In my last I touched on Capability Brown’s lavish deployment of conker trees. Though he appears to have loved them for their luxuriant leaf and flower, these trees were, in the 18th century, never quite taken seriously – as his nephew, H.J.Pye reported ‘Lord Barrington used to say, that a conker in full flower gave him the idea of a giant’s nosegay’.
As we turned the matter over in the Snug at the Tatler’s Waste-Bin, it became only more puzzling to know why such a vulgar useless tree should ever have been popular. It is dirty, forever dropping branches; Thomas Hale acknowledged that its wood is of little value; its fruit was recognised in the 18th century to be unpalatable or even poisonous to stock, and to have no medicinal value. It is a dark tree in foliage, and at its most striking when it puts out its blowsy flowers in May, when William Gilpin complained that ‘the whole tree together in flower is a glaring object’; the foliage easily browns with the wind and does not take salt.
It was however a tree much used by Brown, and it may be that many of the qualities for which it was criticised were the very ones that recommended it to him: it is a useful signifier of an estate village, whether Knipton at Belvoir Castle, or Stapleford. It has a long association with common lime – a combination that Brown would have found at Wimpole on Bridgeman’s chess-board of alternating lime and conker – and in June, when the lime leaves are still light, and the flowers lighter still, the greater the contrast with the dark conker. There is the same combination in Brown’s clumps beyond the Chesham road at Latimer, where I am tempted to believe that by using an ornamental, Brown was appropriating not only the fields south of the road to the Latimer estate but also the Duke of Bedford’s beech hangers above them.
The same argument of appropriation might explain the conkers in the ridings at Kelston and Warnford, in pleasure grounds and in parkland scatter adjacent to them (Wrotham). It might go far to our understanding of the occasional outbreak of blocks of conkers in Brownian belts, as on the west side of the parkland at Wotton and at Blenheim, when ash or oak would have succeeded as well and given a much greater return. The finest massed planting of conkers that I know however is the strip along the lower edge of the west woods that fringe Delcombe Valley at Milton Abbey and indeed along the northern edge of Lawn Hollow at Croxton on the Belvoir estate. Seen in flower, the effect is of a painter’s shading to bring out the volumes of the trees above. One might add that the relative valuelessness of the timber may have ensured its survival relative to other species when an estate fell on hard times. Like ash and oak, conkers do take an understorey, and at Wotton we see it today with buckthorn and privet.
Conkers were also used in Brownian design to patch avenues (e.g. at Patshull), and since we agreed that it must have been regarded as conspicuous, we were able to pronounce with some confidence that these patches were not necessarily intended to naturalise, but only to vary the colour, and perhaps as Brown’s signature, to show that he had seen and elected to keep the avenue.