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Well, that’s better.

The week before last I took three whole days off work to cram my head choc full of foundation depths for single-skin versus retaining walls. At the same time as learning appropriate plants to use in carpet bedding schemes and the maintenance routines for prairie plantings. All part of the eclectic syllabus that is the RHS Level 3 (the Advanced as was: these days have to use the new but singularly uninformative new way of referring to the same qualification).

Then I took two utterly horrible exams. Well, they weren’t that horrible as it was such a relief to offload all that information from my perilously overstretched brain and splurt it out onto the paper, but I won’t know if I passed till at least the end of this month if not August.

I’m doing my RHS3 at Bicton College in Devon: set in what was once a stately home in Grade I listed parkland, it’s really a very fine sort of place for what is, in the end, rather a down-to-earth sort of establishment. It’s full of teenagers messing about trying to crash tractors and build York stone patios in fields and do obscure things to meerkats (there is an animal care centre of some sort there: I think, but am not sure, that it trains veterinary nurses).

And then there are the oldies: people like me and the motley crew of gardeners, plant nursery workers and general horticultural whizzes I was privileged enough to share a class with. They included the former editor of the Westonbirt magazine and the lady who organises Sidmouth in Bloom. It was all a little humbling, as these things should be.

Anyway, the reason I started explaining all this is because my final exit from Bicton (until next year: if I take a third module I get my Diploma so I thought I may as well get it all done at once) was down the college’s world-famous 500 metre long monkey puzzle avenue.

This has been a real joy to drive along every time I visit the college. I’m not usually a big fan of monkey puzzles (Araucaria araucana) when plonked as a piece of Victoriana in otherwise sensible gardens; but planted like this, like proper trees allowed to be as majestic and sweeping as they’re meant to be, they transformed my view of them altogether.
I have grown to love this long, noble driveway: I particularly love the way the oldest of the monkey-puzzles form fat, ridged feet at ground level which look for all the world like the feet of elephants.
There are 25 trees on each side, the originals grown from seed at the Veitch Nursery (which was not, as many reports would have it, based in London but in fact in Devon, with an outpost in London: it still exists, though re-named St Bridgets, and a fine nursery it is: do visit if you’re ever in the Exeter area).

They propagate hundreds of monkey-puzzle trees from the avenue every year in Bicton’s greenhouses and sell them on: and some go to replace those in the avenue which have finally decided enough is enough. The result is a pleasing variation in size and texture in the trees which gives the avenue a kind of rhythm all its own.

Planting began in 1843, and several of the original specimens still survive (you can tell which as they’re tallest, and also most moth-eaten).
There is a proper certified Champion Tree among them (one of several of various types at the college): I think (but am not entirely sure) that it might be this one:

It’s 26 metres tall, the largest specimen in the UK, and its girth is 4 metres round. Quite a tree.

Of course monkey-puzzle nuts are also edible: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, no less, has attempted to climb Bicton’s trees to snaffle some to try (he didn’t manage it: monkey puzzles are notoriously difficult to climb, so difficult, in fact, that they would puzzle a monkey. Funny, that).

The nuts are described as soft and like pine nuts or perhaps Brazil nuts – light and delicious. Trouble is, you need at least six female trees to each male to get nuts: so as long as you’ve got the sort of room Bicton has, you can grow your own. Otherwise, I can’t find a supplier in the UK: so you’ll just have to go and talk very, very nicely to the gardeners at Bicton. See you there.

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