March 2, 2022
The rain came on suddenly, with a ferocity that made me think it was the first of the extreme weather events we are told to expect. Photos from California, where the three-year drought has ended in floods, should make us apprehensive. We were in the middle of the Yorkshire Arboretum at Castle Howard, and scuttled off to the tearoom for shelter, arriving soaked.
I had not been there since 1999, when the arboretum was ceremonially opened, with John Simmons, retired curator of Kew, as director. But I had seen its emergence since the 1970s as the brainchild of two Eton contemporaries, George Howard the owner and his full-time plantsman Jim Russell. Russell had owned Sunningdale Nurseries at Ascot, with its historic collection of rhododendrons, azaleas and much else collected in China. Graham Stuart Thomas was once manager. Waterers took over Sunningdale and Jim Russell moved north, with truckloads of rare plants, to live in the Old Dairies at Castle Howard and develop Ray Wood, once a formal garden on the hill nearest the big house, into a home for woodland rarities. I remember Jim choosing spots under dipping boughs of maples or spindles or rhododendrons to plant a precious new hosta or epimedium. He would come back the next year and divide it, again and again, until the solitary treasure had become a healthy clump.
The arboretum was the almost accidental outcome of Jim’s ambition, a major destocking by Hillier’s Nursery, and a serious mid-winter freeze. As I remember it, George Howard was persuaded to buy a long list of rare and unusual trees and the lorries arrived just as a big freeze began. Planting became a matter of urgency. Jim had sketched out a spacious place, almost filling a gentle valley by happy chance sandy on one side and clay on the other. He planned broad rides sweeping in curves down the slopes, to a lake at the bottom, organizing the trees more by type than by botanical categories. Jim was by nature a stickler, but time was not on his side.
Forty years later the plan is a triumph; a wood to wander in, learning the alternative beauties of trees you have never heard of as well as those you often see but rarely appreciate. It is presided over by John Grimshaw, author of New Trees, whose expertise and kindness saved my own tree book from botanical howlers. As editor of the authoritative new website of the International Dendrology Society https://treesandshrubsonline.org/ (which started life in the 1920s as the immortal Bean’s Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles) you could say John’s word on trees is pretty final. Weather is not particularly gentle in Yorkshire, positively ‘inclement’ at times. (Does anyone actually say ‘inclement’, or is it just used on official pronouncements?) But if anyone doubts that 40 years is enough to create a mature arboretum the proof is here.