As with our work last year, this winter’s work in clearing the laurels has caused a little concern with regular park users. However it is key to understand how the problem has arisen in the first place.
Whilst much of the Kings Weston estate feels very wild it was not always the case. The whole of Penpole Wood and the Home Park were once carefully managed pleasure grounds and were carefully managed and embellished for well over four centuries. Penpole Wood, although partially ancient woodland, was set-out and maintained as part of the gardens to Kings Weston house.
Throughout the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries the Southwell family who owned the estate sought to enhance the promenades and avenues. They sought not only to demonstrate their mastery over nature, and impress visitors with the latest imported trees and shrubs. To enliven the walks in the winter months they sought to introduce verdant colour through the planting of evergreen shrubs as an understorey. As with the selection of exotic tree species they planted both native and imported varieties, and the legacy of what they placed in the ground is very much with us today. Although the laurel now dominates this is the perfect time of year to identify more of the evergreen species that lend colour to the winter landscape and help us understand the design and layout of earlier ornamental planting schemes.
The Cherry Laurel we’re currently removing originally comes from Eastern Europe and Asia. It was used extensively at Kings Weston, and, when planted in the Eighteenth Century, would have been carefully cut and was intended to be maintained at a uniform height and scale. Many historic parklands retain this species, but only very few have the resources and patience to ensure they are trimmed as originally intended. A good example of the effect they would once have had can be gleaned from Newton St Loe, near Bath. Here Bath Spa University continues to manage the Capability Brown designed landscape in the traditional manner. When dealing with the monstrously large cherry laurels at Kings Weston it is difficult to imagine that they grew from such well-mannered shrubberies!
Also surviving within Penpole Wood are a number of Portuguese laurel. They too are an introduced species and would have been inter-planted to give variety of colour and texture with the cherry laurel. These are less invasive, and tend to be more compact, forming small trees with smaller, darker leaves.
Throughout the Georgian and Victorian period native species remained popular for understorey planting. Familiar hedging plants like box and privet can still be found, now growing wild, and interspersed through Penpole Wood, and behind the Echo. They’ve survived less well where out-competed by cherry laurel. Many of the English Yew within Penpole Wood are part of deliberate but long-forgotten planting schemes and have grown into maturing trees rather than the manicured bushes they were intended to form.
The native Butcher’s Broom was also a sought-after evergreen for ornamental planting. An unusual and distinctive plant with sharp spiny leaves and stiff branches it grows to about 2-3 feet in height in dense and well-defined patches. There are several remaining plants along the South Walk between the Echo and The Circle, but it survives less well in other parts of the estate where there has been greater competition for light.
Note also should be made of one other plant which still forms a notable and attractive component of the designed woodland areas: Mock Orange (Philadelphus coronarius). Although not evergreen it deserves mention here as a survival of Georgian and later planting schemes. A native of Southern Europe it is now naturalised in Penpole Wood and formerly flowered in sunny areas with richly scented white blooms. Our recent laurel clearance efforts also focussed attention on pruning a number of these plants along the main path through the woods. These should naturally regenerate into attractive and dense bushes. With the sunlight now able to penetrate into the woods these shrubs should again flower in coming years.
Evergreens will remain an important component of the Kings Weston landscape, though the problems with introduced species, and the decades-long neglect in maintaining them as originally planned, have distorted our perceptions of the woodland. Cherry laurel will continue to grow across the park, but the planters of the once-fashionable shrubs cannot have contemplated the damage they would cause to the landscape in the modern era. Now the dominant plant in many areas of the estate our love-affair with laurel has soured. It is our hope that, in reducing the coverage now, we will enable other species to take their place on the forest floor.