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STANDING 26-feet high the Ilex Avenue is one of the most vivid memories visitors take away from Arley Hall in Cheshire.

The cylindrical holm oaks are so shaped only because of the impact of the First World War, but now form an iconic part of the award-winning gardens.

“In an early painting the Ilex can be seen as pyramidal trees of only moderate size, but during the First World War they were left unclipped for several years,” said gardener Doug Rustage, 50.

“When peace brought gardeners back to Arley, the trees had grown so much in height and girth that they could only be reshaped as cylinders.”

Doug has kept the Ilex in shape for the past 23 years, climbing scaffolding mounted on wheels to do the job every summer.

It takes him up to 10 days to clip all 14 trees, but his work is appreciated by the enthusiasts that visit Arley Hall.

The oaks sit at the end of Arley’s renowned double herbaceous border – believed to be the first of its kind in England – and frame a view over the parkland.

However, it is not just their shape and size that has been formed by chance.

Their very survival also has something to do with good fortune.

Bitter winds and frosts in the winter of 1981-82 came before the young growth had hardened, injuring the trees so badly it seemed they might be killed.

But gradually in late summer the seemingly dead branches produced new leaf buds and a mild winter gave them the respite they needed.

“They’ve had more than a few close shaves over the years,” said Doug, of Aston-by-Budworth.

At first glance the Ilex look the same size, but in fact they are anything but with some more than double the size of others.

Each grows a little differently too as there are several varieties in the line-up.

Some are easier to trim than others while all tend to be covered in a gritty pollen that makes the job of tending to them that little bit more difficult.

“It makes you sneeze a lot, which can be irritating,” said Doug.

The annual challenge gets even more difficult when Doug gets to the top of the tree.

He used to shimmy up the inside, but health and safety rules forbid that now so he has to reach over to the centre of the tree with some long-handled hedge clippers.

“It is a bit of a job to do the centre, but it is worth it and the avenue is one of my favourite parts of the garden,” said Doug.

Thousands of visitors to Arley agree!

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