After over a year’s activity – of finding, recording and photographing trees, researching their history and background, deciding which to include, and preparing the material for display – the exhibition opened in Knole’s Orangery on 16th September, closing on 12 October. The feedback from visitors has been extremely positive, and it certainly seems to have achieved its aims of raising awareness of the importance and value of our trees and the need to both celebrate and protect them. And there is no doubt that partly because of the advance publicity (1500 leaflets were distributed and there were several features in The Sevenoaks Chronicle), the profile of The Society has been raised considerably.

Like the exotic trees planted by wealthy and status-conscious Victorian landowners – the great Wellingtonias, Monkey Puzzles, Lebanese Cedars and other conifers – the project grew to a size far larger than imagined at the start. Somehow the 4,000 images, 700 or so records, hundreds of trees, and dozens of files of research material had to be condensed into a format that showcased the best and most interesting trees and was informative but not overpowering. By chance exactly 100 trees were featured in the 22 displays – some familiar, others not so well-known.

Victoria Granville-Baxter did us proud in both making the arrangements with the National Trust at Knole and also coping with the material I submitted to her and presenting it in a readable and attractive format. The display boards and the accompanying sheets, maps and articles contained a lot of information and one fear was that visitors would not bother to read it. But this proved unfounded and many commented on how much they had learned from the exhibition and had enjoyed the stories associated with the trees.

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As well as the displays, the exhibition contained etchings and other works by local artist Anita McEwen, a superb Victorian painting of King Beech in Knole Park by R A Butler, a “living” book: The Tree of Life, lent by The Conservation Volunteers, a screen-print of holly trees donated by the New School at West Heath, remnants of “lost” trees, including a slice from one of the Vine oaks that fell in the hurricane of 1987, and several examples of tree fungi.

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Visitors were asked to vote on their favourite tree or picture from the displays and photocards. 166 votes were cast, for 73 different trees. Not surprisingly the 1509 sweet chestnut standing on its own in the grounds of what was Dorton House, and captured in a stunning photograph by Graham Usher, was a clear winner (below). Second was the picture of the “Waterloo Limes” in Wildernesse Avenue, also taken for the exhibition by a member of The Sevenoaks Camera Club, followed by “the Dancing Hornbeam”, the wizened “face” on a sweet chestnut, Knole Park in snow (with the man and the dog), and the lightning over the Vine. These and others can be seen on the Society’s web-site.

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Around 50 invited guests, helpers, supporters and tree-owners gave the exhibition a tremendous send-off on the opening day and I would like to take this opportunity to thank once more all those organisations and individuals who have been involved in this project in the various ways. We are especially grateful to the Sevenoaks Camera Club, The Conservation Volunteers Kent Heritage Trees Project team for their support, tree owners (including The Knole Estate) for permission to feature their trees, the Sevenoaks Print Studio for doing such an excellent job of printing the material, and of course The National Trust at Knole for inviting us to hold the exhibition and providing such a fine venue.

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Tom Hart Dyke, Sarah Rogers, Keith Wade and Robert Sackville-West on the opening day.
In all, 234 visitors left their name in the visitors’ book, from 182 locations and ranging from 2 to 94 years of age. It’s impossible to know the total attendance and how many came to Knole especially to view the exhibition, but it is significant that Sevenoaks accounted for 103 of the locations, with another 34 from nearby. 23 were overseas, from 11 countries, including Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, “Asia” and Brazil as well as mainland Europe. (I’m informed that roughly 1 in 5 normally sign the visitors’ book so that would make attendance over 1000).

Several asked if the exhibition could be extended or mounted elsewhere. This is something we have been considering: nothing is definite, but Lullingstone Castle is a possible venue in summer 2015 and we are exploring other options within Sevenoaks.

The educational element of the project has always been important, and discussions have been held with several local schools. Mounting the exhibition in a school and linking it to the curriculum and tree-related projects is another possibility. If any reader knows of an organisation that may wish to use the material in some way, please tell us.

The exhibition has prompted several people to contact me. A previously unknown photograph of the King John Oak in Knole Park has come to light (although still no explanation of how it came by that name), and I have received quite a few invitations to view more trees! Although the exhibition is over, the project is ongoing and do let me know if you are aware of bigger or better trees than those featured, ones that we have missed, or any that may be at risk.

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An early 20thC postcard: the only known photograph of The King John Oak

One unexpected but welcome consequence was the initiative of The Drive Methodist Church: inspired by the exhibition the church’s Harvest Festival was dedicated to trees, and a special Songs of Praise was held in October to celebrate the beauty and blessing of trees. Also In October I was invited to give a presentation on the research and exhibition to the Kent International Club.

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This has been a major project for The Society in a less well-known area of our activities, and has resulted in an increase in membership. We are determined to build on its success and the publicity it has generated, and a range of possible projects and initiatives is being considered for the coming years. So do watch this space!

Keith Wade


01732 451223.