Rothbury's iconic horse chestnut is bristling with pride

If this tree could talk, it would no doubt swell with pride at the remembrance of its origins.

By Katie Scott
Sunday, 1st August 2021, 11:41 am
The chestnut tree and Rothbury War Memorial.
The chestnut tree and Rothbury War Memorial.

It was planted in 1858, along with other species, on the main street, to ‘beautify the village’, by the Rector, Charles Harcourt. Every year of this tree’s life would be of interest, but some things this tree has seen are of particular significance.

This story is about the tree, and two young men it witnessed leaving Rothbury, and who never returned.

Four years after being planted, our chestnut sapling was gaining height and girth, with some roots now growing towards Coquetdale House. This building, now the Vale Café and the Co-op, was where William Dixon opened his second drapery and grocery shop (the first being in Whittingham).

Robert Hounam

He called it Dixon and Sons, one son being David Dippie Dixon. Dippie, of course, was a great writer, and researcher, who went on to author the wonderful histories of Coquetdale and Whittingham.

After marrying Mary Hindhaugh in 1869, Dippie and his brother John, oversaw the shop, and they called it Dixon Brothers. Besides drapery, the shop was now also a tea dealer, stationer, bookseller and newsagent. A year later, Mary and Dippie had their only child, William.

When our tree was about 12, and William 15, Robert Hounam was born. Robert was one of John and Ada Hounam’s six sons. There was also a daughter, affectionately known as Dossie. The family lived at Prospect House in Rothbury.

Still a young tree, our chestnut would have watched the young Robert as he took on an apprenticeship at Dixon Brothers, having previously been a servant at Star House, an Inn, (now holiday accommodation). I expect William and John would have taught Robert all he needed to know to become a draper, and he worked for them during the five years of his apprenticeship.

The horse chestnut tree by Rothbury War Memorial pictured in the late 1920s.

In 1910, however, the store suffered great financial difficulties, and the following year it was handed over to the auditors. In September 1910, our tree, now aged about 50, would be covered with ripening horse chestnuts waiting in prickly green armour for little hands to throw sticks to get at the smooth conkers.

Perhaps the tree noted the excitement of Robert, a slight man, only 5’5”, weighing less than 9 stone, skipping out of the shop as he made his preparations for leaving Rothbury. Robert had decided to emigrate to make a new life for himself overseas, in Tasmania, Australia.

William Dixon also made a new life for himself in Australia, his future turning out a lot differently from Robert’s, who our story continues with.

Arriving on the ship ‘Suevic’ (White Star Line) Robert soon met, married, and set up home with Phoebe Tallack, and they had a daughter, Joan. Robert’s new life, however, was to change tragically as the First World War began in July 1914.

Burnie Cenotaph in Tasmania, a monument to the memory of local soldiers who died in action during the First World War, is also watched over by a horse chestnut tree.

The war raged on; Phoebe signed up for the Red Cross, and Robert enlisted in September 1915. He was made sergeant within a year, and, I am saddened to report, he was one of many thousands of Australian soldiers who died in the Battle of the Somme. There is a plaque in the town of Poziere which states: “Australian troops fell more thickly on this ridge than on any other battlefield of the war.”

An Australian soldier, Jack Bourke, spoke for many: “Why go to war with one another? With these men we have no quarrel. This struggle may teach us something about history”.

I’m not sure if Jack was correct.

Back in Rothbury, Dossie Hounam, like Phoebe, had also joined the Red Cross. Dossie kept the precious letters sent to her from her brothers, all active in the war.

Robert’s body is buried in the Military Cemetery in Flers, France. His name is remembered here in Rothbury, forever, as it is engraved on Rothbury’s memorial to the war dead. This is not the only memorial for him.

In 1921, as our chestnut tree watched the erection of the Rothbury War Memorial, it may well have wondered what the humans were commemorating? Maybe it would share Jack’s incredulity of young men senselessly crossing the planet to fight and kill and be killed. Or perhaps, hearing the words of Lord Armstrong, exhorting the young men of Coquetdale to enlist, and not be ‘cowards’, it felt differently?

There is another horse chestnut tree which may well look on with love and sadness at Robert’s name, on another memorial, far away. This tree was planted in Burnie, Tasmania. It grows by the side of a blue granite obelisk – a monument to the memory of the local soldiers who died in action during the First World War. The Burnie monument was created in 1923, from an unusual rock quarried locally.

The Rothbury monument similarly is made with local stone from our Denwick Quarry. Two spectacular horse chestnuts protect and care for the memory of a young Rothbury man, who died long before he should have done. As did so many others.

Today, our Rothbury Chestnut is probably half way through its life. I think we can agree that the Rector’s plans to beautify the town was successful.

This stunning tree is, thankfully, healthy, and shows no signs of the bleeding canker, or horse chestnut leaf miner moth which are threatening other chestnuts throughout the land. I hope the next 150 years of its life are peaceful.

Katie Scott; email [email protected]; website