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Village Features

Village of the giants

Posted on April 19 2011 at 9:53:33

Andy Bucklitch admires a Wellingtonia
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An exotic life-form is gradually taking over Alvechurch, but why are they here?

They are the largest visible living things on the planet and one of our villages is stalked by dozens of them . . . yet no one seems to know why they are here.

Like aliens thriving, unseen, among us, these giants are camouflaged by their everyday presence while, stealthily, they grow bigger and bigger, year after year.

Few people notice them as they go about their daily lives in Alvechurch – but they are there, growing, and could be for the next 3,500 years, eventually towering 250ft or more over the village. What a skyline that would be!

One cluster of these giants, better known as Californian Giant Redwoods, is close to the heart of Alvechurch on either side of the bends in Radford Road as you head out of the village.

They continue on into the countryside, lining a field on the left-hand side of the road, with a few remaining opposite.

There is another stand on Redditch Road, opposite the bottom of Grange Lane and another running along Brockhill Lane at the top of Weatheroak Hill.

Then there are more Giant Redwoods, single trees or in pairs, at various other points around the village: two rearing out of the gardens of The Shrubbery by the footpath from Bear Hill to St Laurence Church, and one in the front garden of a house in Swan Street near the bottom of School Lane.

You will now notice these trees wherever you go; the tops of them appearing on the skyline from gardens through the village as they continue to thrust skywards.

Their progress is already impressive, because one thing we do know about them is that they have only been here for a little over 150 years. They are mere babes compared with the thousands of years old Californian examples, the tallest of which was recorded at 311ft, with the widest having a trunk 56ft in diameter.

They used to be thought of as the largest organisms on earth until some fungus was found stretching for miles underground – but that only has little toadstools popping up here and there.

In search of answers to how they got here, The Village called in Andy Bucklitch, Tree Officer for Bromsgrove and Redditch councils (pictured above with one of the giants in the centre of Alvechurch).

Delighted that someone was as enthralled by these trees as he is, Andy explained that they were first discovered in California in 1853 in the days when people got very excited by discoveries of new species around the world.

A Victorian plant explorer, following rumours among the Californian Gold Rush community, found them in the mountains around 200 miles from San Francisco and returned to Britain with bags of seeds.

The plant firm who had hired him had the marketing brainwave to name the new tree “Wellingtonia” after Britain’s military and political giant, the Duke of Wellington, who had died the previous year. It seems this sparked a nationwide enthusiasm for planting seedlings, although it was not for everyone.

“They would have been very expensive,” Andy explains. “It would have been a bit of a status symbol in the 1850s to have lots of Wellingtonias. You most commonly find them on sites that are or were big estates.”

The main stands of Alvechurch Wellingtonias are indeed at strategic boundary points of the former Alvechurch Park estate – originally laid out by the Bishop of Worcester to contain deer. But by 1853, the estate would have broken up.

Andy’s theory is that because the main stands of Wellingtonias are at the gateways to the parish and in such numbers, they may have been planted in a civic commemoration of Wellington’s death, perhaps by a forerunner to today’s parish council.

The others, meanwhile, would have been wealthy families showing that they, too, could afford to plant a Wellingtonia.

The Wellingtonia craze had largely died out by the 1860s, although there is a fine example standing alone at Bordesley Abbey, planted in 1864 by JM Woodward to mark his excavation of the site.

As well as marvelling at their size, readers may also like to get close to a Wellingtonia. As Andy says: “They are very touchy-feely trees because they have got this fire-proof bark.

“They are designed to withstand and thrive because of forest fires. The thick bark singes, but the heat doesn’t penetrate through to where the cells are.

“The heat from the fire activates the cones of the tree, but with a slight time delay so the seeds land straight into this fertile, bare ground which is full of ash,” he added.

The lack of forest fires in Alvechurch shouldn’t be a problem, however, as our trees are only youngsters themselves.

And if any reader can enlighten us as to their origins in the village, we’d be delighted to hear from you.

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