Gillian Darley

‘Surrey is the Country of my Birth and my delight,’ John Evelyn told John Aubrey; and like Surrey, Evelyn has had more than his fair share of bad press over the years. Yet to picture him as simply the pious sermoniser the Victorians eulogised is as misleading as to write off Surrey as wall-to-wall Weybridge. The gouged-out lanes which thread through and over the thickly wooded Surrey hills around his birthplace, Wotton, are really just tarmac versions of the tracks on which generation after generation of Evelyns travelled around their land, from Wotton itself to Abinger, Friday Street and on. Beside them, the beech trees, whose massive root balls bind the banks together like nature’s gabions, still wear identity tags around their trunks proclaiming ‘Evelyn Estate’.

The broad valleys and steep hills around Wotton are well-watered, tree-covered and beautiful. But don’t be misled. From the early 17th century onwards, swift water courses like the Tillingbourne at Wotton powered what were in effect industrial complexes, mills manufacturing gunpowder, wire, iron and paper. Some survived into the 20th century. For a short time, the Evelyns held a monopoly on gunpowder (giving them a walk-on role in Guy Fawkes’s plans) and spent the proceeds on buying land, in Surrey and Sussex. Around here, between Dorking and Guildford, estate ownership, both private and public (the latter in the shape of the National Trust and Surrey County Council), as well as the protective umbrella of 20th-century statutory planning and conservation measures offer pretty sure guarantees that the landscape will endure.

Later generations of Evelyn’s family called him ‘Sylva’, so closely did they identify him with his famous book. Describing himself as ‘Wood-born’, he was the ideal author for the Royal Society’s first official publication. Although it started life as a report to the naval authorities on the state of the nation’s timber, he turned it into a paean to trees, offering advice on every aspect of their culture. Maggie Campbell-Culver’s well-designed and knowledgeable A Passion for Trees: The Legacy of John Evelyn follows his trail through the woods and writes about each of the species he covered, starting with the emblematic oak and ending with a miscellany of evergreens – Evelyn’s favourites.[*]

Ironically enough, despite Evelyn’s attempts in Sylva to encourage tree planting and better husbandry of timber, by the time he inherited Wotton its woods were terribly depleted: the only profitable crop on the estate had been heavily and insensitively harvested. In the fourth edition, published the year he died, Evelyn described a landscape of ‘cold staring places’. Little of the standing timber remained, the rest having been felled or at least coppiced to meet longstanding debts incurred to fund marriage settlements and to pay lawyers’ fees for an interminable Chancery action and various inheritance disputes. To cap it all, there was the great gale of 1703. But Evelyn’s ‘naked and ashamed’ estate grew back to enchant a Regency visitor like Maria Edgeworth (‘Woods worthy of Sylvia indeed!’ she trilled), helped along by commercial good sense. In the 1730s, the tree nursery established by Sir John Evelyn Bt (Jack, the diarist’s grandson) supplied trees for some of the most elegant landscapes designed in early Georgian England. In Evelyn’s own day, young trees were more usually shipped from Holland.

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[*] Eden, 282 pp., £25, May 1 903 91947 9.