Secretary, Wokingham A Guided Tour of Trees in Windsor Great Park

17th June 2007

It was not at all what I had expected.

I had imagined having a conducted tour of the park I knew, from many a walk I had made over the years from Blackness Gate. An orderly and tactfully managed park, with one or two tarmac roads crossing it, intersected by quiet, neat footpaths, with views of Virginia Water, the polo ground, the totem pole and the classical ruins. There would, of course, be interesting comments from our guide on especially notable trees – great cedars, lime trees, possibly Herne’s Oak.

But it wasn’t like that at all. It wasn’t even that part of the park! Not even, in the conventional sense of the word, a park at all. The area we visited was all to the west of what I knew, on the far side of the A332 road that takes you from Ascot to Windsor. In all my 43 years in Berkshire I had never visited it before. How different  and how exciting!

Our guide, Bill Cathcart, Superintendant of Windsor Great Park, met us in a large, circular forest clearing. It was the designated car park, but there was no tarmac, no pay and display machines, no painted white lines to indicate where you should park – just a simple space off a sandy lane opposite Cranbourne Gate. It is quite different from one’s standard idea of a car park. And that utter difference, utter unexpectedness, was true of that Sunday morning’s extraordinary experience.

In the Middle Ages there were royal deer forests, of which Windsor Forest was the largest, throughout the land: areas set aside for hunting. Windsor Castle has been a royal residence from Norman times and in recent centuries, much of the original Windsor Great Park has been developed as parkland. However that development did not extend throughout its 4,000 plus acres. The area Bill conducted us through had been left relatively unmanaged until fairly recent times.

Current management is very subtle. The A332 has been quietly hedged. Before that, and I can remember it well, cars would park on its broad grass verges and families would picnic there. Now, but without any ‘NO PICNICKING’ notices, that is no longer possible. Bracken had invaded the woodland beyond. This intrusion is now controlled, not by violent uprooting, but by ‘rolling’ (which breaks the bracken), and grazing by a small herd of long-horned cattle. There are no set paths through the woods at all – you plod over rough grass and, occasionally through brambles. There are no litter bins, and hardly any litter.

The glory, the astonishing glory of the place, is its great trees: living, dying and dead. Huge contortions of oaks with trunks of mighty girth, many of 10 metres and more, with great woody carbuncles, mighty writhing branches. Some trees are green with leaf; some are utterly bare in contorted agony. One huge fallen beech lies in a grassy clearing, overseen by a tall, solemn, twin-trunked survivor. Some of the oaks are at least 1,000 years old.

The grassy clearings between clumps of trees are wide enough to make it possible to see some of the finest specimens as distinct and noble giants – a photographer’s paradise. The mightiest of them are now protected by a circle of nettles or brambles. In an area of about 50 metres diameter round one tree, a sign was discovered commemorating a new plantation – the oldest yet recorded – made in 1585 at the time of a period of continuing sea battles between England and Spain, and the perceived need of a constant supply of oaks for our ships.

Throughout this delightful two-hour summer’s morning tour, our guide gave fascinating, authoritative comments on the history and recent management of the area, answered all our questions, and helped us realise what skilful, but quiet policies now inform the management of this unique area of woodland.

If you have not already visited it, do so now at the earliest opportunity. You will find it a stunning experience.

Ray Stagles   June 2007
Wokingham District Veteran Tree Association