“ Information: Whipsnade Tree Cathedral, Whipsnade, Dunstable, Bedfordshire LU6 2LL / Tel: 01582 872406 „
~More to Whipsnade than the Zoo~
Whipsnade Tree Cathedral is one of the National Trust's attractions that doesn't charge an entry fee. That wasn't the reason I went - I have a membership card so I don't need to look for freebie sites any more - but I confess that I was attracted by the concept of a cathedral made of trees. Since Whipsnade is much more famous for its zoo, I wondered if the number two attraction in this Bedfordshire town might be worth a look. I had gone to a work appointment nearby in the morning, picked up a sandwich and a drink and was looking for somewhere to stop before I headed home.
I would guess that a lot of visitors will be rebounding from a day of staring at big beasts and searching for a quiet spiritual moment but in my case I have my Tom Tom programmed to find the nearest National Trust property wherever I am and as I left Beaconsfield this one popped up on my screen. This random approach to heritage tourism doesn't always work - sometimes I turn up at places that are closed by I quite like the random lucky-dip approach to finding somewhere to visit.
The first thing worth knowing is that if you have the same Tom Tom programme as me, is that your device may not take you to quite the right place. I was delivered to the car park of a rural village hall with no cathedral (made of trees or any other things) anywhere to be seen. Knowing that it's not uncommon for Tom Toms to get Trust property locations a bit squiffy, I didn't panic. I headed back to the main road and drifted along until I found the proper entrance. I parked up in the car park which has space for maybe two dozen cars, grabbed my camera, locked up and went to find out more.
~What's the Story?~
Checking out the information boards thoughtfully placed near the entrance I learned that the Tree Cathedral was the work of a World War I veteran called Edmund K Blyth who planted it as a tribute to two of his dearest friends and comrades whom he'd met in 1916 whilst doing officer training at Sandhurst. After an inspirational visit to Liverpool Cathedral in 1930 (which wasn't actually finished at the time) he was driving home and thinking about just how wonderful it must be for the stonemasons and builders involved to be working on such a project. As he passed through the Cotswolds on his way home, he spotted a patch of trees on a hillside and thought that surely nothing could be more beautiful than a cathedral made entirely from living plants. Considering there was no BBC2 Friday night gardening programmes to inspire such projects back between the wars, this must have seemed like quite a Eureka moment.
After taking time to study both cathedral architecture and the shape and growth patterns of different types of trees, Blyth set to work transforming a patch of his garden that had previously been home to his chicken coop into his tree cathedral.
Blyth laid out the trees and hedging in the shape of a fairly conventional but very large medieval-style cathedral with a nave, transepts and numerous chapels. He used a wide variety of native and imported trees laying them out carefully according to the part of the 'building' and choosing them for their shape, height and growth rates. He added a dew pond and surrounded it with a cloistered garden and year by year the cathedral grew in both tree-size and complexity. He started work in 1931 and finished in 1939, ironically just in time for the outbreak of the Second World War to summon him back to active service.
The cathedral became overgrown during the war but was returned to its intended state after and became a place used for ecumenical services in 1952 before it was handed over to the care of the National Trust in 1960.
I had no preconceived ideas about what to expect and I'd not read my National Trust guidebook or given any thought to what I might see before I drove up. I visited at the end of August and despite the generally lousy summer we had this year, I was lucky to have a sunny day that wasn't damp underfoot. I'd love to tell you that it was immediately apparent that I was in a tree cathedral but I have to be honest and admit that if I'd not been told it was supposed to be like a cathedral, I'm not entirely sure I'd have spotted that it was more than just a very nicely laid out arboretum.Walking through the Hornbeam Avenue, I stepped through the 'porch' and into the nave with its towering tall trees. There were small 'chapels' either side. Around the perimeter of the cathedral were four so-called towers, made with particularly high reaching trees. Tall hedges split up the space between the rooms and alleyways of the cathedral and a large dew pond forms the centrepiece of the structure. In some places the trees spread and link branches about your head like an arched ceiling whilst in others they grow tall and straight like the pillars that hold up the roof of a conventional cathedral. Wooden benches, many of them with carved end posts are scattered around the site offering lots of opportunity to just sit and think, to pray if you want to or just to admire the vision behind this place.
Dog walkers bounced around the site and every now and then I caught couples sitting quietly on the benches just looking up at the trees. It's hard to not be moved by the scope and scale of the imagination of the cathedral's creator and it is a beautiful peaceful spot regardless of your religious inclinations. I'd love to return at different times in the year and see how it changes with the seasons - to observe which parts retain their leaves, which drop them and how the structure moves with the passing year.
It's very much a do it yourself attraction so don't expect toilets, coffee shop and a souvenir hut - it's really just you and the trees. As National Trust sites go I think it's fair to say that this one is one of a kind and if you are in the area, I'd highly recommend a visit.