Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Hammond Arboretum, Market Harborough

When I heard that the Hammond Arboretum was going to be open to the public last Sunday I was keen to visit it. Because the last time I went there I got sent to the deputy head.

You see, the arboretum adjoins the Robert Smyth School in Market Harborough, but it was firmly out of bounds when I was at the school. (And, incidentally, we did have permission to be there. Sort of. Very nearly.)

In those days the arboretum was badly overgrown, but a lot of restoration work has been done in recent years.

Francis Hammond was the headmaster of Market Harborough County Grammar School (as it then was) between 1887 and 1923. When he took up the post the school still met in the famous (locally, at least) half-timbered building in the town centre.

His house was next to the school (in my day it was part of the school premises, though it has since been sold off) and in 1911 he bought some land beyond his garden. In 1913 he began planting trees and he bought more land a few years later.

Hammond continued to tend and plant his trees after his retirement in 1923. His notebooks have survived and the last entry was made eight months before his death in 1937.

The Harborough Mail described Hammond's legacy the other day:

Four of the trees in the Hammond Arboretum, at the rear of Robert Smyth School in Burnmill Road, Harborough, were earlier this year recorded as champions by tree expert Owen Johnson.

Mr Johnson has spent more than ten years studying and recording trees at hundreds of estates across Britain and Ireland. He visited the arboretum in June and determined that a Japanese platycarya strobilacea, planted in 1928, is the oldest of the very few known in cultivation.

I was told on Sunday that Johnson described the arboretum as being of national importance.

In the centre of the arboretum is a moat and island (the moat was dry on Sunday but does fill with water in winter). This appears to be a man-made feature that predates Hammonds ownership of the land and it has been suggested that it is the remains of some abandoned work on the extension of the Market Harborough branch of the Grand Union Canal.

I have read that it was planned that the branch should continue from the basin by contouring around the hillside to somewhere near the present-day railway station, cross the Welland on an aqueduct and then head for Northampton along a route much like that later taken by the railway. In the event the canal towards London was built from Foxton and Market Harborough was left at the end of a five-mile branch.

Nowhere have I heard suggestions that any work took place on this extension, but the moat at the Hammond Arboretum is on the right line. It is a fascinating idea.

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