thickness)
Box seedlings growing up from under the shade of a fallen tree and making use of the added light from the gap in the canopy
Chris Trimmer of the National Trust had brought along some examples of how the Trust grew cuttings collected from wild Chiltern box. He also gave a presentation on the work of the Trusts Plant Conservation Centre and how they ensure that specimens are safely with no contamination so that stocks can be built up over time of near extinct plants.
Also during the afternoon Jane Booth (woodwind) and John Irving (harpsichord) gave a recital using two woodwind instruments made from boxwood the first a Baroque Clarinet & the second a Bass Chalumeau.
To round off the day Julie Hopton talked about the work that the project has done with schools by putting together an activity pack which is available to schools to use for free.
Sarah brought the day to a close by looking at the next steps for the project and asking the 40 or so people who attended the session what they would like to see achieved next.
EBTS UK would like to thank the Chiltern Boxwood Heritage Project for inviting us to attend and look forward to working to further the knowledge of boxwood in the Chilterns and across the UK.