‘I shall plant trees’. The origin of the Jodrell Bank Arboretum

One evening in 1971 Bernard Lovell and his friend the engineer Sir William Mather, were discussing what they would do when they eventually retired from their illustrious careers. For Lovell it was quite simple: ‘I shall plant trees’ he stated.

Arboriculture was a life-long passion for Sir Bernard. Raised in rural Gloucestershire, he described himself as always a country boy; never fully comfortable in the city and only truly content under the trees. Perhaps this contributed to the affinity he felt with the area known as Jodrell Bank when he first visited in 1945 and why he was so willing to abandon his city centre university lab for the wilds of Cheshire.

This corner of East Cheshire would not only provide Lovell with a permanent site for radio astronomy, but also a place to indulge his passion for growing trees. He planted his first saplings at The Quinta, the Lovell’s family home in the village of Swettenham in the late 1940s.

But as Mather pointed out to Lovell that evening in 1971, he would eventually run out of space at The Quinta, where would he continue planting? Lovell’s mind immediately turned to the fields around the Observatory; approximately 30 acres owned by the University, some of which was leased to local farmers but much was wild and unused, awaiting any future expansion of the observatory.

As it turned out, the topic of conversation with Mather wasn’t a complete accident. At the time he was chairman of the Civic Trust for the North West, which was actively looking for ways to promote public appreciation of the natural environment and seeking a site for an arboretum.

So between them Mather, Lovell and colleagues from the University’s Botany Department drew up preliminary plans, garnered support from the University administration, and won a £20,000 grant  from the Granada Foundation. Planting began in 1972 and in June 1976 the ‘Granada Arboretum at Jodrell Bank’ was opened to the public.

Left: Cheshire Life article, June 1976. Top left inset is Bernard Lovell and William Mather. Top right is Dick Benton and Jack Swan who designed, planted and curated the arboretum, with Observatory administrator Reg Lascelles.

The arboretum was planted in broad avenues, designed to frame views of local landmarks such as Shutling’s Low, the Post Office Tower above Wincle and the radio telescope. Today, with mature trees and a much-developed site this layout is less apparent, but the focus on cultivating native and local species for use in interpretation and education remains. As Dr Richard Benton, who designed the arboretum, explained in a Cheshire Life article at the time of opening;

‘We have concentrated on planting trees and shrubs not generally available elsewhere and with public interest and educational value in mind. The elm and walnut families, and varying forms of cypress, are prominent examples, and there will be many unusual varieties of rowan. The site had a ‘heathland’ feel when we first explored it, so we have planted many species of heather and gorse.’

Having said this, you may spot some more international species on a walk around the arboretum today; Sir Bernard was often gifted seeds and plants on his visits to observatories, universities and space projects around the world.

Above: The Hornbeam Carpinus betulus ‘Columnaris’ (known as Lovell’s tree) was planted in 1974 as part of the Lovell Tree Collection, at the north end of the Jodrell Bank arboretum, photographed in 2004.

Trees and telescopes may seem like an unlikely combination, but as Lovell said, difficult intellectual problems can be sorted out ‘over the spade’. The simple activity of digging a hole and watching things grow gives the conscious mind a rest and allows difficulties to be resolved. A stroll in the arboretum has provided an invaluable counterpoint for hard working Jodrell Bank scientists over the years; a place for trees and ideas to blossom.