LAST week, sequoiadendron giganteums – giant redwood trees – hogged the headlines. They are the largest living organisms on the planet and although their home is the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California, researchers have discovered they are colonising Britain.

Botanists from University College London and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, discovered that although the giant redwood only came to this country in 1853, there are now 500,000 of them growing proudly on these shores whereas there are only 80,000 in California where they have been established for millennia.

Among the most intriguing of those half-a-million redwoods in the UK is a pair in Darlington’s South Park (below).

The Northern Echo: The Giant Redwood trees in Darlington’s South Park. Picture: STUART BOULTON

In fact, about 15 years ago the British Tree Council placed them in the Top 10 of all British trees because they are so intriguing – an almost unique genetic defect suggests that they are grown from the very first seeds to come to this country in 1853.

This was a time when gardening was the latest craze. All the wealthiest people were planting their gardens and parks with specimen trees, and everyone wanted the newest type so they stood out from their neighbours.

Plant explorer William Lobb was in California looking for new plants and sending seeds back to nurseries in England. In San Francisco, he was shown a hollowed out trunk from a massive felled conifer that was large enough to act as an auditorium with a piano in the middle and room for an audience of 40.


The Northern Echo: Park Lodge with the sequoias beside it before 1901. The lodge was built in 1853, perhaps on the site of an old farmhouse, with an observation tower for viewing the park. In 1901, the observation platform was replaced as the tower was heightened by 10ftPark Lodge with the sequoias beside it before 1901. The lodge was built in 1853, perhaps on the site of an old farmhouse, with an observation tower for viewing the park. In 1901, the observation platform was replaced as the tower was heightened by 10ft so the Potts Memorial Clock could be placed in it

Lobb knew that if he could find this 'vegetable monster' every park owner in Britain would be desperate to buy seeds from him, so he set out for the foothills of the Sierra Nevada where he came across 90 superlarge trees. It was hard to miss them: they were 90 metres (300ft) tall and 3,000 years old.

He rapidly sailed home with some seeds, cones and saplings, arriving in Exeter on December 15, 1853, where the tree was named Wellingtonia gigantea after the Duke of Wellington who had died the previous year. Wellington, who had defeated Napoleon Bonaparte, towered over all other mortals in the way that the tree towered over everything on the planet.

US botanists, when they heard, were outraged at the colonialists naming a prize American tree after an English war hero who had never even seen one. They had been planning to name it Washingtonia, after the towering figure in their history, but the British had beaten them to it.

The French were not best pleased either, and so a wrangle developed that was not settled until 1939 when botanists adopted the accurate botanical name sequoiadendron gigantea which did not feature any country’s hero in it. The National Trust, though, still uses the name 'Wellingtonia'.

Meanwhile those first seeds had germinated into saplings, which Lobb started selling at 2 guineas each or 12 guineas a dozen. Among the first to be bought was an avenue’s worth which were planted at the Duke of Wellington’s former home of Stratfield Saye House in Hampshire.

Despite these high prices, the saplings flew out of the garden centres into the parklands – the fashion for these monster conifers even eclipsed the craze for monkey puzzle trees a few years earlier.

The Northern Echo: Above: Rockliffe Hall, although Alfred Backhouse knew it as Pilmore Hall
Below: Alfred's country retreat of Dryderdale, near Hamsterley. Both mansions were designed by Alfred Waterhouse, the greatest Gothic architect of the Victorian era

The Northern Echo: Dryderdale Hall near Hamsterley, where lots of sequoias line the beckIn Darlington, this coincided with banker Alfred Backhouse laying out his estate of Rockliffe Hall in Hurworth and his country retreat of Dryderdale near Hamsterley. Being a botanically-minded Quaker, the latest tree would have appealed to him, especially as he was adding to the drama of the approach to his new mansion in Hurworth by screening it from view with a pinetum – a collection of pines and conifers.

The Northern Echo: Still from the film Get Carter shot near Hamsterley, County Durham, with Dryderdale Hall in the backgroundStill from the film Get Carter that was shot at Dryderdale Hall, near Hamsterley. You can see at least one of Alfred Backhouse's beloved giant redwood on the right

To this day Rockliffe, now a luxurious hotel beside Middlesbrough FC’s training ground, is approached through a pinetum which appears to have the largest sequoias planted on its corners.

The Northern Echo: Rockliffe Hall spa and hotel in Hurworth, just a couple of miles off the A1 at Scoth Corner. Rockliffe Hall Rockliffe Hall spa and hotel in Hurworth. Alfred Backhouse's old hall can be seen on the right with the new hotel development on the left, and behind is the pinetum, including several giant redwoods

The Northern Echo: The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), and his bride, Princess Alexandra of Denmark, in 1863 - in Darlington, there Wales Street and Denmark Street in the north end of town are named after themTo commemorate the marriage on March 10, 1863, of His Royal Highness Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) to Princess Alexandra of Denmark (above), Alfred very generously donated two of the sequoia saplings he had just bought to the town of Darlington.

The planting took place the following day, in weather that was "unpropitious in the extreme".

Snow fell at breakfast.

"Everything and everyone wore a miserable aspect," reported the Darlington and Stockton Times (D&ST). "The very flags on the housetops refused to wave in the breeze, the streets were a cold, comfortless swamp; the feet that waded through the streets were rendered shapeless by the dirt adhering to them; even the fireworks of the evening had no life to them."

At 9am on that snowy day, 3,000 schoolchildren gathered in the Market Square which was covered in flags, ribbons and medals. At 9.30am they moved off, led by a drum and fife band into Northgate, along Kendrew Street into Bondgate, back down High Row and into Blackwellgate, before parading along Grange Road and into the grounds of Joseph Pease's Southend mansion (now the Bannatyne Hotel). There they sang the National Anthem.

"A stupendously large bun was then served to each of them; it was as much as many of them were able to carry, " reported the newspaper.

"Every person couldn't fail to appreciate Mr Pease's kindness... but considering how sparsely some of the children were clothed, it is not improbable that some of them may suffer from the effects of the severe temperature and cold which they endured."

At noon in the Market Square, the 15th Durham Volunteers assembled with Colonel George Scurfield, of Hurworth House, at their head on his white charger.

Ankle deep in mire, they processed through the muddy streets already churned up by the children to South Park.

The park had been open for about ten years and this was probably its first official ceremonial function.

On the terrace, near Park House, Col Scurfield and Francis Mewburn, the Chief Bailiff, each planted one of Mr Backhouse’s sequoia saplings.

The Northern Echo: Alfred and Rachel Backhouse in their lounge at Rockliffe Hall, which is now part of the hotel in Hurworth

"Both gentlemen expressed their heartiest wishes for the welfare and happiness of the royal couple, " said the D&ST. "The volunteers then sang the Reverend Newman Hall's National Anthem, but although they strained hard to make it effective, it was impossible, owing to the dense state of the atmosphere and the indifference of those around.”

It is little wonder the soldiers struggled to make the national anthem sound effective. It is not the bounciest of anthems in the best of times but, following the death of Queen Victoria’s beloved consort, Prince Albert, in 1861, Rev Christopher Newman Hall had rewritten it so that it must have been a depressing dirge to sing when your feet are frozen:

"God save our Gracious Queen
Lord heal her bleeding heart
Assuage its grevious smart
Thine Heavenly Peace impart.
Our Royal widow bless
God guard the fatherless.
Shield them with loving care
Their mighty grief we share
Lord hear the People's Prayer
Her life-woe sanctify
Her loss untold supply
Thyself be ever nigh
God save the Queen."

Anthem over, saplings in the ground, the volunteers had one last action to perform before they could go home.

"Several volleys were fired by the corps,” said the D&ST, “who then retired to the Market Place."

The Northern Echo: The sequoias on the terrace with the first of the famous floral scenes planted beneath them in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria's Diamond JubileeThe sequoias on the terrace with the first of the famous floral scenes planted beneath them in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee

It is now 161 years since Alfred’s sequoias were planted and they have grown peculiarly. Rather than have a single stem that shoots straight up for the stars like most sequoias, they are multi-stemmed – generations of young Darlingtonians have loved climbing in among their complicated mass of roots and boughs.

The Northern Echo: The Giant Redwood trees in Darlington’s South Park. Picture: STUART BOULTON

The only other sequoias from those early days known to have this genetic variation are those at Wellington’s Stratfield Saye House which are known to have been grown from William Lobb’s very first consignment of seeds. This, according to the British Tree Council, makes the South Park redwoods extremely intriguing in terms of their history and so worth a place in the Top 10 trees in the country.

Last week’s research by botanists makes them even more important. The UCL researchers found that, somewhat surprisingly, giant redwoods grow in the UK at a similar rate to those in the Californian mountains, despite the differing climates.

What's more, because they grow so enormously, they have great potential to take the carbon, which is contributing to climate change, out of the atmosphere. Researchers believe each sequoia, if it grows at an average rate, sequestrates 81kg of carbon a year in its branches.

Therefore, sequoias seem to mitigate climate change and be resilient to it, and so their success in this country suggests they have a big part to play in parkland in the future – as they have been playing as South Park’s biggest asset for the last 161 years.