Until the 1980s, Chillingham Park was the property of the family of the Earls of Tankerville, owners of Chillingham Castle. At one time this family owned 65000 acres in the UK, over 100 square miles. Now the estates have been broken up and sold and Chillingham Wild Cattle Association owns the historic Cattle Park of about 330 acres, together with the surrounding woodlands and, of course, the cattle herd.
This is a beautiful parkland landscape, but it is not really natural! However, it fits with many people’s idea of beauty because it has been modified and maintained by humans.
In England and Wales there are about 3000 parks. Very many go back hundreds of years. Some were designed by famous landscape architects the best known being Lancelot Brown, who died in 1783. His nickname was “Capability Brown” – because he always told his clients their land had “capabilities”. He designed the landscape around Alnwick Castle.
Chillingham Park as we see it today was designed by John Bailey, 15 years after Brown’s death. John Bailey was the Earl of Tankerville’s estate manager.
The landscape he created is very different from how Chillingham had ever looked before.
When Chillingham Castle was built, 700-800 years ago, there would almost certainly have been a deer park close by, most castles had one to provide venison for honoured guests.
On the side away from the castle there was the Great Wood of Chillingham. Up on the hillsides there would have been common land which local villagers could use for grazing. There would have been scattered trees here. The different areas were separated from each other by ditches and walls or fences.
But from about 1711 onwards there were big changes. It appears a lot of the common land was taken away from the villagers. Many of the ditches, walls and fences were cleared away, and the Great Wood of Chillingham was all cut down, along with every other tree in the park. The timber was sold for £4000 in the 1750s, about half a million pounds in today’s money.
This paid for new walls which partitioned off the “New Park” next to the Castle, plus the “Old Park” which occupied most of the rest of the area.
We don’t know exactly how it happened, but by the 1790s, it appears all the cattle and a lot of deer were kept in the castle deer park.
It’s possible that a lot of the outer park was now being tenanted as a farm. It must have looked a mess because the stumps from the old Great Wood were still there.
In the 1790s the Earl decided on a big landscape project. This was directed by John Bailey. A seven-mile wall was built around the whole Chillingham area.
The old walls and tree stumps of the 1750s were cleared away, tracks and little bridges were built, the flat ground was drained to improve the pasture. Several small woods were planted, mostly on the slopes which the cattle weren’t keen on grazing anyway.
The stumps of the Great Wood were all removed, except those along the streams and ditches and in the wettest patch. That is an area we call the Allers, which is truly ancient woodland because as far as we know it has always had tree cover.
The grassland was not intensively managed and, as a result, included lots of flowers and other plants which wouldn’t survive under modern farming. That gave us the park as we have it today.
With its ancient trees and pastures, parkland can be a wonderful habitat for lots of plants and animals that cannot thrive so well elsewhere in our modern world.
Chillingham Park is unique in the world because it has been, without interruption, the ancient home of its very own breed of cattle.