The years of my childhood were punctuated by a regular series of expeditions, which put down seasonal markers far more immutable than Christmas, Easter or Harvest Festival. In spring there was the Globe Flower Trek, in summer the Climb to the Winberry Grounds, in autumn the Gathering of the Sweet Chestnuts and in winter the Great Watercress Hunt. My mother, who seemed perfectly normal to me when I was growing up, I now realise was rather extraordinary in her passionate identification with the landscape. There was little point in being indoors if she could be out.
The sweet chestnut tree - there was only one in our patch of country - grew at the edge of parkland next to an old iron kissing gate. It was an enormous tree, handsome in high summer with its long tassels of catkins, and good in autumn, too, when the toothed leaves turned butter yellow. But we went to it for its nuts, not to write poems about its leaves.
The excitement of this expedition lay in the uncertainty of the outcome. Some years the ground under the tree would be littered with prickly cases, stretched fatly over the nuts inside. Other years there would be none. The tree's common name, Spanish chestnut, suggests the reason why. It is a native of southern Europe and northern Africa. It likes hot summers and fruits best when it gets them.
The laborious business of working your way through to the bit that you want is part of the pleasure of eating nuts. We ate a lot of sweet chestnuts in their raw and creamy state, breaking open the spiny covering, peeling off the shiny chestnut coat, then stripping away the hairy skin that is the last line of defence. The texture of raw chestnuts is not so floury as when they are roasted.
We used to push the chestnuts in the beds of hot wood ash that were rarely cleared out from the fireplaces during winter. Pricking them first was important, we were told, but nobody ever explained why. One year my brother, who had an admirably enquiring mind, pushed a batch in the hot ash without pricking them first. They exploded all over the hearth in a very satisfactory way, but shattered into so many bits that there was nothing left to eat. By a narrow margin, he decided that the explosion was not worth the loss of the nuts. Later, he managed to get the best of both worlds by devising a gunpowder mix that he buried in cocoa tins in the lawn and detonated with a longish fuse. Those blasts made the chestnuts' efforts pale by comparison.
You need space for a sweet chestnut, for in maturity, they are not only tall, but wide. The champion tree in Britain grows at Canford School in Dorset, a warty, burred beast, 17 metres high and more than four metres round. Some of the biggest I know are in Burghley Park, Stamford, where they were planted in King Charles's time to provide winter fodder for the deer in the park. With age, their bark has become twisted like barley sugar and you could set up home inside their hollowed trunks.
It is one of the trees that the Romans are supposed to have introduced into Britain along with the sycamore. The tree that we made pilgrimages to was probably the wild species Castanea sativa, but there is a French selection 'Marron de Lyon' which is available over here and has bigger, better fruit. Robert Hogg, the Victorian doyenne of fruit fanciers, reckoned that 'Devonshire Prolific' was the only variety worth growing, but he was writing in 1875 and it doesn't seem to be offered now - though it probably still exists somewhere, if only somebody could put a name to it.
Like sweet chestnuts, walnuts need space - and patience. You may have to wait 20 years before you get a crop. They grow slowly to make round-headed trees not usually (at least in this country) as tall as the sweet chestnut. The tallest walnut in Britain is at Boxted Hall, Suffolk (23m), the fattest at Gayhurst, Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire.
The ones we feasted on at home were brought into the weekly market by various farmers and were thin-shelled and creamy. Strands of black webbing still stuck to the outsides of the shell. They were called 'wet' walnuts and the taste was ambrosial, far removed from the aged, slightly rancid flavour of the nuts that pour into the shops every Christmas. Why do we wait for Christmas to bring us out in a nut rush, when we could be eating them long before? Nuts with port was the crowning glory of an epicurean Edwardian's meal. We seem to have adopted the French habit of cheese with port instead. Nuts have acquired a faintly Fabian air: wholesome, of course, but not appealing to gourmands.
Old trees were mostly raised from seed and are of variable quality. Size, fertility, flavour and thickness of shell can all differ. The shells were once almost as prized as the nuts: jewellers put gold hinges on them, lined them with scraps of velvet and sold them as ring boxes.
Named varieties of walnut are now grafted. Look for Juglans regia ' Broadview' or 'Buccaneer', both of which are self-fertile. The most handsome cultivar is 'Laciniata' which has a slightly drooping habit and gorgeous leaves that are doubly pinnate. I have only seen it once, at Spetchley Park, near Worcester.
Choose only young walnut trees for planting as they resent being moved when they are older. Do not cut or prune them unless it is absolutely unavoidable. They bleed horribly when they are wounded. If it must be done, late summer is the best time. Hazels are much easier to accommodate in small gardens, though the likelihood of getting any nuts will depend on the number of squirrels in the neighbourhood. Just as birds always have a keener eye on the strawberries than gardeners have, squirrels usually beat filbert fanciers to the crop. Hazels can either be filberts, which have a long husk that completely encloses the nut, or cobs, which have a husk shorter than the nut. The Kentish cob is just there to confuse. It is in fact a filbert.
Hazels set a crop with or without a sunny summer, unlike sweet chestnuts or walnuts. Left to themselves they make multi-stemmed thickets, which you can plunder for pea sticks, bean poles and twiggy stems to weave into decorative supportive lattices for your French beans. You can use them as part of an informal boundary hedge or plant them as an understorey beneath oaks or beeches, the way they often grow in the wild.
Hazels do best in deep, damp limestone soils, but survive in a wide variety of situations, in sun or partial shade. You could use them to make an informal bit of woodland at the bottom of the garden, scattering snowdrops, anemones and bluebells under them for a spring display. They need not take up much room. The catkins, already showing now as rigid green caterpillars, are the male flowers which pollinate inconspicuous red female flowers on the same branches. Wind does the job well enough.
In the Kent orchards, where hazelnuts used to be grown in huge quantity (in 1900 there were 7,000 acres of hazel orchard in Britain - now there are just 250), the trees were kept on a single leg and very low. By repeated pruning, the nurserymen used to produce trees that were perhaps 15ft wide but no more than five or six feet high. This made them much easier to pick. You don't have to prune, but you can shorten branches in March if you want and take out in late summer some of the wood that springs up from the centre of the bush.
Corylus avellana ' Cosford Cob' is one of the best of the cobs with pale brown shells, so thin you can crack them in your fingers, without nutcrackers. It produces an early crop of big, oblong nuts. Corylus maxima 'Kentish Cob'is an excellent filbert, shown at the Horticultural Society (not then Royal) in about 1812 by Mr Aylmer Lambert of Boynton in Wiltshire. It was then quite properly called 'Lambert's Filbert'but got taken up to such an extent by Kentish growers that poor old Lambert got forgotten. Remember him by planting his tree.
Nuts about nuts?
Sweet chestnuts, walnuts and hazels are available from: Agroforestry Research Trust, 46 Hunters Moon, Dartington, Totnes, Devon TQ9 6JT, 01803 840776, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.agroforestry.co.uk, mail order only (send four 1st class stamps for catalogue); Thornhayes Nursery, St Andrews Wood, Dulford, Cullompton, Devon EX15 2DF, 01884 266746, fax: 01884 266739, email@example.com, www.thornhayes-nursery.co.uk, open Mon-Fri (8am-4pm), also mail order, free catalogue; Keepers Nursery, Gallants Court, Gallants Lane, East Farleigh, Maidstone, Kent ME15 OLE, 01622 726465, fax: 0870 705 2145, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.keepers-nursery.co.uk, open by appointment, also mail order, catalogue online only. For all you need to know about nuts, send for the 'Nutshell Guide to Growing Walnuts' (£2.99) and the 'Nutshell Guide to Growing Hazelnuts' (£3.50), both by Clive Simms and available from him, post free, at Orchard House Books, Woodhurst, Essendine, Stamford, Lincs PE9 4LQ. Make cheques payable to Orchard House BooksReuse content