Words by Hannah Tapping.
How a 200-year-old Cornish tree with a unique literary connection finds a new home.
Menabilly, on Cornwall’s south coast, has been the seat of the Rashleigh family since the 16th century. In more recent times, the house and its grounds became known for their connection with the acclaimed writer Daphne Du Maurier who lived there for 25 years from 1943. The estate spans a few thousand acres which stretch from Fowey to Par on Cornwall’s south coast, part of which are Menabilly Woods.
Graham Hawken, founder of Rustic House with his daughter Emily, continues the tale: “I am very fortunate to have been a long-term tenant on the Rashleigh Estate – five to six generations of my family have lived there – and am privileged to have been allowed to walk in its extensive woods. The Rashleigh family were some of the foremost plantsman and collectors in the UK and were instrumental in planting many of the woods and estates throughout the south west – there are tree specimens in the woods at Menabilly which are simply incredible.
“One, in particular, always caught my eye; a mature Monkey Puzzle – a species very dear to my heart as I used to travel a lot to Chile where it’s the national tree, so I’m very familiar with the species and have even planted them myself,” adds Graham.
Sometimes referred to as a Chilean Pine, Monkey Puzzle, or Pehuen, the Araucaria araucana is rather a curious genus. It heralds from high in the mountains of Patagonia, where it played a major part in the lives of the indigenous Araucanian people. One native tribe in particular, the Pehuenche, had a diet that consisted almost entirely of the seeds from the mature trees – they would eat them toasted, ground into flour and even fermented as a drink. Being so important to their lives, the tree became sacred.
The Monkey Puzzle tree arrived on British soil as result of a visit to Chile by Scotsman Archibald Menzie in the late 1700s. Served the seeds for dessert at a dinner with the Governor of Chile, he took some and on his return to Britain planted two seedlings at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, specimens of which can still be seen in the gardens today.
It was Cornishman William Lobb who, after seeing the unusual trees at Kew, travelled to the border of Argentina and Chile to obtain 3000 of the exotic seeds. He was instrumental in the first commercial introduction of the plant to the UK in 1842. The tree gained great acclaim amongst the landed gentry and became a display of wealth, gracing the gardens and grounds of the rich. Mature Monkey Puzzle trees can grow to more than 50m (160 feet) tall. At this height, they lose their pyramid shape for a more traditional umbrella-like one as they grow. While the trees eventually fell out of fashion in Britain, they can still be seen in countless gardens around the country.
Sadly, the Monkey Puzzle is now endangered in its native habitat across South America. The trees grow very straight and produce few knots, which means they were heavily logged, and although this practice was banned in 1990, illegal logging and forest fires have put this ancient species at risk of disappearing from the wild entirely. With this in mind, when a mature Monkey Puzzle tree came down in a storm a few years ago at Menabilly, Graham was at pains to ensure it was treated with respect and preserved for the future.
“These trees take centuries to reach maturity and there was one particular Monkey Puzzle tree that I would see on my walks that really caught my eye. I was therefore very sad to see it fall, but it was just its time. Unlike many other areas in Menabilly Woods there was vehicular access to this one. I had spoken to Sir Richard on occasion about how to handle wood from the trees when they fell and, having been in the timber industry all my life, I knew this was a rare find. I was able to persuade Sir Richard to have the tree professionally planked, put it in ‘stick’ and air-dried for nearly two years to stabilise the wood. I was then fortunate enough to come to an agreement with Sir Richard to purchase the timber.” Many of the specimen trees in Menabilly Woods are now coming to the end of their natural life, reaching a point where the next storm might take them. With this in mind, Sir Richard has done a large amount of replanting, regenerating the woods for generations to come.
So, what became of the Menabilly Monkey Puzzle? The very top and bottom of the tree was sawn into rings while the remainder was cut longitudinally, giving unusually wide, long planks – some of up to 4m in length. “These are perfect for making beautifully tactile, individual live-edge tables, seating up to 12,” adds Graham, “unique in that they are made from a singular length. It would be usual for the wood to be joined in some way in a table of this length.”
The nature of Monkey Puzzle timber is that it is quite regular, making it well-suited to large furniture pieces. While its form is even, the wood gets its true beauty from the intricate grain patterns that run like tributaries along the length of the planks and orbit in delicate circles on the rings. On a visit to Rustic House – where its extensive collection of individual hand-crafted furniture, lighting and accessories can be viewed in the expansive well-stocked showroom or online – I was fortunate to be able to view the Monkey Puzzle wood up close. Stored in a temperature-controlled environment, the heady smell of the planks combined with its literary heritage made for a unique experience. The rings in particular reveal the tree’s heritage with their knots and gnarls.
Heading to the showroom, I am greeted by an impressive centrepiece; a hand-crafted four-metre table made from one of the longer planks, its organic lines and tactile surface making for an elegant dining experience. Rustic House has worked with local carpenter, Martin Isted, to create both the long table and a selection of smaller side tables and benches, as well as a range of accessories including a striking chopping board, inlaid with coloured resin. The intention is that each piece of the tree, even the off-cuts, are used to create heirlooms for the future. The Monkey Puzzle timber is available at Rustic House for bespoke commissions, with each piece of this unique furniture rooted in Cornish history and holding a unique literary connection.
To discuss a commission, contact Emily Birtwhistle on firstname.lastname@example.org