Tree enthusiast Steven Teale takes a stroll along Duke’s Walk in Seaford to admire some of the oldest and largest beech trees in this area of East Sussex, which might be accepted onto the Ancient Tree Inventory.

For a tree enthusiast, a range of emotions is stirred during a stroll along Duke’s Walk near Bishopstone in Seaford, East Sussex. The awe inspired by the old beeches along the walk, the embodiment of living history, is juxtaposed by a sense of loss upon witnessing the devastation wrought in the elm population by Dutch elm disease.

Duke’s Walk begins as a causeway between two hefty sycamores standing over roadside ponds and follows a line of beech trees away from the village of Bishopstone. Beyond the sycamores, a wet meadow stretches towards elevated land around a Saxon church and the site of the now demolished Bishopstone Place manor house.

The Duke of Newcastle’s Beeches

Thomas Pelham-Holles, Duke of Newcastle and twice British Prime Minister, owned Bishopstone Place and much of the surrounding area in the mid eighteenth century and obtained Parliamentary consent to create a flour mill at what became the settlement of Tide Mills near Bishopstone. Six of the beech Fagus sylvatica trees he planted, or their descendants, stand guard along Duke’s Walk at the foot of Rookery Hill near Bishopstone village.

It was fashionable to plant beeches in prominent places in the duke’s time and it’s difficult to imagine there were many other trees on Rookery Hill then. Beeches are fast growing and short lived and often fall when exposed to strong winds, but these are planted carefully so as to be sheltered by the hill.

Most of the best Sussex beeches were lost in the Great Storm of 1987. A colossal beech at Rowlands Wood near Laughton in East Sussex also fell a few years ago, soon after the surrounding trees were removed to create habitat for small pearl bordered fritillary butterflies Boloria selene.

Ancient Tree Inventory

The life expectancy of a beech tree is 350 years but, when pollarded for winter fodder, they can live significantly longer. The duke’s beeches could challenge some of the larger trees in the county in terms of girth and there is hope that they will be accepted onto the Ancient Tree Inventory.

Past the ruins of Bishopstone Place and beyond a gate in a collapsing flint wall, a number of elms still stand, long dead and stripped of bark. White as ghosts, they are a testament to the deadly effects of elm bark beetles.

Dutch Elm Disease

The Ophiostoma fungi the elm bark beetles carry reaches tendrils into the trees’ cambium, prompting the trees to block their vascular channels, stopping nutrients from reaching roots and leaves. Further up the hill, the chalara fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus has devastated many of the ash Fraxinus excelsior in a similar tragedy.

Past the dead and dying elms, the soggy path dries and approaches the row of beech trees, interspersed with elm, ash and sycamore. The earlier feeling of devastation is gradually replaced with one of veneration for the last surviving mature elms and the smooth-skinned beeches carved with decades of graffiti.

The woodland path and its litter of leaf and mast passes beyond the beeches and makes its way beneath a large rookery towards Rookery Hill and Norton Hill. Through a kissing gate, the path arcs back towards Bishopstone village. Occasional trees impress along the way, including some large boundary marking hawthorn Crataegus monogyna and a wasp infested crack willow Salix x fragilis.

Along Duke’s Walk, the cycle of life is evident at every turn. A look across the former inland harbour to the duke’s beeches, aligned along the base of Rookery Hill, confirms them as the most impressive trees along the path, exactly as the Duke of Newcastle would have intended.

Additional information and photographs can be found on Steven Teale’s blog Newhaven Wildlife