Exploring the trees of a historic castle and stately home in Leicestershire 

BELVOIR Castle stands on a hill just on the edge of the Vale of Belvoir, less than five miles west of Grantham. The current castle is the fourth to have stood on the site since the time of the Norman Conquest. It was completed in the early 19th century, following a major fire in 1816, and damage was caused to large parts of the previous castle during the Wars of the Roses. The current castle and estate sits in 30,000 acres and is open to the public.

Although Belvoir in French means ‘beautiful view’, the castle is better known as ‘Beaver’, probably because the Anglo Saxons could not pronounce the French. Belvoir has been the home to the Dukes of Rutland for a thousand years and today the 11th Duke and Duchess reside there. This iconic castle has appeared in several films and television programmes, portraying the Pope’s summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, in the Da Vinci Code and serving as a stand-in for Windsor Castle during the second series of The Crown.

Forestry Journal: The current Belvoir Castle is the fourth to be built on the site.The current Belvoir Castle is the fourth to be built on the site. (Image: eA/James Hendrie)

While the castle has many treasures inside its walls, it also has beautiful grounds containing wonderful gardens and parkland all with a wide range of flora, fauna, and a number of notable trees. These landscaped gardens, from the original designs of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in the 18th century, have had extensive renovation works carried out on them in recent years. Looking out from the castle over the Vale of Belvoir offers amazing views of these gardens, as well as lakes within them and, of course, the woodlands in which they are set.

A recent two-year initiative, overseen by the duchess and her team, has seen works carried out to renovate parts of the estate. These have looked to follow Brown’s original 1780 plan which it was thought had been lost but was discovered in the castle’s archives. It has been quite an undertaking, with much tree felling as well as planting. Some trees have been felled to open up the views, as Brown had envisaged, but over 80,000 have been planted. Overgrown water, abandoned ponds and lakes have been restored and several miles of new roadways built.

Belvoir Estate has not been alone in carrying out such restoration work. Other notable castles and palaces have completed similar works to celebrate the life of the man who had such an influence over 18th-century English landscape gardening. It has been reported that Brown worked on around 250 sites in England and Wales covering half a million acres of land. For a man from humble beginnings he certainly left an incredible legacy.

Forestry Journal: Visitors can take a number of different walks around the estate to view the various gardens and enjoy the wide variety of trees that grow at Belvoir.Visitors can take a number of different walks around the estate to view the various gardens and enjoy the wide variety of trees that grow at Belvoir. (Image: eA/James Hendrie)

Brown’s plans for Belvoir were drawn up for the 4th duke of Rutland when Brown was 63 years of age. These were to cost £500 and included improvements to the castle and the estate. Sadly, Brown died before they were fully completed. However, when they were, they did follow the spirit of his plans, with the creation of new woods and the planting of clumps and estate-perimeter belts of trees.

Thankfully for the villagers of Woolsthorpe, Brown suggested the planting of a large number of trees to hide the village from the views offered from Belvoir – an alternative to the removal of the village itself! The 4th duke, for various reasons, was short of cash and it was not until 1782 that the first trees were planted. The 4th duke then became the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and it was left to his estate manager to work on the plans, raising funds for some of the works by selling timber.

When the 5th duke took over Belvoir in 1787, the family financial situation had greatly improved and he oversaw the continuation of the tree planting and estate works. Moving into the 19th century, most trees along the estate’s perimeters had been planted and work had commenced on the woodland plantings. In 1788, Holywell Wood was one of three significant planting projects that were carried out, consisting of a central planting of oaks with a ring of beech and horse chestnut trees surrounding them.

Forestry Journal: This Monkey Puzzle (Araucaria araucana) was planted in 1842.This Monkey Puzzle (Araucaria araucana) was planted in 1842. (Image: eA/James Hendrie)

Today, the parklands at Belvoir Castle contain a variety of habitats with biodiversity being a key feature. There is wood pasture and parkland alongside deciduous, mixed broadleaf and conifer woods, not to mention traditional orchards. Briery Wood Heronry is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and the largest heronry in the county. 30 or so breeding pairs live amongst the trees of mature oaks and ash in an area of the estate that is not open to the public.

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The connection between Belvoir Castle and the nearby village of Woolsthorpe has continued to the present day with the villagers planting a number of lime trees along Woolsthorpe Avenue to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. Belvoir Estate completed this avenue in 2012 to mark the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee. Capability Brown originally left an area of around 26 acres of gardens for the 5th duchess to design and create. She followed Brown’s plan and the current duchess, Emma, has continued that work.

Forestry Journal:  The rockery at the Duchess Garden, which has been designed as a giant staircase. The rockery at the Duchess Garden, which has been designed as a giant staircase. (Image: eA/James Hendrie)

Visitors to Belvoir Castle will find a number of walks advertised in the guidebook, ranging from 20 minutes – the Spiral Walk, Rose Garden, and Japanese Woodland Walk – up to the Duchess Garden at 45 minutes and finally the Duke’s Walk at an hour. The latter is around three miles but offers a chance to take in everything the gardens and the grounds of Belvoir Castle have to offer.

The Spiral Walk starts below the Terrace Walk of the castle and takes in old workshops, a passageway that allowed a railway to transport goods to the castle, an old icehouse and stables, before leading to the family’s private gardens with a collection of ornamental trees and shrubs.

Like many estates and gardens of today, an example of a Wollemi pine (Wollemia) can be found growing there. The aim of these plantings being is to help preserve the future of one of the world’s oldest and rarest trees.

Forestry Journal: The Statue Gardens.The Statue Gardens. (Image: eA/James Hendrie)

The Rose Garden Walk takes in the formal gardens of Belvoir Castle, which were planned by the garden designer Harold Peto. The roses are all new plantings by Emma, the 11th duchess. There is a lily pond and a number of carved statues, dogwoods, azaleas, and acers, which help to add to the scenery of the gardens, as well as some hedges. The family pet cemetery is accessed down some steps, having passed under a laburnum arch. Exiting away from this garden are two trees of note – a wild cherry (Prunus avium), which at over 30 metres high is a champion tree, and a Pendunculate oak (Quercus robur) which itself is around 35 metres high.

The Japanese Woodland Walk can then be found on leaving the pet cemetery. This has a real mixture of trees and shrubs. Replanting first started in this area in 2006 with bamboos growing alongside acers, magnolias, and camellias. Two lakes were added in 2011. The information board explains that this part of the castle grounds has natural springs and a thin canopy of oak trees, which help to protect the young plantings.

Formally known as Priory Hole Wood, a number of 250-year-old oak trees grew here as well as cherry and yew trees planted by the 5th duke and duchess. 200 years later, the 11th duchess, working with a Japanese plant expert, undertook the thinning of some of these oaks and an extensive clearing of the undergrowth to plant magnolias, Japanese cherry (Prunus serrulata), Snake bark maple (Acer grasseri) and Japanese maples (Acer palmatum), alongside bamboos, gunnera, rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias.

Forestry Journal: Handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata).Handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata). (Image: eA/James Hendrie)

A path runs parallel to the exit drive, as visitors head towards the Duchess Gardens, and here another wild cherry tree (Prunus avium) is to be found, this one also around 30 m high, along with a Western hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) at around 25 metres tall and a wonderful example of a multi-stemmed European yew (Taxus baccata), which at near 29 m high is one of the tallest in the country, and certainly worth checking out.

A large rockery was built in the Duchess Garden in 2012. Some of the rocks used, which came from the estate’s quarry, weigh up to three tonnes. It has been designed like a giant staircase and is worth scrambling up to find one of the oldest trees at Belvoir, a monkey puzzle (Araucaria araucana) planted in 1842. The tree, which is around 25 m high, grows quite serenely next to the Root and Branch Pavilion. At the bottom end of this garden is a fine 30 m tall example of a giant redwood (Sequoiadendron giganteum), while to the left of the staircase is a handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata), which displays large white flower clusters in May and June. From here and following the Duchess Garden walk, you encounter more acers, rhododendron and camellias, and pass the ‘Root and Moss House’ or Summer House. There are also some interesting trees, including a blue sausage tree known as Dead Man’s Digits (Decaisnea fargesii). This displays blue sausage-like fruits in late autumn or Halloween, which may account for its nickname.

Forestry Journal: Overgrown and abandoned water features and ponds have been restored and some trees felled to open up the views.Overgrown and abandoned water features and ponds have been restored and some trees felled to open up the views. (Image: eA/James Hendrie)

This walk offers great views of the wonderful gardens below with trees of all kinds and sizes.

Visitors are to watch out for the Japanese katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum), which smells like burnt sugar or candy floss (in Germany, these trees are known as ‘pie or gingerbread trees’).

Near the ‘Root and Moss House’ grows a Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica) planted in 1895. Amazing to think this tree is so old, yet today is regarded as an endangered species and a high conservation priority, known for its stunning autumnal colours when the leaves turn into a riot of orange, red, and yellow.

The two hour-long walks are the Hermit’s Garden Walk and the Duke’s Walk. The Hermit’s Garden Walk takes visitors to see two grottos and a lake. The present duchess created a new Hermit’s Garden in 2013 and many new ericaceous-loving trees and shrubs were planted alongside many rhododendrons and azaleas to add a riot of colour. The trees, many of which originate from Asia and the Far East, include Japanese stewartia, a deciduous camellia, Styrax (famed for its flowers), Ekianthus (which grows as far west as the Himalayas), dogwood (Cornus), noted for its bark, blossom and berries, and Stachyurus, which has lovely four-petalled flowers.

The Duke’s Walk allows views of the parklands and the lake designed by ‘Capability’ Brown, newly planted woodlands, as well as the last remaining wood of the estate that has not been restored.

Forestry Journal: 80,000 new trees have been planted in the last few years at Belvoir.80,000 new trees have been planted in the last few years at Belvoir. (Image: eA/James Hendrie)

There are yew (Taxus baccata) trees and a number of coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) to admire and a few of the remaining grottoes and pavilions that the 5th duke created along the walk.

A Pendunculate oak (Quercus robur) grows below the exit road from the castle, which is recorded as over 35 m and is a few hundred years old, like many of the oaks at Belvoir Castle. The current duke of Rutland was one of many owners of historic houses in the United Kingdom that offered to donate mature oak trees for the restoration project at Notre Dame after it was partially destroyed by fire in 2019. He said, at the time of his offer, that it was because of the foresight of his great-great-grandfather, who planted the oaks, that he could make his offer of help and that for each tree felled a new one would be planted to replace it at Belvoir Castle.