Ruth Pavey explores the aristocratic history of the planting in this Highgate village within a village.

Ham & High: Cedar Tree at Holly Lodge EstateCedar Tree at Holly Lodge Estate (Image: © Nigel Sutton email

In June last year Gill and Steve Marston arranged a walk around the Holly Lodge Estate, Highgate, for members of the Highgate Horticultural Society. Their focus was not only on the present but on seeking traces, such as trees, of the former gardens and grounds of the philanthropist, Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts.

I particularly liked the thought that some of the existing trees might be contemporary with the baroness herself, that she, perhaps, had ordered their planting.

Angela Burdett-Coutts’ time as a very rich and charitable woman more or less coincided with the reign of Queen Victoria, with whom she was acquainted.

In 1837 she was only 23 when she inherited the fortune of her grandfather, the banker Thomas Coutts. She set about sharing it with a huge range of people and animals.

Her inheritance included the Georgian villa that used to stand towards the top of Highgate West Hill, with all the land that slopes down to Swains Lane set out as gardens, orchard, meadow and stud farm.

Ham & High: Holly Village, HighgateHolly Village, Highgate (Image: Mike T/Flickr)

Burdett-Coutts made generous use of her gardens for parties, fetes and, on many occasions, the flower shows of the Highgate Horticultural Society. She thought of replacing Holly Lodge with something new (the Gothic style of her Holly Village cottages suggests her inclinations) but instead enlarged the existing villa. It and its grounds survived her death in 1906 for another 20 years.

The estate was put up for sale in 1907 with a catalogue rich in adjectives: “unrivalled, unique, delightful, secluded, magnificent, picturesque, charming...” and (referring to the roads from central London) “easy and unfrequented”.

For all this, the 60-acre property failed to reach its reserve, having stuck at £205,000. Burdett-Coutts’ much younger husband owned it until he died in 1921. Only then was the estate divided and developed.

How much of the vaunted “wealth of rare and stately trees” might still remain, I wondered.

The answer is, very little. I should have looked earlier, before the great storm of 1987.

Ham & High: Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906), provider of funds for charitable purposes including schools, churches, housing, relief of poverty etc. wearing a tiara formerly belonging to Queen Marie Antoinette,1912Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906), provider of funds for charitable purposes including schools, churches, housing, relief of poverty etc. wearing a tiara formerly belonging to Queen Marie Antoinette,1912 (Image: Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

The plan accompanying the failed auction of 1907 shows a glade of cedars. Barbara Wheatley, estate manager, says that she has heard that several cedars were alive until the storm, but now there is only one. Barbara pointed out a sculpture made from the wood of a fallen cedar, marking where it had stood. It seems that the glade was close-planted, perhaps accounting for the survivor’s lack of branches on one side.

We speculated about its age. As the gardens were already famous before Burdett-Coutts took over, it could be that the cedars were planted by her step-grandmother, the actress who had been Sir Thomas Coutts’ mistress before he was free to marry her. That would make the surviving cedar of Lebanon at least 180 years old, which looks doubtful. So the baroness herself was probably the planter, or rather the one who ordered the planting – nothing I have so far read refers to her doing any gardening herself.

There is also a redwood, recorded in the estate records as a coast redwood, Sequoia sempervirens. Since these trees were only introduced from California in about 1845, it can only have been planted after Burdett-Coutts’ arrival.

It is now nearly a century since the estate was developed, so plenty of its current mature trees date from around 1927, including the ginkgo biloba on the top roundabout. Barbara showed me a photo of it then. It looks spindly, as young ginkgos without their leaves tend to look, despite being of a species tough enough to have kept going since before the dinosaurs. Even now it is not a big tree, but maybe it is pacing itself – ginkgos can live for thousands of years.