300 Years of the Evelyn Chestnuts

Tricentenary of the Felbridge Chestnuts

This document is in celebration of the two rows of Sweet Chestnut trees that once formed a ‘V’ shape leading to the southern entrance of Felbridge Park along the Crawley Down Road and the line of the old road leading from Felbridge to Copthorne across the Common, previously known as Hedgecourt Road.

Local Felbridge legend has it that the trees were planted by the Evelyn family in celebration of the return of the monarchy and this document attempts to uncover the truth behind the story, when they were planted and by whom.


Although the Evelyn Chestnuts have been covered before it is hoped that this document will not only commemorate the Tricentenary of the Evelyn Chestnuts but also add more to the understanding to the other Sweet Chestnuts found in the Felbridge area and their uses.


The Sweet Chestnut

The Sweet Chestnut, Castanea sativa, is also known as Spanish Chestnut, Bread Tree, Sardian Nut, Jupiter’s Nut or Acorn and Husked Nut, and should not to be confused with the Horse Chestnut, Aesculus hippocastanum, which is best known for its conkers.  The Sweet Chestnut is thought to have originated in Asia Minor, and it is believed that the Greeks introduced the tree to the Mediterranean area before it was introduced to Britain by the Romans, possibly from Spain, hence one of the names that is widely used in Britain – Spanish Chestnut.  Today the tree can be found all over Britain growing best on dry, sandy soil, which is why it grows so well in the Felbridge area.

Local Legend

Until the turn of the 20th century, Felbridge had a fairly static population of just over 350 residents.  The main reason for this was that Felbridge was not a village but a gentleman’s estate and anyone living within the area lived here because someone in the family worked on the estate and as only a finite number of employees were needed, the population remained at a fairly consistent number.  Having such a small local population means that stories from the past were handed down through the families by word of mouth and kept within the area.  However, with the break up and sale of the estate in 1911 [for further information see Handout, 1911 Sale of the Felbridge Estate, SJC 01/11],  people from outside Felbridge began to move in as the area was developed, leaving just a handful of residents who could trace their family back to Felbridge when it was a gentleman’s estate.  Fortunately the local legend was carried by a few original residents and kept alive, particularly by Dora Wheeler who kept a scrapbook of memories and snippets about Felbridge past and current to her lifetime.  Then in 1976 the local legend was included in the first published history of Felbridge in a booklet called Felbridge Parish and People, thus preserving the legend in print and saving it from being totally lost to future generations.


Armed with this information the Felbridge History Group decided to investigate whether the local legend was true.  There was no doubting the fact that there were two rows of old looking Sweet Chestnut trees in a ‘V’ shape leading to the southern entrance of what had been Felbridge Park, flanked by a line of beech trees.  They first appear on the Bourd map commissioned by Edward Evelyn in 1748 depicting the bounds of his estate of Felbridge, and, although not so regimentally standing, are still visible today.  In 2000 the decision was made to complete a survey of the remaining trees which, it was hoped, would determine how many had been planted and, based on the average of their girths, how old they could be.

Survey of the Felbridge Sweet Chestnut Trees, 2000

The Sweet Chestnut trees of local legend stand in two rows, the most obvious is along the Crawley Down Road and the second is less obvious and stands along the line of Hedgecourt Road, the old road leading from Felbridge to Copthorne across the Common, now the line of Twitten Lane off Rowplatt Lane, in the woodland behind the Felbridge Village Hall and within the grounds of Felbridge Primary School.  The trees are planted about 20ft (6m) outside the ditch and bank boundary that surrounds the site of what was Warren House Farm.  The boundary dates to the enclosure of Felbridge Heath in 1732 creating what was known as ‘New Fields’.  Stretches of the ditch and bank boundary are still visible along about half of the length of the avenues in Crawley Down Road and, for a short distance, in the woodland behind the Village Hall.

Measuring the distances between the centres of the trees and remaining stumps showed that they were all planted at a pitch of ½ chain or 33ft (11m) apart.  This gave us the ability to identify how many trees were originally planted.  One avenue stretched from Rowplatt Lane at the junction with Twitten Lane, where a felled Sweet Chestnut is known to have stood, to the southern entrance to the site of Felbridge Park off Copthorne Road, where the large wooden gate stands guarding a public footpath to the west of Whittington College.  This avenue had 52 tree locations along the overall distance.  The second avenue started just before Warren Close on the Crawley Down Road near the bus shelter, again at the location of another felled Sweet Chestnut, along Crawley Down Road to the wooden gate on Copthorne Roae.  This avenue also had 52 original tree locations.  However, of the original 104 trees there were only 40 left standing in 2000 and this number has since been reduced due to development in Twitten Lane.

It is possible to use the girth of the trees to provide an approximation to their age.  Arboreal sources provide the following estimates, 7ft 6ins (2.4m) approximates to 150 years old in avenues of trees.  Sweet Chestnut is listed as slowing to less than ¾ in (2cm) a year girth increase within 50 years of planting, when the growth is expected to be between ½ in and 1in (1.2 and 2.5cm) a year.

As part of the survey in 2000, the girths of the remaining trees in the two avenues were measured, including the newer in-fills.  These measurements were then compared with girth measurements made in 1933 and show that the old trees are now growing at about ½ in (1.2cm) a year.

Whilst completing the survey, information came to light regarding a felled Sweet Chestnut.  The tree was one of the old Sweet Chestnuts that had been felled in the early 1940’s near Felbridge Primary School and was lying in the back garden of The Beeches, 11, Crawley Down Road.  This gave an opportunity to measure its girth and complete a tree-ring count.  The girth measured 16ft 4ins (5m), which could be adjusted to 17ft 10ins (5.5m) if still growing today, using the arboreal growth estimation.


When all the measurements were complete a graph was produced [see the back page] that showed that there was a very large spread of girths ranging from 9ft (3m) to 20ft 1in (6.2m), and the 17ft 10ins (5.5m) girth of the felled tree would put it in the top 10 per cent of the Felbridge Sweet Chestnuts.   On the basis of the average of the tree’s girths, the arboreal growth estimates give an age of about 300 years.

The graph also provided evidence that there were more than one planting of trees.  Three trees in Twitten Lane off Rowplatt Lane are very close in size to each other at 9ft (3m) girth; these could have been planted between 1850 and 1900, possibly in place of lost trees as they maintain the 33 ft (11m) intervals.  The average girth of all the other Sweet Chestnuts in the avenues is 15ft (4.6m), and the spread of girths ranging from 9ft (3m) to 20ft 1ins (6.2m) could be natural variation as comparison with the Horse Chestnut trees known to have been planted in 1965 in the avenue of Sweet Chestnuts along the Crawley Down Road shows that some of them are now double the size of others.

The felled Sweet Chestnut also gave the opportunity to count the tree rings.  The tree was cut to provide a 1ft (35cm) thick slice from near the base and the rings were counted, several times, to get an approximate age.  An average of 183 definite rings were counted, but it was obvious that some rings had rotted away at the edge and many were too close together to count accurately.  Given the state of preservation, blurred rings and unknown status of the tree at the time of felling, ie: dead or alive, the tree could have been planted in the early to mid 1700’s.

At the same time as the survey was taking place, Alec King brought to the attention of the Felbridge History Group that he too had taken an opportunity to count the rings of another of the old Sweet Chestnut trees when it had to be felled shortly after the construction of the extension of the Felbridge Primary School in 1994.  The number of rings of this tree suggested that the old Sweet Chestnuts were planted between 1710 and 1720, consistent with the date range obtained from the tree felled in the early 1940’s.


Armed with this information attention was turned to the local Felbridge legend that has always been that the two rows of Sweet Chestnut trees were planted by the Evelyn family in a ‘V’ shape to celebrate the restoration of the monarchy.  It is well documented that the Evelyn family had owned land in Felbridge since 1588 and that they had built a house in the area prior to 1690, so it would seem that the Evelyn family are therefore the most likely family responsible for the planting of the trees, concluding that this part of the local legend was true.

To try and prove the story that the Sweet Chestnut trees were planted to celebrate the restoration of monarchy, a term commonly attributed to the return of Charles II, son of executed Charles I, in 1660, it was necessary to try to identify how old the trees actually were which was one of the reasons why the survey had been carried out.  The first documented reference to the trees is found on the Board map of 1748 which clearly shows the two avenues of trees, although the northern avenue is only drawn at about half the length that was established by the survey.  The Rocque Map of 1768 also shows the two avenues, this time both the avenues are shown at the correct established lengths.

The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 came with the return of Charles II after eleven years of Commonwealth rule under Oliver Cromwell and his son Richard.  Another part of the local legend was that the reason why Spanish Chestnuts, another name for Sweet Chestnuts, had been planted was out of respect for the wife of Charles II, Catherine Braganza, as she was believed to be Spanish.  However, Catherine Braganza was Portuguese so this part of the story can be quickly discounted.   It was also evident that the trees could not have been planted for Charles II, as the survey and the two independent tree ring counts concluded that the trees could not have been planted before the early 1700’s.  However, the story did fit the return of the Protestant monarchy in 1714, a date that sits nicely within the dates concluded by the tree ring counting.

Therefore, based on the tree ring date and the fact that there is usually some truth in local legend, a reasonable explanation for the two avenues of Sweet Chestnuts in Felbridge is that they had been planted by the Evelyn family, who are known to have been a Royalist family, possibly to celebrate the return of the Protestant monarchy.

In Celebration of the Evelyn Chestnuts of Felbridge

The return of the Protestant monarchy was secured in 1714 with George I (a first cousin once removed of Charles II and great-grandson of James I), on his succession to the English Crown through the Act of Settlement.

The Act of Settlement of 1701 was a piece of English legislation governing the succession of the English crown that was signed by William III and the next in line to the throne, Princess Anne the daughter of James II, promising the throne upon her death to Sophia, the Electress of Hanover, and her heirs, as Protestant heirs to James I.  The Act was passed as an amendment to the English Bill of Rights allowing only Protestant descendents of Sophia, who had not married a Catholic, succession to the English crown.  In addition, the Act specified that it was for Parliament to determine who should succeed to the throne and not the monarch.  After the Act of Settlement was passed, Sophia’s son George became third in line the English throne after Princess Anne and his mother Sophia.

In 1702 William III died and Anne succeeded him to become the last Stuart monarch, being the second daughter of James II but raised as a Protestant under the guidance of her uncle Charles II.  Queen Anne reigned for 12 years and died on 1st August 1714, Sophia having pre-deceased her by just a few weeks, dying on 8th June 1714.  On the death of Queen Anne, Sophia’s son George succeeded to the throne, becoming George I, the first British monarch of the house of Hanover. Also in 1714, under the reign of George I, the Oath of Allegiance was passed whereby landowners were forced to renounce Roman Catholicism and the country saw many celebrations.

Being staunch Royalists, the Evelyn family of Felbridge appear to have celebrated the return of the Protestant monarchy by planting the two rows of Sweet Chestnuts, flanked by beech, in a ‘V’ shape along the two roads leading to the southern entrance of their house and parkland.  Around the probable date of planting it had become fashionable to copy the French style of double avenues of trees along the main approaches to the mansion houses of the aristocracy of Britain.  However, without documentary evidence we will probably never know whether the trees were planted to commemorate the Act of Settlement in 1701 guaranteeing a Protestant monarchy, the accession of George I in 1714 as the Protestant monarch or a family event commemoration that prompted the planting of the trees.  However, based on the local legend of ‘the return of the monarchy’ it would seem that perhaps the accession of George I was the probable reason.

There are two possible reasons why Sweet Chestnuts were planted, 1) the popular Continental influence of using Sweet Chestnut in garden landscape design of the time, and 2), the more probable reason, the connection between the Felbridge branch of the Evelyn family and John Evelyn the diarist and author of Sylva, Or a Discourse of Forest-Trees, and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesties Dominions, and the fact that of the Sweet Chestnut, he wrote:


1. The next is the Chest-nut, [Castanea] of which Pliny reckons many kinds, especially that about Tarentum and Naples; but we commend those of Portugal. They are raised best by sowing; previous to which, let the Nuts be first spread to sweat, then cover them in sand; a Month being past, plunge them in water, reject the swimmers; being dry’d for thirty days more, sand them again, then to the water-ordeal as before.  Being thus treated, set them as you would do Beans: Pliny will tell you they come not up, unless four or five be pil’d together in a hole; but that is false, if they be good, as you may presume all those to be that past this examination; nor will any of them fail: But being come up they thrive best unremov’d, making a great stand for at least two years upon transplanting; Yet if you must alter their station, let it be done about November, and that in light, friable ground, or moist Gravel; however, they will grow in clay, sand, and all mixed soils, upon expos’d and bleak places, as more patient of cold then heat.

2. If you desire to set them in the winter, or autumn, I counsel you to, inter them within their husks, which being every way arm’d are a good protection against the Mouse, and a providential integument: Some sow them confusedly in the Furrow like the Acorn and govern them as the Oak; but then would the ground be broken up ’twixt November and February; and when they spring be cleansed at two foot asunder, after two years growth: Likewise may copses of Chestnuts be wonderfully increased and thickened by laying the tender and young branches; but such that spring from the nuts and marrons are best of all, and will thrive exceedingly, if being let stand without removing, the ground be stirr’d and loosen’d about their roots for two or three of the first years, and the superfluous wood pruned away: Thus you will have a copse ready for felling within eight years, which (besides many other uses) will yield you incomparable poles for any work of the garden, vineyard or hop-yard, till the next cutting: And if the tree like the ground, will in ten or twelve years grow to a kind of timber, and bear plentiful fruit.

3. I have seen many Chest-nut-trees transplanted as big as my arm, their heads cut off at five and six foot height; but they came on at leisure: In such plantations, and all others for avenues, you may set them from thirty to ten foot distance, though they will grow them neerer, and shoot into poles, if (being tender) you cultivate them like ash.

4. The Chest-nut being graffed in the Wall-nut, Oak or Beech, (I have been told) will come exceeding fair, and produce incomparable Fruit; for the Wall-nut it is probable; but I have not as yet made a full attempt: In the mean time, I wish we did more universally propagate the Horse-chest-nut, which being easily increas’d from layers grows into a goodly Standard, and bears a most glorious flower, even in our cold country: This tree is now all the mode for the Avenues to their Countrey palaces in France, as appears by the late superintendents Plantation at Vaux.

5. The use of the Chest-nut is (next the oak) one of the most sought after by the Carpenter and Joyner: It hath formerly built a good part of the ancient houses in the City of London, as does yet appear. I once had a very large barn neer the city fram’d intirely of this timber: And certainly they grew not far off, probably in some woods near the Town: For in that description of London written by Fitz-Stephens, in the Reign of Hen.2. he speaks of a very noble and large Forest which grew on the Boreal part of it: Proxime (says he) patet foresta ingens, faltus memorosi ferarum, latebrae, cervorum, damarum, aprorum, & taurorum Sylvestrium, &c. A goodly thing it seems, as well as stored with Venison and all kinds of chase. The Chest-nut affords the best Stakes and Poles for Palisades and Hops, as I said before, and being planted in Hedgerows & circa agrorum itinera, or for Avenues to our Country-houses, they are a magnificent and royal Ornament: But we give that fruit to our Swine in England, which is amongst the delicaces of Princes in other Countries: and being of the larger Nut, it is a lusty, and masculine food for Rustics at all times. The best Tables in France and Italy make them a service, eating them with Salt, in Wine, being first rosted on the Chapplet; and doubtless we might propagate their use, amongst our common people, at lest being a Food so cheap, and so lasting.

As can be seen above, John Evelyn wrote of the Sweet Chestnut ‘they are a magnificent and royal Ornament’, it would therefore seem appropriate that the Evelyn family should choose to plant avenues of Sweet Chestnuts as their act of commemoration of the return of a Protestant monarch.

The Evelyn Family of Felbridge

A branch of the Evelyn family gained an interest in the Felbridge area in 1588 when George Evelyn of Kingston, Long Ditton, Godstone and Wotton purchased the manor of Godstone.  This purchase included 70 acres of land made up of the site of The Star Inn and the strip of land opposite later known as Star Barn Fields, now the site of the tile Centre and Kwik-Fit, land along the Copthorne Road, and the site of Whittington College and its grounds [for further information see Handout Evelyn Family of Felbridge, JIC/SJC 09/13].  At the time of purchase this area was just heath land and bog.

In 1692 the property, by then consisting of the 70 acres of land and what was described as a ‘newly built house called Heath Hatch’ on the site of what is now Whittington College, was settled by George’s great-grandson, also George, upon his son William, and in 1719 William sold the property to his older half-brother Edward.  As a point of interest William and Edward’s father George was a great personal friend and cousin of John Evelyn the diarist.

Based on the dates of the Act of Settlement in 1701, the succession of George I in 1714, it would have been William Evelyn who was responsible for planting the two rows of Sweet Chestnuts in Felbridge to mark the guaranteed return of the Protestant monarch.  The avenues being then maintained by his half-brother Edward and descendants of his family until the estate was sold in 1855.

William Evelyn was born 1686, the only son of George Evelyn of Nutfield and his third wife Frances née Broomhall, after the death of his second wife Margaret née Webb in 1683.  William married Frances Glanville the daughter of William Glanville in February 1718, taking his wife’s surname to become William Evelyn-Glanville.  Unfortunately, Frances died shortly after their marriage in July 1719, an event that prompted William’s decision to sell Heath Hatch and his interest in Felbridge to half-brother Edward.  On the sale of the property William left the area and eventually married Bridget Raymond, later adopting the surname Evelyn of St Clere.

Edward Evelyn was born in 1681, the son of George Evelyn of Nutfield and his second wife, Margaret née Webb, George having at least 9 children and 3 wives during his life time [for further information see Handouts, Evelyn family of Felbridge JIC/SJC 09/13 and The Commonplace Book of Colonel Edward Evelyn, JIC/SJC 09/07].  Edward was educated at Oxford becoming a barrister-at-law, like his father, before embarking on a military career rising to the rank of Colonel in 1713.

In 1719, Edward Evelyn retired from the military and moved to Felbridge with his wife Julia, making the house at Heath Hatch their permanent residence.  Edward Evelyn had married Julia, the daughter of James Butler, 2nd Duke of Ormonde, in June 1713.  Edward and Julia had 4 children including; a son (name not known) born in 1714 who sadly died in 1716, Julia Margaret who was born in 1715 and married James Sayer of Richmond, James born in 1718, and John who was born in 1725, and as there is no further information on him he too must have died at a young age.

In 1741 Edward Evelyn purchased a farm and 130 acres of land being part of the manor of Hedgecourt from William Gage [for further details see Handout Park Corner Farm SJC 05/09].  The ownership of Heath Hatch, together with the purchase of the farm abutting Copthorne Road and the top of Mill Lane, were the catalyst for the creation of the Felbridge estate, and in 1747, Edward purchased the remainder of the manor of Hedgecourt from the trustees of William Gage for the sum of £8,260.

In 1748 Edward commissioned John Bourd to produce the map of the newly formed estate of Felbridge that extended to just short of 1537 acres, on which the two rows of Sweet Chestnuts are clearly marked.  Sadly Edward did not enjoy the estate for long as he died in 1751, being buried in the family vault in Godstone and his estate passed to his son James.

James had married firstly Annabella Medley, heiress of Buxted Park in Sussex, with whom he had a daughter, Julia Annabella born in 1757.  On the death of Annabella, James married Joan Fane née Cust in 1761, with whom he had another daughter, Anne born in 1767.  Sadly Anne died in 1790 after an accident where her gown caught fire, leaving Julia Annabella as sole heiress of the Felbridge and Buxted estates.

During his ownership of Felbridge, James extended and remodelled the house of Heath Hatch, which became known as Felbridge House, and he was also responsible for the construction of a chapel that stood opposite the current church [for further information see Handout, Felbridge Chapel, SJC 05/00], Felbridge School that was founded in 1783 [for further information see Handout, Felbridge School, SJC 09/05] and by a codicil of his will in 1793 established the Beef and Faggot Charity [for further information see Handout, Beef and Faggot Charity, SJC 03/03].

On the death of James Evelyn in 1793, his estate passed to his daughter Julia who had married Sir George Augustus Shuckburgh (later Shuckburgh Evelyn).  However, the Shuckburgh Evelyn’s would appear to have resided at Shuckburgh Park, Daventry, Warwickshire, and the Felbridge estate was leased to a series of tenants until 1855 when it was sold by Selina, the daughter of Julia and Sir George, to George Gatty of Crowhurst in East Sussex.

The Evelyn Chestnuts in the 20th Century

The Evelyn Chestnuts were allowed to stand relatively intact in their two avenues until the break up of the Felbridge Place estate in 1911, which resulted in the loss of the ‘Lord of the manor’, opening the village up to external influences.  As a result since the early 20th century the Evelyn Chestnuts have been constantly under threat, with many of the trees being felled, considered ‘unsafe’ by the powers that be.

Although some of the original trees have been lost, a few Sweet Chestnut trees have been planted in the gaps left by their removal.  In 1959, ladies of the Felbridge WI and children from Felbridge School planted at least six Sweet Chestnut trees in the avenue along the Crawley Down Road.  Unfortunately, in 1965 the avenue in Crawley Down Road was joined by several Horse Chestnut trees, which whilst creating endless entertainment for children in the conker season, seem out of place among the Sweet Chestnuts.  The Evelyn Chestnuts were under threat yet again in the late 1960’s when District Council officials tried to declare them unsafe and recommended their removal, fortunately this decision was successfully over thrown by Mrs Nancy McIver, of the Felbridge Parish Council, and Ivan Margary, a Felbridge benefactor.  Again in 1982, many Evelyn Chestnuts in the wooded area of the school were considered unsafe and it was only through prompt action taken by the Felbridge Parish Council that prevented them from being felled.  Later that year several new Sweet Chestnut trees were planted in gaps in the avenue in the grounds of Felbridge School.

In 2012 two Sweet Chestnut trees have been planted to the west of Felbridge School after the removal of an unhealthy Horse Chestnut tree.  In 2013 another Sweet Chestnut tree was planted to commemorate the life of John Yeates, a former Felbridge Parish Councillor.  This tree replaces one of the Evelyn Chestnut trees that had long since bee removed from the avenue along Crawley Down Road, nestling between the two original Evelyn Chestnut trees adjacent to the entrance to the Felbridge Village Hall.

Although the Evelyn Chestnuts are such a familiar landmark of Felbridge very few have protection.  The only Evelyn Chestnuts covered by a Tree Preservation Order [TPO] are those on private land along the Copthorne Road, now only fifteen in total, two trees being felled as recently as 2005 considered ‘unsafe’, even though it was stated in the sale documents for this remnant of the Evelyn Estate in 1939 that none of the trees should be removed.  The largest trees, found in Twitten Lane, are not covered by a TPO, nor are those within the School grounds or along Crawley Down Road, these trees, being on Council owned land, are considered to be safe from wanton felling!

Not only are the Evelyn Chestnuts a Felbridge landmark, but over the years the deeply furrowed bark has become home for a wide variety of flora and fauna.  Jackdaws, Corvus monedula, are probably to best-known and noisiest residents, roosting in the branches and nesting in the hollows of the trees.  Jackdaws, the familiar black birds with grey heads seen strutting amongst the Sweet Chestnut trees in Felbridge, have learnt how to open the chestnut burrs and remove the chestnuts whilst still on the trees, no other bird in Britain is known to do this and all other British wildlife have to wait for the burrs to fall and open before extracting the chestnuts.  Grey squirrels, Sciurus carolinensi, are also very active in the branches, particularly when the chestnuts begin to fall, but unlike the jackdaws have to wait until the burrs open before removing the chestnuts.

The crevices in the deep furrowed bark of the Sweet Chestnut trees in Felbridge provide a build up of enough matter and nutrients for small trees like Holly Ilex aquifolium, Rowan (also known as Mountain Ash) Sorbus aucuparia, and Yew Taxus baccata, to grow, not to mention ivy Hedera helix, and brambles Rubus fruticosus.  The bark also plays host to moss and three types of sage-green lichen, plus several varieties of fungi, including, the sulphur-yellow, Chicken-of-the-Woods Sulphur Polypore, the Beefsteak or Ox Tongue fungus Fistulina hepatica, Pleurotus cornucopiae, and Pear-shaped or Stump Puffball Lycoperdon pyriforme, all four being edible when young, and the non-edible bracket fungus Ganoderma adspersum.  Thick cobwebs can be found draped across the deep furrows of the bark on some of the trees, home to one or other species of spider and at the bases there are the small holes of the bank vole Cletrionomys glareolus.


In the early 20th century, the gnarled base of one particular Evelyn Chestnut tree opposite Chapel Cottages along the Crawley Down Road that had been felled, resembled a large seat and was used as a meeting place where the men of the village would gather to chat and smoke, and pass the time of day.  There is also a local story that former Felbridge resident Albert Chapman was born under the chestnut trees along the same road in 1925, his family being part of the Romany encampment that regularly used to pitch up on Felbridge Common in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

In the mid 1930’s, the Evelyn Chestnuts became the inspiration for the Felbridge School badge when the decision was made to introduce a school uniform.  A competition was held for a suitable design for the school badge, which was won by Billy Pentecost.  The winning design depicted a pair of Sweet Chestnut leaves and two burs with a squirrel seated on top of the burs eating chestnuts, the design being inspired by the squirrels that scampered about the area known as The Glades within the school grounds.  An Evelyn Chestnut tree, resplendent with golden burrs, was also chosen by the Felbridge Bowls Club when they designed their club badge in the late 1930’s, and a pair of Evelyn Chestnuts also formed part of the design of the Felbridge Rifle and Pistol Club badge back in the late 1940’s, which although now called the East Grinstead Target Shooting Club, still use the same design for their badge.

In 1983, when Felbridge School celebrated its bi-centenary, Evelyn Chestnuts were again used.  M J Alford, created a miniature model of an Evelyn Chestnut tree and tiny models of the Schoolhouse in plaster.  The School also produced a book of recipes called ‘The Felbridge Stockpot, 1783-1983’.  Governors, teachers, parents and Felbridge School cooks donated the recipes; one was called Chestnut Dessert, submitted by Mrs M Cunningham a long-standing member of the Felbridge community who no doubt used the local chestnuts as her main ingredient.

The recipe for Chestnut Dessert is as follows:

5oz/125g unsalted butter

5oz/125g caster sugar

4oz/100g dark chocolate (melted with 1 tablespoon of water)

15oz/435g of chestnut purée


whipped cream


Cream the butter and sugar.

Add the melted chocolate and chestnut purée and mix well, flavour with rum.

Serve with whipped cream.

British chestnuts are smaller than their Continental equivalents, but their skins are thinner and easier to peel, and unlike the majority of the population, the people of Felbridge make full use of the chestnuts that grow in the area.  During the month of October it is common to see people bent double picking up bags full of chestnuts.  Also, as some of these trees are situated en-route to the local primary school, there are a fair few ‘mums’ who munch the fallen chestnuts whilst waiting at the school gate at the end of the day.  In fact, the Evelyn Chestnuts have become so widely known as a Felbridge landmark that Arthur Mee writing in 1938, ‘The King’s England’ (a series of books by county that were primarily about architecture of interest), referred only to the Evelyn Chestnuts in the Felbridge entry, albeit rather inaccurately!

Again it was an Evelyn Chestnut tree that inspired the design for the Felbridge Sign, now erected on the Village Green.  Jon Jones of Reddick Forge made the sign in 1984 to a design by Ken Housman, the central feature being one of the large Evelyn Chestnut trees standing beside the bridge over the Felbridge Water.  This design was later used for the Badge of Office for the Chairman of the Felbridge Parish Council, and as the design for the new millennium souvenir mug for Felbridge [for further information see Handout, Civil Parish of Felbridge SJC 03/03].

In 2002, Sheila Dillon, the presenter the BBC Radio 4 ‘The Food Programme’, came to Felbridge to see the Evelyn Chestnuts for inclusion in the Christmas programme about the Sweet Chestnut, marvelling at the idea that Felbridge residents actually ate the fallen chestnuts.  In 2003, for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations, the Felbridge Parish Council commissioned a tapestry depicting well-known views around Felbridge.  Members of different Felbridge groups and organisations completed each of the seven panels, and Jean Roberts and Dorothy Harding, representing the Felbridge History Group, completed the panel depicting an Evelyn Chestnut tree.  More recently, to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2013, a competition was held for a wall hanging in celebration of the event.  The winning hanging depicts an Evelyn Chestnut tree and was designed and worked by Ann Morley, church flower arranger from St John’s, Felbridge, both commemorative pieces now hanging in the Felbridge Village Hall.

Other Sweet Chestnuts in the Felbridge area

The Evelyn Chestnuts, although the best-known in Felbridge, are by no means the only Sweet Chestnut trees to be found in the area.  There were several woodlands that were either completely Sweet Chestnut or had a large proportion of Sweet Chestnut, including, Coopers Wood, Cuttingly Wood, Furnace Wood (formerly known as Myllwood), Golards Wood (now the site of Hobbs Industrial Estate), Domewood (formerly known as Thorny Park), Bakers Wood and the area of woodland around Wiremill.  It is not known when these woodlands were planted with Sweet Chestnut but it may have been in connection with the iron industry.

The earliest known iron workings date to the 1st century AD situated on the southern bank of the Felbridge Water as it meanders its way along and across the Surrey/Sussex county boundary from the Star junction to the Smythford area at the foot of Hophurst Hill.  Later sites dating to the 3rd century can be found off Ascotts Lane and the south bank of the river in Long Field at Imberhorne [for further information see Archaeological Field Walk Report 1 and Handout, Roman Legacy of Felbridge, SJC 11/01]. The Romans exploited the iron found in the Felbridge area, either increasing production if it was already being smelted here on their arrival or introducing production to the area.  Which ever was the case there was a need for wood to produce charcoal as fuel for the bloomeries to produce iron.  There were obviously trees already in the area that could be used for the smelting process but the Roman’s knew that the non-native Sweet Chestnut was also a suitable wood for charcoaling and grew much faster than the native British trees.  This would make the Sweet Chestnut an obvious choice to grow for the purpose, especially as the tree liked to grow in the poor, sandy soil that is found in the Felbridge area.

If the Sweet Chestnut was not planted by the Romans for smelting then the woodlands may well have been planted to supply fuel for the iron industry that blossomed again in the area between the mid 1500’s and the late 1700’s when the blast furnace process was in operation in Felbridge [for further information see Handouts, Warren Furnace, SJC 01/00 and Wiremill, SJC 03/06].

The best wood to use for the more industrial process of smelting iron by blast furnace was oak Quercus robur and Quercus petraea or hornbeam Carpinus betulus, both strong, hard woods that produce sustained heat and could support the weight of iron ore piled on top in the furnace without crushing.  However, oak and hornbeam do not grow well in the soil found in Felbridge and in their shortage or absence, Sweet Chestnut was probably used, again for the same reason as the Roman period, it would grow well and fast on the sandy soil of Felbridge.   Blacksmiths and farriers also found that Sweet Chestnut best suited their needs, giving as a good a heat as both oak and hornbeam but with the advantage of being quick to kindle and extinguish.

To provide the wood for conversion to fuel, the woodlands round the Felbridge area were generally managed by the process of coppicing, whereby the tree growth produced over the preceding ten to fifteen years was cut down during early spring and left to season before use.  The coppiced trees were then left to re-grow over the next ten to fifteen years before being coppiced again.  Remnants of these managed woodlands can still be seen, especially in Furnace Wood and Domewood where the coppiced chestnuts have been left to grow on after the decline in the need of the wood for charcoaling [for further information see Handouts, Charcoal Burning in the Felbridge Area, SJC 05/02 and Furnace Wood JIC/SJC07/11].  The coppiced trees are quite distinctive having four or five large trunks growing out of the bowl of the tree.  Unfortunately these trees, remnants of the thriving charcoaling industry, are becoming increasingly rare as the years pass because the process of coppicing creates a bowl at the base of the tree that over the years collects water and debris, allowing rot to set in and the inevitable demise of the tree.

Another industry requiring Sweet Chestnut was hop growing, needing numerous long, straight poles to support the bines.  Sweet Chestnut is known for not rotting quickly and as such was in great demand as a durable wood, ideal for hop poles that are sunk into the ground and stand out in all weathers during the growing season.  The first known hop garden in the Felbridge area appears on the Bourd map of 1748 located at Park Corner Farm, behind what are now the back gardens of Park Cottages, Copthorne Road [for further details see Handout, Hop Growing and Hop Fields of the Felbridge area, SJC 09/01].  Although only a small area, amounting to three quarters of an acre, this would have supported about 1,680 hop plants producing 11 to 12cwt (559kg to 620kg) of hops.  According to an early expert, Reynolde Scot, each platform on which two to three hop roots were planted required three poles between 9 and 10 inches (22.5 and 25cm) round and 15 to 16 feet (4.5m to 4.8m) therefore for this small hop garden alone 1,350 poles would be needed to plant up the garden.  These poles lasted for six to seven years and would then need to be replaced.  However, as it was only the ends of the poles that would have rotted the reminder of the pole could be used for charcoal so nothing was wasted.

By the mid 19th century, based on tithe apportionments and map evidence, the total known area devoted to growing hops in Felbridge and the surrounding area was 39 acres 2 roods and 16 perches.  Therefore, the hop industry in the Felbridge area required about 100,000 poles to support the hop plants, these would have been replaced every six to seven years, equating to approximately 3000 trees to supply the coppiced poles.

General information about the Sweet Chestnut

The Sweet Chestnut is an easily recognisable tree having brownish-grey bark that becomes vertically furrowed with age, often spiralling round the tree as can be seen on the old Evelyn Chestnuts.  The leaves are long and dark glossy green with spiny teeth along the edges.  Another distinctive feature is the long yellow catkin flower spikes that appear between May and July, especially the pungent odour they release when in full bloom.  The fruits grow in clusters of green spiky husks which, when ripe, split into four to reveal a number of shiny brown nuts that can be collected between October and early November.  Chestnuts collected in October can be stored for later use, traditionally in their burs in an airtight tin buried in the ground or in their brown outer shells in straw or hay in an airtight tin.  Nowadays, chestnuts can be stored in the fridge (remember to regularly pick over to check for maggots), or in the freezer, the freezing process also makes it slightly easier to remove the skins.  It is important to remove the skin as well as the outer brown shell when eating chestnuts, as the skin imparts a bitter taste to the nut.

Chestnuts were once widely used in Britain, often as a free source of food for both peasant and pigs alike, and in Victorian Britain the roast chestnut seller and brazier was a common sight on many street corners.  Chestnuts have a remarkably complete source of nutrition being rich in carbohydrates, very low in fat, high in vitamin C, are a good source of fibre, and although relatively low in protein, the protein is very high quality.  It is perhaps a shame that in Britain this rich source of nutrition is today generally over-looked.  In countries like France, Italy, and Spain the chestnut is frequently used in every course of the meal and is also turned into flour for bread, cakes and biscuits.  However, they are not widely used in Britain today, although their uses were reintroduced, particularly in the Felbridge area, during the Second World War when food was in short supply, replacing potatoes in winter, served either boiled or roasted.

Although now rarely used in Britain, chestnut recipes can be found dating from the Roman period, with Lenticulam de castaneis (Lentils with chestnuts) served in a coriander wine sauce as advocated by Apicius.  In the Middle Ages the Sweet Chestnut tree was known as Chasteyn, the nuts being consumed in great quantities, and always kept on hand in larger kitchens.  Considered a ‘heavy fruit’ (like pears), they were recommended to be eaten at the end of a meal.  The chestnuts were also dried, ground and used as a grain substitute when making bread.  A recipe from 1475 uses chestnuts with cheese, shallots, and cream to make a savoury ‘tarte’, what we would now call a quiche.  Hannah Glass writing in the 18th century lists a recipe for chestnut soup and chestnut pudding, and even Eliza Acton and Mrs Beeton, both writing in the 19th century, have recipes ranging from soup and stuffing to desserts and sweetmeats.  It is only more recently that the chestnut appears only as an ingredient for stuffing, although Nigella Lawson, the ‘Domestic Goddess’, advocates more adventurous uses such as chocolate chestnut cake and chestnut ice-cream meringue cake, three layers of meringue sandwiched together and topped with chestnut ice-cream.

Today, chestnuts are generally associated with Christmas fayre in this country, being served with buttered sprouts or as chestnut stuffing for the turkey, but there is more to chestnuts than that.  They can be shelled, peeled and eaten raw, although perhaps the most traditional way of eating them is roasted, remembering to nick the shell to prevent the chestnut bursting when it gets hot.  Traditionally, the following rhyme was chanted whilst roasting chestnuts, ‘Maidens, name your chestnut true, the first to burst belongs to you’.  Apart from using chestnuts as a vegetable, they make a rich creamy textured soup when used as the main ingredient or can be chopped and added to vegetable based soups.  Try tossing a couple of handfuls of shelled chestnuts into casseroles, particularly when using chicken, pork or game.  They can also be used in sweet dishes and cakes, preserves and confections.  On the Continent, the large, most highly prized chestnuts are turned into Marrons Glaces, an expensive sweet made by coating chestnuts with syrup, being a recommended accompaniment to champagne.

Apart from eating the fruits and using the wood to make charcoal, the wood itself burns quite well producing a good heat, with a small flame, but it needs to season well before use and an eye needs to be kept open for shooting embers.  The timber also splits well and is resilient to rotting so was traditionally used for beer cask hoops, wine barrels, hop poles, mine props, agricultural buildings like barns, and is still used as fencing stakes.  As a point of interest former Felbridge residents have spoken of pit props being cut from Cuttinglye Wood, although this may have been in conjunction with a silent movie made about a pit disaster filmed at the base of the dam bay at Furnace Lake starring Harry Lorraine [for further information see Handout, Harry Lorraine, SJC 11/09].

On the Continent, chestnut timber is used in the construction of houses for beams and panelling, although in old age the wood is brittle and liable to crack.  More recently, in England, Ben Law a woodsman from the West Sussex area, built a complete eco-friendly house in a combination of Sweet Chestnut and oak in Prickly Nut Wood, near Lodsworth.  Sweet Chestnut has also been historically used as a building material in the Felbridge area as it is known is that Drew Russell of Smugglers Cottage, Snow Hill, was recorded as a shingler in 1694 when he took out a lease on the property [for further information see Handout, Smugglers Cottage, SJC 07/06], a shingle is a thin, tapered piece of wood primarily used to cover roofs and walls of buildings to protect them from the weather.  Historically shingles were split from straight grained, knot free bolts of wood, frequently Sweet Chestnut, which would have been found in abundance in the Felbridge area.  Sweet Chestnut could also be used for weaving panels for walls in wattle and daub properties and later as laths for lath and plaster walls.

The Sweet Chestnut was one of the natural tanning agents for making leather waterproof and contains a very high proportion of tannins found in all parts of the tree (bark, leaves and dried burrs) and early tanners found that it worked faster than the bark of the oak.  It is known that in 1787 tanner Thomas Walter acquired the site of what is today Felbridge Court, although it has not yet been possible to determine whether he carried out his business from the site or just lived there [for further details see Handouts, Harts Hall, SJC 07/05 and Felbridge Eating and Drinking Establishments Pt. II, JIC/SJC 03/08].  Other references to the use of bark in the Felbridge area for tanning can be found in the memories of former Felbridge resident Dora Wheeler who recorded that ‘Black Barn’ now known as Doves Barn ‘was used as a store for the bark stripped from the Oak trees felled during the sale of Felbridge Place [in 1911]. Then in wet weather, the bark could be cut into pieces, bagged up and sent away to the tanneries’.  There is no reason to believe that Sweet Chestnut was not also included as it is a far more prolific growing tree on the poor sandy soils of Felbridge than oak.

Also, the bark and the leaves of Sweet Chestnut have traditionally been used to treat a variety of ailments from whooping cough and bronchitis, to a gargle for sore throats, as a treatment of rheumatic conditions and even diarrhoea.  Nicholas Culpepper, writing in the 17th century said, ‘if you dry the chestnut, both the barks being taken away, [the shelled and peeled nut] beat them into a powder and make the powder up into an electuary with honey, [drug mixed with sugar and water or honey into a pasty mass for oral administration] it is a first-rate remedy for cough and spitting of blood’.  The meal of the chestnut fruit was also traditionally used for whitening linen cloth and for making starch, whilst returning to the bark, a blue-black dye could be obtained if the chipped wood was heated in water.

Of course there are many other uses for the wood of Sweet Chestnut taking advantage of its slow decaying properties, such as the making of fencing and furniture but in the absence of documentary evidence that these industries were practised in the Felbridge area it is up to the reader to pursue further information.  However, there is no doubt that fencing and furniture made from Sweet Chestnut would have been traditionally used in the Felbridge area.

In the past, the Sweet Chestnut was used as an early Christian symbol for chastity.  The chestnut in its husk surrounded by thorns, although the fruit itself is unharmed by them, symbolising the triumph of virtue over the temptations of the flesh represented by the thorns, and in the Victorian era, Sweet Chestnut was included in their secret language of flowers to signify ‘Luxury’, and to request ‘Do me justice’.  The Sweet Chestnut is also the tree associated with birthdays that fall between 15th and 24th May, representing honesty.  The person whose birthday falls between the two dates is suppose to be of unusual beauty and possess the following characteristics, does not want to impress, has a well-developed sense of justice, is vivacious and interested, is a born diplomat but irritates easily and is sensitive in company which is often due to a lack of self confidence, sometimes acts superior, feels not understood, loves only once, and has difficulty finding a partner.

The Future for the Evelyn Chestnuts

It is hoped that the Evelyn Chestnuts, whilst celebrating their Tricentenary in 2014, will still be standing in another three hundred years.  They are still babies when compared to the oldest know Sweet Chestnut in Britain, the Tortworth Chestnut of Gloucestershire, believed to have been planted in 800AD and known as the ‘Great Chestnut of Tortworth’ as early as 1135.  In 1720, a few short years after the Evelyn Chestnuts were planted in Felbridge, the Tortworth Chestnut measured over 50ft/15.5m in circumference compared to the largest Evelyn Chestnut surveyed in 2000 that measured just 20ft/6.2m.  Today, due to the many branches of the huge twisted trunk having taken root, the Tortworth Chestnut looks like a small woodland.  Perhaps a lesson can be learnt from the Tortworth Chestnut, in that the advanced years of the chestnut tree does not always mean that it is ‘unsafe’ and perhaps the Evelyn Chestnuts will be allowed to grow and stand as Felbridge landmarks for many more years to come.


Trees of Britain and Europe by B Gibbons

Trees by J Briquebec

Sweet Chestnut, History, Landscape and People by Chris Howkins

A Passion for trees – The legacy of John Evelyn by Maggie Campbell-Culver

Handout, 1911 Sale of the Felbridge Estate, SJC 01/11, FHWS

Mrs Wheeler’s Scrapbook, FHA

Felbridge Parish and People, FHA

Evelyn Chestnuts, Factsheet, JIC 09/00, FHA

Bourd map, 1748, FHA

Rocque map, 1768, FHA

Act of Settlement, 1701, www.wordiq.com/definition/Act_of_Settlement

George I, www.bbec.co.uk/history/historic_figure/george_I_king.shtml

Georgian Britain by A Langley

Sylva, Or a Discourse of Forest-Trees, and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesties Dominions by John Evelyn

Handout Evelyn Family of Felbridge, JIC/SJC 09/13, FHWS

Handout, The Commonplace Book of Colonel Edward Evelyn, JIC/SJC 09/07, FHWS

Handout, Park Corner Farm SJC 05/09, FHWS

Handout, Felbridge Chapel, SJC 05/00, FHWS

Handout, Felbridge School, SJC 09/05, FHWS

Handout, Beef and Faggot Charity, SJC 03/03, FHWS

Minutes of the Felbridge Parish Council, FHA

Evelyn Estate Sale Catalogue and Plan, 1939, FHA

Documented memories of J Fox, FHA

The Felbridge Stockpot 1783-1983

The King’s England - Surrey by A Mee

Handout, Civil Parish of Felbridge SJC 03/03, FHWS

Archaeological Field Walk Report 1, FHWS

Handout, Roman Legacy of Felbridge, SJC 11/01, FHWS

Handout, Warren Furnace, SJC 01/00, FHWS

Handout, Wiremill, SJC 03/06, FHWS

Handout, Charcoal Burning in the Felbridge Area, SJC 05/02, FHWS

Handout, Furnace Wood JIC/SJC07/11, FHWS

Handout, Hop Growing and Hop Fields of the Felbridge area, SJC 09/01, FHWS

EG tithe apportionment and map, 1842

Godstone tithe apportionment and map, 1840

Worth tithe apportionment, 1839

O/S maps, 1805 to 1911

Discovering the Folklore of Plants by M Baker

Roman Cookery by Apicius

The Art of Cookery by Hannah Glass

The Book of Household Management by Isabella Beeton

Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson

Sweet chestnut, www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/c/cheswe59.html

The world of the chestnut, www.psimports.net/CulinaryTour/Chestntus.html

Handout, Harry Lorraine, SJC 11/09, FHWS

Ben’s Place, Permaculture Magazine, No.36, FHA

Handout, Smugglers Cottage, SJC 07/06, FHWS

Handout, Harts Hall, SJC 07/05, FHWS

Handout, Felbridge Eating and Drinking Establishments Pt. II, JIC/SJC 03/08FHWS

British native woods and their uses, www. ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/LCVInternational/wood.htm

Culpepper’s Complete Herbal by Nicholas Culpepper

The Forgotten Language of Flowers www.joellessacredgrove.com

Tortworth Chestnut, http://www.rbgkew.org.uk/newviews/adventures/tree_chestnut2.shtml


Texts of all Handouts referred to in this document can be found on FHG website: www.felbridge.org.uk

SJC 07/14