Diamonds are forever

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
February 2021

Steffie Shields celebrates 60 years of Lincolnshire Life magazine.

2021 marks a significant ‘Diamond’ anniversary for this magazine. Over the past two decades, since settling here in 1995, due to my husband’s posting to RAF Cranwell, I have much enjoyed my association with this unique, independent county magazine. The opportunity to share photographs and stories of some of Lincolnshire’s unforgettable gardens and parks, not to mention those talented gardeners, nurseries and designers associated with them, has been a blessing and an education.

Looking back recently, reminiscing, I have revisited a few garden-related topics that made headlines. My first article in this publication focused on the county’s oldest hardy plant – the Bowthorpe Oak. One wonders if, more than a thousand years ago, this splendid, champion tree was planted by a landowner to mark a royal event, or a first-born’s birthday, a betrothal, or the passing of a loved one. Was there some important skirmish or battle victory to be long remembered? Perhaps this mighty oak owes its life to a passing squirrel burying a single precious acorn in the perfect spot, as it happened, above an underground spring, the secret of its remarkable longevity.

This magazine’s major milestone has reminded me of the Diamond Jubilee of HM Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne. Do you recall in 2012 how the whole country celebrated together? Thousands of trees were planted on accessible public land provided by The National Trust, racecourses, local councils, and colleges to mark this marvellous historic occasion.

The Woodland Trust, based in Grantham, spearheaded the planting of 60 Diamond Woods (each at least 60 acres, equivalent to 30 football pitches!). A flagship 460-acre Diamond Wood, an area bigger than London’s Regent’s Park, was established within the National Forest in Leicestershire, close to the village of Normanton le Heath. In addition, over 250 smaller Jubilee Woods were also created, all recorded in a magnificent album presented to HM The Queen. A collaboration between Lincolnshire Gardens Trust (LGT) and Wyndham Park Forum also marked this unique occasion – and if truth be told – jumped the gun!

Back in 2011, I had by chance attended an ‘Opening All the Gates’ Heritage Lottery funded conference at Anglesey Abbey to encourage more visitors to historic gardens. The lunch break afforded me the opportunity to explore the Abbey’s famous Winter Garden. A striking, ornamental grove of Himalayan birch trees, Betula utilis var. jacquemontii, reminded me of one of my favourite photographs, ‘Birches & Bulrushes’, taken in 2009 in Chertsey, Surrey, on coming across a landscape design with stylish simplicity. Those slender white trunks with papery barks seemed to shimmer even on the dullest of days.

Later that afternoon, an inspirational speaker threw down a ‘gauntlet’ to the conference attendees: “What are you all doing to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee next year?” Mulling over this challenge on the drive home, the notion of a ‘Diamond Jubilee Grove’ came into my head inspired by those striking, ghost-like birches. Some of the best gardening ideas are inspired, or ‘borrowed’, by others!

A few days later, having quickly sketched out a rough plan, I pitched the idea to a few Granthamians assembled at the next Wyndham Park Forum meeting. An irregular, diamond-shaped area, mostly randomly planted with 60 trees, could be dissected by a mown grass path snaking through. The intention was to lure passersby to enter the grove, where they would come across a singleton native oak, Quercus robur, in the middle, an ‘Elizabeth Oak’. Everyone welcomed the suggestion.

I learned that in 1980 local schoolchildren had helped plant 80 trees in honour of the Queen Mother’s 80th birthday to mark the opening of Queen Elizabeth Park, a small, 23-acre country park beside the River Witham not far from Grantham town centre. South Kesteven District Council officers recognised my suggestion as a fitting opportunity of kick-starting the park’s revitalisation. A team effort, sponsorship for the trees was organised with the help of both the local community and Lincolnshire Gardens Trust members. Together the National Junior School, Harrowby Lane Infants and Cliffedale Primary donated 30 trees, with the other individual trees being donated especially in memory of loved ones.

One sparkling crisp November morning during National Tree Week 2011, the Wyndham Park Forum (WPF), teachers, parents, and schoolchildren, the Mayor of Grantham and council members – volunteers of all ages – tackled planting the 60 trees. Mr Norman Starks, Woodland Trust operations director, placed a Wild Service Tree, Sorbus torminalis, on the south west boundary of the grove – to mark Her Majesty’s long years of service!
The Lord Lieutenant of Lincolnshire, Mr Tony Worth (d. 2018) was invited to plant the ‘Elizabeth Oak’ in a suitable, diamond-shaped hole in the heart of the grove, assisted by Mr John Knowles, WPF chairman. The oak tree had been grown from acorn mast gathered from a royal oak in Grimsthorpe Park, the oldest seat in the county, and a former royal park, and kindly donated by the head forester from Grimsthorpe & Drummond Castle Trust.

In the third week of March 2012, Elizabeth Bowskill, WPF secretary, and I harvested basket-loads of common snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, ‘in the green’, a generous gift from Lady Ursula Cholmeley at Easton Walled Gardens. Masses also arrived from Belton’s National Trust head gardener. Later that week, schoolchildren, parents, and teachers returned to the Diamond Grove, again in glorious sunshine, to plant all donated snowdrop bulbs. To my surprise and delight, on an LGT visit to Highgrove Gardens in April 2013, I discovered that HM The Queen had given HRH Prince Charles some Himalayan birch trees as a birthday present, to feature beside his personal retreat in a clearing in the woods!

By 2019, fragrant Diamond Grove snowdrops, a sign of hope and new beginnings, had begun to multiply, self-seeding around the Himalayan birches; ideal winter companions, their slender trunks maturing whiter and whiter. The simple design is now working its magic. Eventually, the Elizabeth Oak should outlive the Himalayan birches to live on in the middle of a sea of snowdrops in honour of an incredibly special queen.

Anniversaries are positive. In stirring memories, they bring people together to celebrate with exciting initiatives which improve our lives and our surroundings. Do please send in your suggestions for how and where to mark Lincolnshire Life’s Diamond Anniversary – 60 years of informative, entertaining, and beneficial local community service. Let’s plant something special, a celebratory gem for the county – to echo the words of Pope Francis in his recent New Year 2021 message: ‘May your life become a garden of opportunities.’

Postscript: As I write in Tier 4 lockdown, I am keeping fingers crossed things will begin to open in February and will soon return as near to normal as possible. Easton Walled Gardens is set to welcome visitors from 12th February, when the gardens open for the Snowdrop Season.

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