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The Mysteries of Priory Park’s Trees               

The Surrey Mirror - August 16th 2013

PEOPLE traipsing home through Reigate's Priory Park with their heavy bags of shopping are probably totally unaware of the remarkable trees that tower above them.

Likewise, neither those out enjoying a gentle stroll or carrying a skateboard to the skate park are likely to realise how many of the park's trees are truly special and are in the record books for either their height or their girth - or both.

And while most sun-seekers have been enjoying the shade afforded by the delightful trees in the park during the recent heat waves, few must realise that among them are some of the finest specimens in the whole country.

Reigate resident Peter Gerosa has devoted decades to studying the park's plethora of "award-winning" trees.

The 84-year-old of Chart Lane, who has lived in the town since 1955, is truly a tree expert.

Mr Gerosa worked for the Department of the Environment many years ago and his last job for the DoE involved "everything to do with the countryside".

He said: "That job finished in 1982 when I took early retirement. I went on to work for the Tree Council and became secretary.

"The Tree Council was originally supported financially by the DoE which provided its first boss, but it tended to fritter away the money and the first thing I had to do when I became secretary was, unfortunately, to fire two of the four staff and soldier on."

After a few years, the Tree Council was blessed with a legacy of £130,000 which "put us on our feet". Mr Gerosa, who worked three days a week on a small salary, was buoyed up by the unexpected financial injection.

"I've always liked trees," he said, "but only really in the last years of working for the DoE. They had a lot of people with experience working for them."

When initial plans for the renovation of Priory Park were mooted in the 1970s, the borough council encouraged an advisory committee to be formed and Mr Gerosa became its tree expert.

The group used to meet in the Nutley Hall pub in Reigate.

I followed Mr Gerosa into a glade and learned that a tree near the car park was an elm. Incredibly, it had survived Dutch elm disease which destroyed most elms in the county in the early 1970s.

It was my guide who had dreamt up the well-known logo: "Plant A Tree in '73" and "Plant Some More in '74" to counteract the results of the elm plague.

I touched this elm, perhaps 60 years old, and felt privileged to feel one of its leaves.

Mr Gerosa said in Brighton back in the 1970s, the council successfully made a "fire break" ring around the city to protect the inner elms from the invasive beetle.

Special trees are nationally logged on the Tree Register of Great Britain and Ireland - TROBI.

The register is run by David Alderman who occasionally visits the Reigate park - the last time in July. A number of specimens in the Priory are recorded on the register, which records girths and heights of notable examples. It awards the status of "county champion" or "national champion" to the record-breakers.

"Mr Alderman has a wonderful gadget for measuring a tree's height," smiled Mr Gerosa.

"This is the only tree register in the country although the Woodland Trust has a register for ancient trees."

I was led to a bushy tree, some 60 years old, near the Reigate Priory School gates. It is a sapporo gold and originates in Japan. This disease-resistant species was planted because it closely resembled the elm. Hundreds of these trees can be found in parks.

I was taken to see the county champion sapporo gold which reaches upward some 50 feet. Just 100 yards away is another county champion - a 45ft bay tree.

Near the Priory school is a national champion for Great Britain and Ireland - the tallest and fattest known cornus-mass which, in the spring, is laden with stunning lime-yellow blossom. Its girth has grown by 20cms in the last eight years.

Yards away is a wing-nut hybrid, which originates from the Middle East. Earl Somers, who owned the Priory in the 1920s, was a tree-planting enthusiast and probably introduced the sapling.

Nearby is a cut-leafed oak of which only 25 are known in the country. It is said to be one of the best examples in England.

A 90-year-old walnut "which bears a little fruit" stands close by.

A grand, 300-year-old American red oak stands proudly near Bell Street and in front of The Priory, two unusual chestnut-leafed oaks stand sentinel at each end of the ditch.

Other notable trees include a 118ft hybrid poplar "still growing like a bomb" near Park Lane. It is the second tallest tree in the park, surpassed only by a 120ft ash near the lake, the tallest tree in the Priory. This is the tallest known ash in Great Britain.

A number of Douglas firs on Breakneck Hill are between 100ft and 130ft tall but fall far short of the height of the country champion at 160ft.

On the sandy ridge above Park Lane East, one rowan stands at 50ft. Another rowan has oddly sent a snakepit of roots along the surface and saplings have grown out of them resulting in a clump of 20 new rowans.

Finally, Mr Gerosa was keen to point out the oldest tree in the park - an oak with a girth of more than 19ft. And the tallest hornbeam in Britain and Ireland - standing proud at 102ft - can be found just south of the lake.

I returned to the Morrisons car park with some shopping - and a wealth of interesting facts. I shall in future see the park in a totally new light.