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Last Updated: Friday, 12 October 2007, 08:31 GMT 09:31 UK
Winds of change for historic garden
By Mark Kinver
Science and nature reporter, BBC News

Damage caused by the Great Storm (Image: NTPL)

"Anyone who went through the 1987 Great Storm," explained Alan Bradford, a gardener at Sheffield Park Garden, "finds the hairs on the back of their neck stand up every time there is some strong wind."

Untying the laces on his boots while sitting in the gardeners' shed of the 200-acre National Trust property in East Sussex, he recalled the scene of devastation caused by the 100mph winds.

"First, I could not get here because all the roads were blocked; the easiest way to get here was by walking over the fields."

Although Mr Bradford had worked at the garden for years, he said he was "completely lost" as soon as he walked through the gates.

Conifer trees (Image: BBC)
Some trees suffered after being left exposed to the elements
"The whole place was unrecognisable; you could not see where you had to go. You could not follow a path because everything was blocked with tree on top of tree.

"Every time you went a few feet, you had to clamber over another tree."

In the early hours of 16 October 1987, more than 2,000 trees in the garden were blown to the ground, changing the landscape forever.

"I don't think there was one of us that did not have a tear running down our face," he said.

"For me personally, the biggest shock was when I saw the head gardener. It was as if he had aged 10 years overnight."

Mike Calnan, the National Trust's head of gardens and parks, said this story was repeated at properties that lay in the path of the hurricane-force winds.

"Initially, people were in complete shock at the devastation, and the sight and scale of damage.

One of the big things after the storm was that all of these grass areas appeared that were not here before the storm
Andy Jesson,
Head gardener
"It was almost like a bereavement for some of them who had been there for 20 or 30 years, tending to these gardens," he suggested.

"They had lost their offspring, as they saw it, that they had been nurturing with tender loving care. They were gone just like that," Mr Calnan said as he clicked his fingers.

In his log, the head gardener of Sheffield Park at the time, Archie Skinner, penned "DEVASTATION" as the entry for 16 October.

The East Sussex park was a Grade I Listed woodland garden; home to plant specimens that liked shade and shelter underneath the trees' canopy.

"Then suddenly," Mr Calnan said, "it was as if somebody had pulled back the curtains and fully exposed these plants to the light and the elements."

A sapling (Image: BBC)
Losing the tree canopy allowed grass to become established
The loss of the mature tree cover was still having an impact 20 years later, explained current head gardener Andy Jesson.

"One of the big things after the storm was that all of these grass areas appeared that were not here before the storm, when there was very little light penetration.

"We now spend every other week cutting long grass and the alternating week on short grass," he said.

"This means we have skilled horticulturalists tied up with cutting grass."

He has been trying to take areas out of grass by mulching them with green waste, which Andy hopes will free up his team of five to carry out other tasks, such as formative pruning and seed collecting.

"Otherwise, we will just be doing maintenance work and the garden will stand still and stagnant again."

Painting a picture

The overall objective is to get the trees and shrubs back to the density before the Great Storm.

"I went up in a hot-air balloon to see where the spaces in the garden were," Mr Jesson said.

Lucky escape for the garden's four lakes

"We wanted to work out where we were going to plant trees and shrubs. From the air, you realise just how many spaces there are."

Although the garden looked "immensely different" after the storm, he said all was not lost.

The philosophy behind the design of the garden was that it painted a picture using plants, rather than being a botanical garden, containing rare and unique species.

This meant that the colours and positioning of trees and shrubs were more important than the genetic properties, Mr Jesson explained.

Since it was first described in the Domesday Book as a "sheep clearance", the area had undergone a number of visual and ecological transformations, changing the area's characteristics.

By the middle of the 15th Century, the sheep pasture had made way to become a deer park, with trees dominating the landscape.

Red leaves (Image: BBC)
Sheffield Park Garden is renowned for its display of autumnal colours

In the next century, the trees were coppiced to provide valuable charcoal for the local iron industry, and the landscape returned to a pastoral panorama.

In 1769 it was sold to John Holroyd, who went on to become the first Earl of Sheffield.

He commissioned "Capability" Brown to landscape the garden, from which point it began its evolution to becoming one of the most important gardens of its kind.

Arthur Soames, a wealthy brewer, purchased the estate when the third Earl of Sheffield died in 1910. He continued with the extensive planting programme. It is his designs which still dominate the garden today.

Going underground

While the garden has evolved since the first formal plans were set out in the 18th Century, it did not give the National Trust a blank canvas for its recovery work following the events of 1987.

As it was a listed garden, a recovery plan was developed in partnership with English Heritage.

A tree planted on a mound (Image: BBC)
Trees are planted on mounds to help protect their root systems
This year sees the completion of a five-year project to plant thousands of trees and shrubs to enrich the fabric of the garden lost in the storm.

"We have learned that what is going on under the ground is so important," Mr Jesson added.

"To get the plants established, and established well, is your priority - to give them the best fighting chance."

This involves ensuring the garden is drained properly. Sodden soil affects the root systems of the trees, and makes them more vulnerable to strong winds, which was dramatically illustrated by the Great Storm.

"We now try to get the rain water into drains and away, either into proper soak-aways or into the lakes."

One of the other legacies of the storm is that the garden now closes when the winds pick up.

"Another thing that the storm probably changed was our policy on managing existing tree stocks," Mr Jesson revealed.

"So we have a wind policy that we close the garden in winds of more than 32mph.

"We regularly cable-brace as we look to extend the lives of the trees for as long as possible. This means we can keep veteran trees."

Alan Bradford, when asked if he was fearful that the garden could be exposed to another extreme weather event, said that a gardener's work was always going to be at the mercy of the elements.

"You have got to work with them because there is no point trying to work against them."

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