Euan McPhee

Photographs: Charles Francis

July 2014: The Tregoniggie Titan is a giant among trees: a magnificent ash with a massive base which measures more than 15 feet. Believed to be around 400 years old, it is one of only a small number of ancient trees identified in Cornwall — and it is still thriving in an old Cornish hedge in Falmouth. “It’s a really significant specimen,” says Euan McPhee, chairman of the Friends of Tregoniggie Woodland. “Some of the stems are around 80 years old, and it still produces new growth every year.”

The Titan has become a symbol of local residents’ pride in Tregoniggie, an open space which has survived against the odds. The woodland and the surrounding fields were once farmland. Half a century ago, the farmhouse was demolished to make way for an industrial estate. “But there was a little bit of leftover land with a stream running through it which was too steep and too wet for a developer to do anything with,” explains Euan.

Eminent horticulturalist Don Hoyle, who was then parks superintendent in Falmouth, supervised the planting of a range of trees both native and exotic along this half-mile stretch of land, and later, a network of paths was created. Over the years, housing developments sprang up on the fringes of the woodland, and it became neglected and overgrown — but in just six months it has been restored and revitalised, thanks to the Friends of Tregoniggie Woodland.

David Evans

It all started, says Euan, with dog poo. He asked Cormac Solutions — which manages the woodland on behalf of Cornwall Council — if more dog bins could be provided. “I discovered that another guy was badgering Cormac about the same issue, and we managed to get them to put an extra bin in. We then decided to have a meeting to see if there was any interest in setting up a friends group for the woodland, and about 20 people showed up. We now have working parties twice a month, and we’ve put in several hundreds of hours of labour.”

Planting bluebells

The Friends were keen to ensure Tregoniggie’s future as a community facility, as well as protect its heritage as a haven for important trees like the Titan and historic Cornish hedges. “Within the wood, there are lovely old lanes which are hundreds of years old, bounded by hedges full of bluebells, hazel, oak and holly,” says Euan. “It’s as though little bits of old countryside have been captured.”

Old lane with Cornish hedge

The Friends’ first job was to blitz the weeds which had made some sections of the woodland impassable. Regular tasks since then have included clearing encroaching vegetation, trimming back overhanging branches, and picking up litter.

Clearing brambles

There is also an extensive planting programme, following the example set by Don Hoyle 50 years ago. Around 500 trees donated by the Woodland Trust have been planted by local schoolchildren and residents.

Horse chestnut

“There are some nice ornamental trees which were already here, such as Monterey pines, redwoods and spruces,“ says Euan. “There’s also a rather splendid line of Italian alder close to a cluster of red maple, and a wonderful horse chestnut where the branches sweep down to the ground, which children can climb over: it’s a marvellous adventure playground for them.

Climbing tree

“But some of the older trees are coming to the end of their lives. We realised that unless you keep planting, all the trees will age at the same time. We’re concentrating on native deciduous species — oak, birch, hazel, whitebeam, hawthorn.

“We’ve also scattered some wildflower seeds. There are already lots of residual pasture species like clover, and some beautiful fritillarias which have naturalised quite nicely. Daffodils are part of the traditional spring display here, and there was a fabulous show this spring. Ron Scamp, the great daffodil breeder and grower, donated hundreds of bulbs — a marvellous gift. They were planted by the schoolchildren, along with wishes written on pieces of paper, so that both daffodil and wish would grow.”

He adds: “The more we can involve children and get them to feel this is their place, the more we can get them to look after it. There has been no vandalism of the new trees. That’s a very positive sign that most people feel a sense of ownership of the area.”

Maggie Evans, who like Euan, is a founder member of the Friends, agrees that it is vital to ensure that the woodland is a place where the most junior members of the community can feel at home — and the most senior: “We’ve got a group of nursery school children who come here to do nature walks, and the older people who live round here now have somewhere safe to walk,” she says.

Local resident Pauline Moyle is impressed with the work the Friends have done: “It’s a lovely place for children now. My kids grew up here, but it became so overgrown that you couldn’t walk through here at all. These people are doing a marvellous job.”

She and other people living nearby are unhappy about a proposal by Cormac Solutions to create a cycle route through the woodland, and Euan understands their concern. “I’m a cyclist, and I agree that we need improved cycle routes in Cornwall — but I’m not convinced that this is the right place.” He believes that the good working relationship built up with Cormac will ensure that residents’ views are taken into account before a decision is made.

The group is one of an increasing number of volunteer organisations working with Cormac to protect and enhance much-loved open spaces across Cornwall. Area manger Viv Bidgood says:  “We’re delighted that this group is up and running. I have been particularly impressed with the passion and willingness to improve the site that the Friends have demonstrated for the benefit of the local community. The results speak for themselves.”

The Friends are already planning a party for their first anniversary in December.  The local Black Rock Brewery has been asked to create a special beer to mark the occasion. Euan says the Friends might decide to call it Tregoniggie Titan.