Trees at Barrow Hospital

Trees at Barrow Hospital

Entrance of Barrow Hospital from Wild Country Lane
Entrance of Barrow Hospital from Wild Country Lane

The ancient woodland adjacent to Wild Country Lane was chosen in 1934 as the site for Bristol’s new psychiatric hospital, and building was completed in 1937. Although it was requisitioned as a naval hospital in the Second World War, it reverted to its planned function in 1947. When it was built, it was realized that the hospital site would benefit from close attention to landscaping, probably to compensate for the somewhat uninspiring and utilitarian buildings necessitated by the economic situation of the time. The early history of the hospital is recorded by Dr M.G. Barker in ‘Barrow Hospital – 50 Years of Caring’.

The hospital was built amidst almost impenetrable ancient woodland, countryside in which man’s intervention had been minimal, probably ever since the last ice age. Barrow Hospital4Even now, these woods contain carpets of Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and Early Purple Orchids (Orchis mascula) in the spring, together with many other strange and rare plants, like the Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera), with flowers which are good imitations of that insect, and Herb Paris (Paris quadrifolia), with its leaves in the shape of a cross surrounding the large black berry, a plant which is characteristic of ancient woodland. Another unusual plant that grows well (and appropriately!) in this woodland is the so-called Common Valerian (Valeriana officinalis), well known as a herbal sedative.

Lawson's Cypress on either side of the main entrance to the now-closed Southside Block
Lawson’s Cypress on either side of the main entrance to the now-closed Southside Block

The gardener at that time obviously put much thought into his choice of the species and the positions of the trees that he planted. These are now 60 to 70 years old, and although they cannot be termed ancient, they are approaching a certain maturity and stature that ensures the ensures the beauty of the landscape.

Approaching the hospital from the entrance in Wild Country Lane is a magnificent Weeping Willow (Salix chrysocoma), while to the left in the avenue leading to Woodside is a line of substantial Beech trees (Fagus sylvatica) that in dry seasons tend to wilt rather easily as they are on the top of the bank above the Long Ashton Bypass. Due to its shallow rooting system, Beech is likely to be one of the first casualties of global warming. Close to the Main Reception building is a good collection of smaller trees and shrubs, including a Gum Tree (Eucalyptus gunnii) and a Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo). Further along, towards East Villa are fine specimens of Lawson Cypress (var erecta viridis), while at Southside are Box Elder (Acer negundo), Snowy Mespil (Amelanchier ovalis) and Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos). The avenue leading past the Villas is planted with hybrid Black Poplar (Populus candicans cv Aurora), a tree thatBarrow Hospital is rather susceptible to bacterial canker (Xanthomonas populi). Another bacterial disease, due to Pseudomonas syringae causes deformations on the trunks of some of the Ash trees growing here.

There are two yew trees (Taxus baccata) near to Dundry villa. Compounds found in the yew (taxols) are now used in the successful treatment of many forms of previously intractable malignancies, notably ovarian cancer. Leaves from the English Yew Tree can be processed to extract precursors of these cytotoxic drugs that prevent the depolymerization of tubulin, thus inhibiting cell division.

Gum, Chusan Palm and Cordyline
Gum, Chusan Palm and Cordyline

On the open ground opposite John Cary House is an Indian Bean Tree (Catalpa bignonioides), and close by is one of several Dawn Redwoods (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) on the site. This species was discovered growing in the wild only in the 1940s and introduced to the UK in 1948. Close to Brockley House is a Maidenhair Tree (Ginkgo biloba), with its unusual leaves apparently virtually unchanged in form from those of its ancestors found in the coal measures. This tree contains compounds (ginkgolides) that appear to improve circulation and may alleviate some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. A collection of Snake Bark Maples is also found in this area, including Acer cappadocicum, Acer pensylvanicum (sic) and Acer rufinerve.

The avenue leading back to the main entrance is lined with some very unusual trees, notably the Katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) and with shrubs (for example Kolkwitzia amabilis). There are many forms of Lawsons Cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) trees on the site, together with similar conifers like Thuja plicata and Thuja occidentalis.

Red Ceder, Indian Bean Tree, Balm of Gilead
Red Ceder, Indian Bean Tree, Balm of Gilead

Anyone with an interest in trees, either for their aesthetic value or for their scientific value, would be well rewarded by a tour of these trees, which have doubtless contributed to the well-being of those patients who have been treated in the hospital. The trees cited in this account represent only a few of those present in the Barrow grounds. It is to be hoped that all of these trees will be preserved for the appreciation of future generations.

Terry Smith Nailsea and Tony Titchen Portishead

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