Robert Stayner Holford and family.

Robert Stayner Holford (1808-1892) was colossally rich. He was reckoned to be the richest commoner in Britain. Before we look at the interesting ways that he set about spending his cash, maybe we should see where all that money came from.

We need to go back to 1665 when Richard Holford, a 29-year-old barrister of Lincoln’s Inn, married 16-year-old Sarah Crew who had inherited a small manor house and estate near Tetbury, in Gloucestershire. The couple stayed in London where Richard became Master of Chancery. Mary died young and childless. Richard then married Elizabeth Stayner and children followed.

DSC_0171In due course the estate passed to their son, Robert, and then to his son, Peter. The family had done well from having generations involved in the legal profession and they had acquired a lot of land in the London area. Peter was Governor of The New River Company that dug a canal to carry drinking water from aquifers on the family land into central London where pollution of the Thames meant that clean water was desperately needed. The company made various members of the family a very large fortune.

Peter’s son, George, was the first Holford to take a real interest in the Gloucestershire estate. He replaced the manor house with a much larger property in the Regency style.

Right, we’ve finally reached the central character of this piece because George had a son Robert Stayner Holford; let’s call him RS.

DSC_0158RS kept a family tradition going by graduating from Oxford University with a law degree. He was a well known man-about-town in London. He dressed as a dandy and was well respected as a man of culture with a passion for books, architecture and art.

In 1838, when RS was 30, a bachelor uncle died and left RS a fortune comprising £1m in cash and six estates. According to one website, rumour had it that in the cellar of one of the properties was a wheelbarrow full of gold.

DSC_0155His father died shortly afterwards and RS inherited more London properties, a further dollop of cash and that small Gloucestershire estate. The man with the artistic passions suddenly had the money to indulge those passions – and he did it without stinting. He amassed an astonishing collection of rare books, paintings and engravings. The paintings included work by Rubens, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Botticelli, Tintoretto, Titian and Poussin, but apart from established artists he had an eye for new talent and gave a lot of young artists a boost. He needed somewhere to house the books and artworks that he was acquiring.

Among the properties inherited from his uncle was one on Park Lane. RS demolished it and hired architect Louis Vulliamy to build a house that would break the existing moulds for London. The result was Dorchester House, now the site of the Dorchester Hotel, and when in London RS lived there, surrounded by his growing art collection.

DSC_0157But he was spending more and more time in Gloucestershire where he became MP, a magistrate and the High Sheriff of Wiltshire.

RS didn’t marry until he was 46. His wife was 25-year-old Mary Anne Lindsay, a member of another art collecting family, so the collecting gathered pace. Although the Regency house built by his father in Gloucestershire was less than 40 years old, RS demolished it and built a new magnificent house to another Vulliamy design. It took seven years to build and was thought to be the most expensive private house in Victorian England. Together with Dorchester House it provided plenty of space for the collection.

Westonbirt HouseAnyone who knows me, if they’ve got this far, will be wondering why on Earth I’m interested in an obscenely wealthy Victorian art collector – and others may be wondering why the post is dotted with pictures of autumn colour.

DSC_0164Well, our friend RS wasn’t just passionate about art, he was even more passionate about trees – and that makes him interesting in my book.

That small Gloucestershire estate is Westonbirt, now the home of the magnificent National Arboretum, and it’s all down to RS. He came into his wealth when the Victorian enthusiasm for collecting plants and trees was getting underway and he became one of the leading figures in the field (sorry). He financed collecting trips all over the world and threw himself into designing the gardens around the house and then the planting of the 600 acre estate.

RS laid out the arboretum criss-crossed with a network of avenues carefully designed to create stunning vistas, and they were made wide enough to allow RS to take his visitors on carriage rides (with picnics) through his creation.

IMG_1475It’s worth bearing in mind that whereas such a carriage ride now would be an absolute delight, we are talking about a time 150 years ago when most of the trees were tiny saplings. His friends wouldn’t have seen what we see today. They would have received an enthusiastic lecture from RS about what they would see if they returned many years into the future.

Other tree collectors tended to group together trees from the same part of the world, so there would be a Mediterranean grouping, and a Japanese grouping etc, but RS didn’t do that. His artistic eye meant that he was determined to plant in arrangements such that each tree would be displayed to its maximum effect taking into account its size, shape and the colour of the leaves and bark.

The front windows of Westonbirt House look directly at the Old Arboretum. It’s easy to imagine RS sitting there, gazing out at his creation, excitedly making plans and dreaming of how his creation would mature.

IMG_1478A road passes between the house and the arboretum. RS was so keen that his view shouldn’t be interrupted that he paid to have the road lowered to ensure that any passing carriages/carts/riders couldn’t be seen.

He also paid to have the local village moved half-a-mile down the road. It seems that the new cottages were so much better than the old ones that no one objected.

IMG_1487RS had three daughters, who all married into aristocratic familes, and a son, George (1860-1926). From an early age it was clear that George shared his father’s passion for trees and plants: in George’s case it included orchids, in which he became a renowned expert. The two worked together on the continuing development of the gardens and arboretum. The extension of the arboretum across the valley into Silk Wood was George’s scheme. There he created wide avenues with verges and glades planted with ornamental trees, but the time he had available was curtailed when he joined the Army.

From 1888-1892 he was equerry to Prince Albert, Duke of Clarence and members of the Royal Family were frequent visitors to Westonbirt. Albert died in 1892 and George became equerry to Prince Edward. That same year RS died; George inherited and took over responsibility for the house, gardens, arboretum and an extensive orchid collection. His equerry duties and his Army service (including in the Boer War) kept him away a lot, but he extended the arboretum planting and created an Italian garden and water garden at the house.

IMG_1512George remained equerry to Edward until he died as King in 2010 and George was knighted for his services to the Royal Family.

In 1912 Sir George married the recently widowed Susannah Menzies. He was 52, she was 48. They had known each other for years. King George V and Queen Mary were at the wedding.

Sir George continued developing the Westonbirt gardens and arboretum until he died in 1926. He had no children and nearly all of the estate passed to his nephew, the 4th Earl of Morley, son of Sir George’s sister, Margaret.

Westonbirt house was sold and in 1928 it became a boarding school for girls, which still exists. The magnificent buildings still stand in the 210 acre grounds. Occasionally, during the holidays, the school is open to the public and is well worth a visit.

Over the years the Earl sold off the art collection and the properties – all except for the arboretum. He retained ownership of it until he died in 1951 when it passed to his brother the 5th Earl. Not long afterwards the 5th Earl died and his son inherited. Two deaths in quick succession meant that the combined effect of death duties forced the sale of the arboretum to the Forestry Commission.

The FC has maintained it according to the principles established by RS, so the avenues and the approach to planting remain, but many new additions have been introduced. Do you remember the Wollemi pine? In 1994 a very small number of them were found in a narrow gorge in the 500,000-hectare Wollemi National Park in Australia. The tree dates back to the Jurassic period and was believed to be extinct. Westonbirt has a Wollemi pine grown from seed obtained from those Australian trees; a member of the monkey puzzle family, it’s an odd-looking thing.

The arboretum is a wonderful place to visit. There are 15,000 labelled trees, 17 miles of walks, five National Collections (maples, Japanese maples, limes, walnuts and bladdernut), an exhibition hall and an excellent restaurant.

The autumn colour photos were taken during a visit in October.

If you love trees, you’ll love Westonbirt and you’ll join me in raising a glass to Robert Stayner Holford.











Graveyards and the wonderful yew.

Many years ago, when I first learned that yew trees are poisonous I was puzzled about their frequent presence in graveyards. Anyone in a graveyard is either already dead, or visiting the dead; either way it seems unnecessary to be reminded that some things can prove fatal.
The English yew (taxus baccata) is a remarkably poisonous tree. The name means ‘poisonous, bearing red berries’ and it is poisonous to an extent that few trees/plants can match. Leaves, roots, bark, sap and seeds are all deadly. Fifty grams of the leaves would kill you or me. A handful would kill a large horse. It works by stopping the heart.

Yew arils

Yew arils

Strangely, the only part that isn’t poisonous is the soft red flesh of the ‘berries’. I use apostrophes because although they may look like berries from a distance, take a closer look and you’ll see that they have a cup-shaped form with the seed nestling inside the open fleshy structure. They are called arils, rather than berries. The seeds have a very hard skin and pass through the digestive systems of birds to achieve dispersion, but human digestion is made of sterner stuff and will break down the seeds, releasing the poison. So don’t put an aril in your mouth with the intention of eating the fleshy part and spitting out the seed – it isn’t worth the risk. The fleshy bit is watery, vaguely sweet, but with no real flavour.
That may not sound to be promising material for a medicine source, but 1,000 years ago the Persian intellectual Avicenna wrote a medical book that included a yew extract for cardiac treatment and in recent years leaf extracts have been used in the development of cancer drugs, such as Doxetaxol.
When first cut the outer sapwood is white; the inner heartwood is a vibrant red-orange. Both are very strong and springy, but the sapwood is excellent under tension and the heartwood is excellent under compression – which makes a stave cut to have a layer of each the perfect raw material for making a bow. In 1991 the body of a man believed to be 5300 years old was found in the Alps. He carried a yew bow. The skeleton of an extinct species of elephant thought to be 85,000 years old was found at Lehringen in Germany. Within the skeleton was a spear made of yew wood. That spear could have been hurled by a Neanderthal. The oldest piece of worked wood found anywhere in the world is a yew spearhead found in Clacton in 1911 and believed to be 450,000 years old. That pre-dates the true Neanderthals by about 200,000 years. It seems that the benefits of yew wood have been known to us, and our distant cousins, for quite a while. The advantages over other woods must be striking given the poisonous nature of the sap that makes working the wood a hazardous business.
Perhaps the most important characteristic of this remarkable tree is its ability to live for a very long time indeed. There are hundreds of yew trees in Britain more than 500 years old.

The Stoke Gabriel yew.

The Stoke Gabriel yew.

Stoke Gabriel is a village on the River Dart. The current church dates from the 15th century and was built on the site of a much older church that is listed in the Domesday Book of 1086. That listing mentions that alongside the church stood a yew tree that was already ancient in 1086. That tree is still there – and a magnificent sight it is. Modern testing has shown it to be about 1400 years old.
There are a dozen yews in Britain that are more than 1,000 years old. Analytical techniques are constantly improving and that means that the tree thought to be the oldest keeps changing. As of July 2014 the title is held by the tree in St Cynog’s churchyard at Defynnog near Sennybridge, Powys, which is believed to be 5,000 years old. I find it so hard to get my head around the idea of a living thing of that age. It was alive when the first stones were put in place at Stonehenge. It was already 1,000 years old when the Bronze Age began.

A rooted branch.

A rooted branch.

The long life can lead to trees of enormous size: not in height, as it’s rare for a yew to exceed 12 metres high, but in spread. As branches grow away from the central trunk they sag towards the ground. The point where a branch contacts the earth can root into the soil, which gives a boost to the growth of that branch. A single branch can root at several points along its length as it grows longer, so the tree steadily spreads out. The canopy of a yew in the grounds of Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire, a relative youngster of 350 years, now has a circumference of 175 metres.
Like all trees, the yew trunk tends to split when it reaches a great age, and eventually the central core will rot. But unlike other trees, a yew branch from above may grow down into the rotting core, root and feed on the rotting material, producing fresh growth – effectively a re-birth of the tree.
So, there we have a quick look at the properties of the English yew. Is there anything in those properties which could explain the close relationship between the yew tree and graveyards? That close relationship certainly exists.
From the Middle Ages to Victorian times when a new church was built yew trees were usually planted in the surrounding graveyard. There were no set rules, but yews were often planted in pairs, one next to the lychgate and one near the church door. Larger churches may have had more of the trees, perhaps lining both sides of the path from the lychgate to the church door.
An internet search throws up a variety of suggested reasons for this yew/church connection.
It is often commented that the trees are planted because the deadly poisonous nature of the yew will deter livestock from venturing into the churchyard causing damage and nuisance. It’s implied that some instinct in the animals will keep them away, but that clearly isn’t the case – if livestock has such an instinct it’s not strong enough to save lives. Every year horses die from eating yew leaves – and from eating ragwort. It’s more likely that farmers seeking to keep their animals well away would ensure that the wall/fence around the graveyard was well-maintained. But churches in towns also had their yew trees, with no farm livestock around. The yew by the lychgate often overhangs the wall and is well within reach of passing horses that are being ridden or drawing carts/carriages. To me the poison hazard feels more of a liability than a security measure.
The fact that yew is the perfect wood for bows throws up a couple of somewhat contradictory suggestions. Firstly, that yew trees were planted in graveyards as they thrived on corpses and were then readily available to make excellent bows for the King’s armies. Secondly, that yew trees were planted in churchyards (where they were protected) to prevent local archers from procuring suitable branches for making bows and thus having good weapons to oppose the King’s men.
Anyone fancy either of those? No, nor me. When the yew longbow made English and Welsh archers the battle-winning component of Henry’s army he quickly realised that there wouldn’t be enough yew trees to meet demand and imported huge quantities of yew staves from Spain and Northern Europe. He wasn’t going to wait 100 years for newly-planted trees to grow. At one stage all ships bringing cargo into this country had to pay an import toll, not in cash, but in the form of ten bow staves.
It is suggested that some of the yew qualities have particular resonance with the tenets of Christianity. In particular, the red and white colour of the freshly-cut wood represent the blood and body of Christ, and the ability of the yew to regenerate from its dying central core represents the death and resurrection.
I don’t think it can be that straightforward.
The tree in the Stoke Gabriel churchyard is considerably older than the original church. It grows in the middle of the churchyard and stretches from the churchyard walls to the church walls. The path to the church passes through the tree. Throughout Britain there are more than 500 examples of ancient yew trees being older than the adjacent church. There are half-a-dozen examples where the tree even pre-dates Christianity. So, we have churches being built close to existing yew trees, rather than the trees being planted in the grounds of the church.
Whatever the possible mystical properties of yew trees that exert such a strong spiritual influence, they have been appreciated for a very long time. In many ancient cultures the yew was central to the philosophy of life and death. In pre-Christian Britain the locations where yews grew were apparently sites of spiritual, if not magical, significance.

P1000038Folklore about the yew abounds. This beautifully made wooden plaque stands next to an ancient trunk. The wording reads:

“Walk ye backwards round about me

Seven times round for all to see

Stumble not and then for certain

One true wish will come to thee.”
I’d like to suggest a purely practical reason for the connection between yew trees and religion. Let’s imagine that you are a Druid in pre-Christian Britain. Druids worship outside where they can see the natural world. So, you are looking around your local countryside for a suitable spot where you can gather with co-believers – and it’s a cold, wet, windy winter day.
Trees would provide some shelter, but the deciduous ones have lost their leaves.

Flat needles provide good shelter.

Flat needles provide good shelter.

There are only three native British conifers present in that time – yew, juniper and Scots pine. Of those only the yew provides adequate shelter, so if there’s one around you’ll head for it. In fact, the closely-spaced, flat needles and the growth habit make the yew ideal for this purpose. A hundred people could gather beneath a mature yew and be well sheltered from the weather.
People live and die, but the yew seems to go on for ever. After a few hundred years that yew has become well-established as a religious meeting place.
When the new Christianity appears and starts to take hold, adherents do not suddenly abandon all of the old beliefs, but blend the old and the new, retaining their gathering place. When the new Church is ready for a permanent structure in which to worship, it is built next to that wonderful old yew. As the centuries pass, the connection between Christianity and the yew becomes so established that when the growing population requires a new church be built in an area without a yew, then yew trees are planted next to the new building.
Well, that’s a purely practical analysis, but I have to admit that standing next to, or even within, one of the ancient yews is a moving experience. The sensation of living antiquity is almost overwhelming and the aura of calm solemnity is ideally suited to a graveyard.
One final thought: someone came up with the name Operation Yewtree for the investigation into Jimmy Savile. It’s a shame that something so wonderful should be associated with something so sordid, but I suppose the poisonous nature and the spreading habit suggested the connection.