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Sunday, January 10, 2010

1: The Cliveden Redwood


What better way to kick of the Great British Tree Biography than with an American émigre?

In 1897, William Waldorf Astor, the 1st Lord Astor, imported a section of Californian redwood from Vance's Wood, Humboldt County, and had it set up in the woods overlooking Cliveden House, the English estate he bought in 1893 for $1.25 million. At 16 ft 6 in (5.03 m) across it is the largest section of a Sequoia gigantea (Giant Redwood) in Britain.

Quite why Astor had the stump shipped all the way to the banks of the Thames is unclear. Several theories were proposed; the most outlandish of which was that he had drunkenly entered into a $50,000 wager that he could find a tree large enough to serve as a dining table with 50 guests sat around its circumference.
Sadly, as a report in the January 15, 1899 edition of The San Francisco Call (pictured) made clear, this turned out to be a malicious rumour, believed to have been spread by the captain of the British ship employed in its transportation. Astor himself was so upset at the reports that he wrote the following letter to The Times, also in 1899 (the same year he became a British citizen):

"Editor of the Times — Sir: Will you allow me to publish in your columns a contradiction of the reports that have been circulated about a section of California redwood recently brought to Cliveden? The section referred to has been placed on the ground as an object of interest, but it has never been intended to use it as a dining table, nor has any bet been made as to the number of persons who could be seated around it. The report repeating these details, and purporting to give an account of a banquet, is a deliberate and mischievous fabrication. I have given instructions to my solicitor, Sir George Lewis, to commence proceedings against the newspaper, which has published the false statements in question.
Yours faithfully,
WILLIAM WALDORF ASTOR
Cliveden, October 25."

The true reason followed Astor to his grave. Maybe he just wanted a piece of his native country to remind him of home. Although the likeliest explanation is also the simplest: he did it because he could.

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