My first sight and taste of sweet chestnuts was in a hot bag handed over by a street seller in London. I was with my parents, probably visiting my Auntie Jess in Clapham Common. The skin, slightly split by the heat, needed to be opened to extract the pale white-yellow hot nut. Sucking in air as it burned the sides of my mouth, hoping that would cool it. I don’t remember seeing a sweet chestnut tree, though, until I left England to live in France. There, in Ardèche, their twisted trunks are common. Just as common as autumn forays to collect the fallen fruit and separate them from their spiky shells and bring them home to roast in the oven or on an open fire.
Sweet chestnuts were brought to the British Isles by the Romans and cultivated, mostly in the south. There’s a stunning ancient wood of coppiced chestnuts in Eltham, on the Dover Road in South East London – Oxleas Wood. They’re rare north of the Thames.
Today’s tiny, pinched, specimen, lay in the rain next to its thorny womb, on the tarmac path in Golders Green Park. It’s one of the punier fruit of a magnificent ancient chestnut tree, at least 200 years old, that forms part of the parish boundary. Most of its mates are veteran oaks, stretching down the hill, past the bandstand, the deer enclosure and the menagerie .