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Box Trees

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The malodorous box - whose smell is not unlike tomcats' urine - seems to have grown abundantly at Box Hill since at least the sixteenth century. Box was the final native tree to reach Britain after the end of the last ice age and is actually better suited to southern Europe, as it tolerates high temperatures. Box does not provide a habitat for large numbers of other species, though it does harbour the rare Box Hill bug, which until recently had only ever been found on Box Hill. Box timber has always been a valuable resource, highly prized because of its close, fine grain, its rich golden colour and its remarkable density (it actually sinks in water when green).

The wood, so hard that it can be carved precisely, is used to make the blocks for wood engravings: the nineteenth-century wood-engraver Thomas Bewick claimed that one of his blocks was still sound after 900,000 printings. Chessmen, carpenters' rules, shuttles for the silk industry, parts of musical instruments and decorative inlay for fine furniture are all made from the box tree.

At Box Hill timber is no longer grown as an economic crop, but the cultivation of box trees was immensely lucrative in the past. From an account given to Sir Ambrose Brown of the manor of Betchworth in 1608, we know that 'the rent for Box Trees cut down upon the sheep-walk on the hill was £50'. In 1797 Sir Henry Mildmay, the then owner of West Betchworth Manor, sold for £10,000 all the box of over 20 years' growth, to be cut between 1 September and 31 March in quantities not exceeding 380 tons each year up to 1810. But foreign imports increased at this time, reducing the market value of box timber, and the speculation was a disaster. By the beginning of the nineteenth century the woods of Box Hill were no longer predominantly of box, which had given way to more fashionable species.

Nowadays box is most commonly harvested to provide young shoots for florists' wreaths: a sombre evergreen, it has long been associated with death.

During the First World War boxwood was cut for use in munitions.




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