Words by Melanie Calland
I was thinking of green and the lack of it in winter, and my mind turned to evergreen and conifer trees. Now, there is something special just up the road from us, something I hadn’t visited for a very long time.
Every year there would be an open day at Minsteracres Monastery and as children, our parents took us to visit. I have vague memories of steam organs, merry go rounds, tombolas and other summer fete attractions, but, if you say ‘Minsteracres’ to me, the first thing I think of is big trees! Giant Californian Redwoods to be precise.
Dad used to stop the car (an old Morris traveller back then) and let us punch the trunks! It may sound bizarre, but the bark is soft, somewhat spongy in fact! This avenue of grand statuesque trees has always stuck in my mind.
Around the same time, in my childhood, somebody kindly bought us a Believe it or Not! Ripley’s annual as a Christmas gift; inside was a fabulous illustration of a car driving through a gap in the centre of a giant Redwood! It fascinated me that a tree could reach this size! In fact they are the oldest living things on earth, some of them are actually 3,000 – 4,000 years old.
The first white men to see the Sequoias (Redwoods) in Yosemite National Park were members of an exploring party led by Joseph Reddleford Walker in 1833. They were of course sacred to the indigenous people of the area. Two British botanists were the first to cultivate the trees back in 1852; both brought saplings and seeds back to grow in the UK. Two different names popped up. In the UK they were known as Wellingtonia to honour the British general, but in the USA Dr. Kellog of the California Academy of Science wanted them to be known as “Washingtonia” in honour of their first president. This sparked a debate that lasted for years and it was finally decided they should be named after the Cherokee Chief Sequoyah, who had devised a written language for his people (from National Geographic May 1951). Strangely, the UK’s National Trust claims that “Sequoia” is a scientific term and makes no mention of the Cherokee chief (https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/how-the-giant-sequoia-came-to-england).
On further investigation, it seems Sequoyah wasn’t in fact a pure Cherokee and his father was a British man, Nathanial Gist – a trapper and fur trader. His father called him George Gist, but he was given the name Sequoyah (which means “pigs foot” in Cherokee) after an early hunting accident, when he was permanently crippled (https://www.manataka.org/page81.html).
Sequoias are rich in tannin – this chemical helps make the trees resistant to fungus and insect attacks. They can also easily survive fire, helping them achieve their amazing longevity.
You will find that a tree named “General Sherman” is the biggest tree in the world; it takes around 22 adults to circle, fingertips touching, and is thought to be over 2,000 years old.
Mostly found in the USA’s national parks, they are also now found in over 28 different countries – the ones at Minsteracres must be around 150 years old and the largest avenue of them in the UK. Just infants in comparison to the mature trees of California, but still immense!
It was of course, the height of fashion and status to have exotic plants on your large country house estate at that time. We have walked along the avenue and counted 62 of them with two others further down the driveway.
In 1853 a tree was chopped down in Sierra Nevada to show its immense size; it took five men 22 days to saw through it and the remaining stump was 27 feet wide and used as a dancefloor, holding up to 16 couples waltzing on it. Later, the trunk turned into a bowling alley. Sad looking back, but it brought popularity to these amazing trees and encouraged tourism to the national parks of America such as Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, bringing much needed funds to these areas. My copies of National Geographic show the height of visits to the area as during the 1940s and 50s.
So what about the drive through trees? Controversial these days of course… These trees were cut through as tourist attractions way back between 1875-1937. Most no longer survive in the national parks, although visitors to Sequoia and Kings Canyon can drive through Sequoia Park’s fallen “Tunnel Log” located along the Crescent Meadow Road, in Giant Forest. Another tree that was already dead when carved still stands in Yosemite Park.
The most famous, The Wawona tree in Yosemite, fell in 1969 under heavy snow. There is still however a privately owned tree (carved in 1937) you can still drive through called the Chandilier tree. Whilst searching for an image of the car driving through a tree, my friend, artist Helen Entwhistle, had popped one as inspiration on Instagram, so she has kindly sent me the photo! You can find her amazing artwork at www.hellomemo.com.
I decided that I should wear something fitting for my first visit to the big trees in many decades! I bought an amazing old 50s skirt from the Internet earlier this year and at an old-fashioned price. The skirt was from Blum’s Vogue Department store in Chicago, which opened in 1910, and was started by Harry and his wife Becky Blum. This was no ordinary department store. They had teams of seamstresses, tailors etc. to customise your outfit. This no doubt explains why this skirt is so exquisite! They wanted to give their customers a personal shopping experience.
In 1923 they released a promotional leaflet, called “Within the Portals” and this quote from Harry Blum is just sublime – my mantra really!
“The woman who is clever is not a slavish follower of style. She never clings blindly to an arbitrarily prescribed fashion. Individuality is a much more important result to strive for than mere newness.” (Taken from http://blog.chicagohistory.org/)
Well I managed to get some velvet fabric by doing some alterations for a friend, a great swap, and made a bolero jacket from 1950s Vogue pattern, to wear with the beautiful full circle skirt, which features felt leaves encrusted with sequins. I lined the jacket with matching emerald green satin. My blouse is from Freddies of Pinewood, usually known for their wonderful hardwearing jeans but don’t forget, they do lots of great separates, based on original 40s and 50s patterns. The green Dalia blouse is one such lovely item, with theatrical collar, original buttons, tie cuff sleeves and lots of pleats on the back, giving a blouson effect. It can be worn tied at the front or tucked in.
I accessorised with green 50s gloves and an original parasol from Teatime Vintage in Clapham near Ingleton; it has a lovely Lucite handle which always gets admired.
My Lucite purse came from my first trip to the USA in 1998 and it’s black with silver confetti inside – although it has always had a crack in the back, it doesn’t prevent it being a real showstopper!
My gorgeous black suede ankle strap shoes are from Rocket Originals, another stunning pair copied from original shoes, just perfect. I couldn’t decide which brooch, so I wore two! I’ve had the little monkey as long as I can remember and he has little emerald green eyes, the other plastic leaf brooch was a recent bargain from Facebook!
I will finish at the top; my sunspecs were bought from Darren at Deadmensspex who put my prescription lenses in them (although they are original specs) and my hat is a wool beanie from “Paris Inspired FRENCHI from Edna Wallace.”
Dita and I had a lovely stroll up the avenue – the Redwoods demand your attention – and they even seemed to make me walk taller!
Minsteracres these days is a retreat and anyone is welcome to visit the grounds and enjoy the flora and fauna. http://www.minsteracres.org/
Photos of Melanie by Frankie Calland, others Melanie Calland, Big trees photo Helen Entwhistle.