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University of Surrey’s Impressive Collection of 2,800 Trees

Published on: 8 Nov, 2020
Updated on: 11 Nov, 2020

By Hugh Coakley

Visitors to the University of Surrey will often be struck by how built up the campus is.

But the 33 hectare Stag Hill campus, bounded by the A3, the railway and Guildford Cathedral, has some lovely parkland and open vistas as well as a collection of more than 300 different trees species and around 1,500 trees.

In total, there are around 2,800 trees on the 120-hectare university estate over its five sites around Guildford, said horticultural and landscape manager, Simon Smith.

Some wonderful vistas on the University of Surrey campus.

Simon Smith, horticultural and landscape manager at the University of Surrey.

That is a formidable number of trees and Simon seemed to be able to name them all, generally with a botanical name but more often than not, with the common name as well.

“It’s not surprising I know them,” he said with a laugh, “I have been involved in planting most of them.”

He talked constantly about individual trees and plants as we walked around the Stag Hill campus together. He has seen the trees, and the campus, grow over the 39 years he has been with the university, all his working life.

He said: “As a measure of how the campus has been built up, it used to take us five days to do the grass mowing, it now only takes two days.”

Surprisingly, biodiversity was not high in the priorities of what to plant and where, but Simon says this is changing. “We were a manicured site four or five years ago but we are more aware now. We let hedges grow more. Bat boxes and bee hotels for example, are all part of our thinking now.”

“It is great to see the trees mature,” said Simon Smith. This eucalyptus was planted in the 1980s and is now about 30m tall.

And a new eucalyptus planted in 2020 is keeping the tree collection going.

Around 50 birdboxes have been placed on the site and Surrey is one of 23 universities to be awarded bronze accreditation as a hedgehog friendly campus by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.

Simon said the university also won a silver award last year for Best Site for Nature Conservation in the Guildford in Bloom awards.

One that got away. This magnolia was planted in the 1970s as a shrub. It isn’t causing any damage and has been allowed to flourish in a tight space next to a building.

Simon and his colleague Ian Main lead the staff of about 20 groundsmen for the university. It is a varied job from grounds maintenance, external pest control, wildlife, and trees, trees, trees.  “I love the challenge. Every day is different,” Simon said.

Olive tree planted outside the Jewish Common Room window marking Holocaust Day 2020.

It is very technical work with 60 irrigation points monitored on a regular basis to ensure water or time isn’t wasted and trees are surveyed yearly by an arboriculturalist as part of the ongoing management.

The university has just produced a tree management strategy document which will help the team focus their efforts.

The lamp-post is the only surviving external relic of Battersea Polytechnic after it moved to Guildford in 1962. A mature cedar of Lebanon stands guard behind it.

Trees can touch us emotionally. Four people have their ashes buried under trees on the campus. Rabbi Alex Goldberg, the Jewish chaplain on the campus, emailed the team after an olive tree was planted outside the Jewish Common Room on Holocaust Day this year, saying: “I can’t right now think of a more poignant or moving memorial.”

There is a lot of care given to the trees on Stag Hill and they look to my untutored eye to be in wonderful condition.

Simon was proud to be able to say that one of the trees, a glyptostrobus pencilis, was judged to be a national champion of its species by The Tree Register of Britain and Ireland.

That morning, an arborist from Westonbirt, the National Arboretum, had been around to collect seed from the special plant. What an accolade!

National champion tree, glyptostrobus pencilis, planted in the 1970s near the bottom pond. An arborist from Winkworth Arboretum has gathered seeds from the special tree.

Like the trees themselves, there is a history behind the grounds team. Simon was keen to name his predecessors, the original groundsman Terry Bennett and Simon’s old boss, Nigel Hodge, and to acknowledge their work in the success of the current campus landscaping.

Could Stag Hill be thought of as an arboretum, I asked Simon naively.

“Unofficially I think it is. I would love for it to be better recognised.

“Maybe we can just call it a tree collection,” he said modestly.

A hornbeam pictured soon after it was planted outside the main lecture theatre.

The same hornbeam 50 years later looking grand and stately.

Banana tree nearly produced a single fruit this year.

Simon’s boss, Nigel Hodge, with the team on his retirement.

The first groundsman at the university, Terry Bennett (with the red tie), at his retirement planting a tree with the university’s then vice-chancellor, Professor Antony Kelly.

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Responses to University of Surrey’s Impressive Collection of 2,800 Trees

  1. Jules Cranwell Reply

    November 9, 2020 at 11:15 am

    Since they are so proud of their trees perhaps they will now spare the trees at Blackwell Farm by cancelling their plan to sell it off to developers.

  2. Bill Dewey C.Eng Reply

    November 9, 2020 at 11:47 am

    As most of Stagg Hill is on clay most of the buildings are on piled foundations and so relatively unaffected by tree roots. Long may they remain so.

    Bill Dewey is a structural engineer

  3. Des O'Byrne Reply

    November 9, 2020 at 3:30 pm

    I hadn’t realised just how many trees and different tree species grew around the University of Surrey site. This article was fascinating and after reading it, I began to wonder if Simon Smith or any of his staff offered guided walks around the university grounds?

    Perhaps if they don’t, it is something they might consider doing for Heritage Open Days next September? I’d love to hear an expert like Simon sharing his knowledge.

  4. Barbara Howarth Reply

    November 9, 2020 at 4:12 pm

    I used to work at the university and enjoyed several of the organised “tree walks”. Conducted annually, I think. Let’s hope next year they can resume.

  5. Professor Costas Ioannides Reply

    November 10, 2020 at 10:54 am

    Commencing at Battersea, I have been at the University of Surrey from 1969 until my retirement in 2015.

    On moving to the Stag Hill Campus I clearly recall Gordon Hartman, a lecturer in Biochemistry, whose enthusiasm and love for trees is undoubtedly largely responsible for the many mature trees that embellish the campus, that we can now all enjoy.

    While still a PhD student in the final year of my studies, I still remember vividly Gordon waking me up on a Sunday morning (I was living in Tillingbourne, Surrey Court at the time) to reluctantly plant a tree as I had apparently consented to do. I feel so proud every time I go to the university to see this tree, now some 50 years old, thriving and being part of probably the most beautiful university campus in the UK. Thank you Gordon.

  6. Miloslav Dobrota Reply

    November 11, 2020 at 1:47 pm

    I am disappointed that Gordon Hartman’s name was omitted. Yes, in the early days of the almost ‘bare’ campus Gordon recruited us to come in at weekends to plant trees. One story of our efforts was the tiger spruce planted by the path from the car park towards Senate House. Despite its’ vicious needles, the students (they got the blame) nicked it that Christmas. We planted another and when that disappeared the following Christmas we decided no more Tiger spruces.

    Also missing is any mention of two plaques which commemorate a hundred or so notable trees donated in the names of late members of staff and students. One plaque is located near the bus stop the other by the path leading to the lake. These were bequeathed to the university by Dr Eric Reid in memory of Gordon Hartman who sadly passed away in 2004 just a couple of years after his retirement.

    Dear Gordon is much missed and fondly remembered by all who knew him.

    Editor’s response: Gordon Hartman wasn’t mentioned to Hugh Coakley. But please do send in your memories or photos of him.

  7. Sue (Bennett) Neech Reply

    November 11, 2020 at 3:06 pm

    Well done Simon Smith for continuing the vision my Dad many years ago. We are so very proud of you. And the grounds, especially some of the trees, look breathtakingly beautiful.

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