Meetings of politicians and kings, gruesome murders, untimely deaths, drunken bets and flights of utter fantasy: our ancient trees have borne witness to them all, says Mark Hooper.
Whether it be as a result of the forced isolation of lockdown, a growing concern for the environment or a general need to slow down and appreciate the simpler things in life, many of us have found ourselves reconnecting with Nature.
For my part, a conscious effort to extend my regular walks to improve both my physical and mental health has led me to look at the fields and countryside around me with fresh, enquiring eyes — partly inspired by a quote I’d read from the late football manager Brian Clough, of all people: ‘Look at them… Aren’t they beautiful! People don’t appreciate beauty these days. They look at everything but they don’t really see. Who really looks at trees and sees their shapes and colours? They’re magic! That’s what it’s all about!’
Forcing myself to ‘really see’ as I looked again at the familiar trees surrounding me, I started to think about what these silent observers of history would have witnessed over the years. It’s worth pointing out that I’m no expert in trees and identifying species — I can recognise an oak leaf and tell a weeping willow from a silver birch, but I wouldn’t trust myself much beyond that. Rather, I’m an enthusiastic amateur, happy to be lost in quiet reverie under their branches.
“Find any town or settlement in Britain and there will inevitably be a tree that predates it… They stand for hope and despair; courage and cowardice; love and death”
It surprised a few of my friends, therefore, when I announced I was writing a book called The Great British Tree Biography. ‘Do you know much about them?’ came the reasonable question. ‘Not really,’ I confessed.
What I did know was that stories fascinated me, be they the myths and legends I’d learned in my childhood or those that I uncovered when searching deeper, beyond the canopies.
Find any town or settlement in Britain and there will inevitably be a tree that predates it: the remnant of an ancient forest, the focal point of the village square, the site of ritual, routine and rumour. They stand for hope and despair; courage and cowardice; love and death.
Allegiances have been sworn under the same boughs that the oppressed have been hanged from. Some bear the scars (and, in the case of the Crowhurst yew in Surrey, cannonballs) of wars.
Others — such as the Major oak in Nottinghamshire and the Ankerwycke yew near Runnymede, Berkshire — have become part of our history, having begun in myth (the former for being Robin Hood’s supposed headquarters, later validated in verse by Alfred, Lord Tennyson; the latter alleged to be where the Magna Carta was signed — which may not be true, but it was convincing enough for Henry VIII to use it as a courting venue for Anne Boleyn).
Sadly, there were many half-remembered histories that proved too elusive to include in the book. There were the stories of timbers brought back from the Somme that sprang into life in Wales, which proved too fanciful (not to mention biologically impossible) to include.
Similarly, the fascinating story of the Birmingham Dead Oak Ring, conceived by artist and KLF musician-provocateur Bill Drummond, was almost too good to be true: having established 16 oaks surrounding Birmingham, he then proceeded to sell one million shares of their ‘souls’ (valued at £1 per share), proclaiming that they ‘protect the city from the threat of the countryside and, in turn, protect the countryside from the threat of the city’.
Despite his tendency towards situationist pranks, Mr Drummond hit on that same sense of magic and wonder as Clough — and it was this spirit I wanted to explore in my book. Here are 10 stories that intrigued me.
The Tolpuddle Martyrs’ tree
In 1833, six farm workers from Tolpuddle in Dorset met under a sycamore tree in the village square and agreed on the formation of The Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. This small act may have seemed fairly inconsequential at the time, but the six men — Methodist preacher George Loveless, his brother James, his brother-in-law Thomas Standfield, Standfield’s son John, James Brine and James Hammett — were to go down as pivotal figures in the trade-union movement.
As a result of the Industrial Revolution, previously common land was being handed to landowners by creating legal property rights (‘Enclosure Acts’) for areas that were formerly under collective control. Agricultural labourers, meanwhile, were trying to survive as their wages were dramatically cut. The Tolpuddle Six declared their simple desire ‘to preserve ourselves, our wives and our children from utter degradation and starvation’.
The government, rocked by a succession of riots, decided to make an example of the group, finding the men guilty of entering into a ‘sworn union’ and transporting them to Australia for a term of seven years. A petition signed by 800,000 people was delivered to Parliament, with high-profile supporters including the philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill. Within three years, they had all been pardoned and released — and the beginnings of trade unionism had been established.
The Hardy tree
Standing in a corner of the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church, London NW1, the Hardy tree is an eerie sight. The tree itself — an ash — is surrounded by several rings of tombstones, set at 90˚ from its trunk. These are the result of works for the Midland Railway in London’s King’s Cross, designed by the architect Arthur Blomfield, which were carried out in the 1860s. As the new line ran through part of the church’s graveyard, the project involved the unpleasant job of the disinterment and reburial of many of the remains. The task of overseeing this was given to Blomfield’s young assistant, a promising architecture graduate, who had already won several awards, by the name of Thomas Hardy.
In his diaries, Hardy spoke of the gruesomeness of the St Pancras work — something that eventually prompted him to return to his native Dorset, apparently suffering some form of nervous exhaustion, and to take up writing. By 1867, he had finished his first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, but failed to find a publisher. With the publication of Far From the Madding Crowd in 1874, he was finally able to give up architecture. His macabre monument in London serves as a reminder to always pursue one’s dreams.
The Hiroshima tree
Tavistock Square Garden is a quiet, sun-dappled spot close to the British Museum in central London. Over the years, it has come to be known as the Peace Gardens due to the number of trees, statues and monuments within dedicated to the pursuit of peaceful initiatives. These include the large Conscientious Objectors Commemorative Stone, unveiled by the Peace Pledge Union in 1994; a sculpture of Mahatma Gandhi, which has stood there since 1968; and a flowering cherry tree in memory of the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings of 1945, planted in 1967.
Quite why this square should be chosen among the hundreds of others in London isn’t certain, although the fact that it was once the site of the Tavistock Clinic, founded in 1920 to treat psychiatric patients (including those suffering shellshock from the First World War), could be relevant. The site is now occupied by the British Medical Association (BMA) building and it was on the railings opposite that one of the later memorials was placed.
This marked the place where 13 people were killed in 2005, when 18-year-old Hasib Hussain detonated an explosive device on the No 30 double-decker bus he was riding on as it passed Tavistock Square. This was one of a number of co-ordinated attacks by Islamist terrorists on the same day and some of the BMA staff were among the first to arrive on the scene to assist the injured. It is grimly ironic that a square dedicated to pacifism and the remembrance of past atrocities should itself be visited by such terrible events.
Robert the Bruce’s yew
In retreat in 1306, Robert the Bruce found himself stranded on the wrong side of Loch Lomond. With no other means of crossing the waters to reach safety, his army’s only option was to patch up a damaged rowing boat, only capable of holding three men at a time. Two hundred men were waiting to cross and the process of ferrying them to the other side two at a time was a torturous one (one in three was required to row back); spirits began to ebb.
To raise their morale, Robert the Bruce took shelter under an ancient yew and began to regale his men with stories of valour, jokes and songs. He even compared the endurance of the hardy tree with their own struggles, vowing that they would return stronger and unbowed. His army took to wearing a symbol of the yew on their uniforms and fulfilled his prediction in their defeat of the English at Bannockburn eight years later. The yew still stands, slightly decayed, but enduring.
The Knole oak
Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is generally held to be one of the masterpieces of English literature. In the early pages of the book, the eponymous lead character is described walking ‘very quickly uphill through ferns and hawthorn bushes, startling deer and wild birds, to a place crowned by a single oak tree’. This inspires The Oak Tree, the fictional ‘book within a book’ that the sex-shifting protagonist of Orlando begins as a boy — and which is undoubtedly set in the 1,000-acre Knole estate, childhood home of Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s lover and the inspiration for Orlando. Woolf describes the oak, with typical magical exaggeration, as being ‘so high indeed that nineteen English counties could be seen beneath; and on clear days thirty or perhaps forty’. It is likely to be based on a 135ft sessile oak that still stands there, thought to be the tallest in Britain.
There is, however, another far more identifiable oak tree that stands in the grounds of Knole Park and appears in the promotional video for Strawberry Fields Forever by The Beatles, filmed in 1967. In the video, the tree, a dead oak located behind Knole’s birdhouse, appears as an extension of a bizarre stringed instrument that Paul McCartney, at one point, jumps up into backwards — taking a somewhat literal approach to the line ‘No one I think is in my tree’.
The Wilberforce oak
On May 12, 1787, the British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger sat down with independent MP William Wilberforce under an oak tree in the grounds of Pitt’s home, Holwood House in Kent. Here, Wilberforce remembers in his diary: ‘I resolved to give notice on a fit occasion in the House of Commons of my intention to bring forward the abolition of the slave-trade.’ These simple words belie the momentous task that Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists undertook.
It took a full 20 years before the Slave Trade Act became law and, even then, it fell short of putting an end to slavery throughout the British Empire, with it only being categorically declared illegal with the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. Wilberforce, however, never got to see the law take effect — he passed away three days after he learned that the bill would be passed. The original oak is long since gone, but a sapling replaces it, with a stone bench recording the above words from Wilberforce’s diary.
The Tolkien trees
R. R. Tolkien drew on all manner of ancient folklore and mythology in his ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy and it is thought that a visit to the standing stones encircling the village of Avebury in Wiltshire inspired one of his most striking sets of characters. The Ents are walking, talking, tree-like creatures that act as guardians of the forest. Near the eastern entrance of the earthworks at Avebury can be found four magnificent copper beech trees, their roots knotted and intertwined into a textured carpet on the ground. This calls to mind Tolkien’s description of how, in old age, Ents would lay down their roots permanently, becoming ‘treeish’ in their wizened state.
The Cliveden redwood
The widest tree in the UK never actually grew on these shores. It is, in fact, the 16ft 6in stump of a Sequoiadendron giganteum, or giant redwood, that nestles at the top of a hill overlooking the country house of Cliveden in Berkshire. How it got here is a story in itself. The estate’s one-time owner was William Waldorf Astor, American politician, newspaper owner and businessman. It was he who imported the section of tree from California, in 1897, as a viewing point on his grounds. Rumours suggested it was to settle a drunken bet about how many people could be seated around a redwood tree stump, although Astor himself wrote to The Times denying this and claiming it was ‘a deliberate and mischievous fabrication’. What is true is that he had the means to ship a giant tree stump across the Atlantic and have it carted to the top of a hill, simply on a whim.
The Bolan tree
On the side of the road on Queen’s Ride in Barnes, London SW13, stands a sycamore adorned with trinkets and offerings. This marks the spot where, in 1977, the car carrying singer-songwriter Marc Bolan came to rest after it had struck a fence post, killing him outright. The car was being driven by his girlfriend, Gloria Jones (famous in her own right as the singer of the original version of Tainted Love, later covered by Soft Cell), as they were returning from a night out in London.
Bolan had been a hugely influential figure in British music: a close friend of David Bowie, he had helped to shape the move from folk to glam rock in the early 1970s and was enjoying a revival of fortunes at the time of his death, fronting his own television show. Many of his lyrics are said to have foretold the events of his death — not least the T. Rex single Solid Gold Easy Action, which contains the line ‘A woman from the east with her headlights shining/eased my pain and stopped my crying’ (his friend Vicky Aram was driving behind them — from the east — and was first to help), as well as ‘Easy as picking foxes from a tree’; the number plate on their car was FOX 661L.
The Hagley wych elm
In 1943, a group of boys were out hunting for birds’ nests in the woods of Hagley Hall estate in Worcestershire, when they chanced upon a gruesome discovery: the remains of a woman concealed within the trunk of a wych elm. The strange circumstances — including the fact that one hand had been severed and a piece of material was found in the body’s mouth — have prompted fanciful stories about who she might have been. These have varied from a Nazi double agent to the victim of an occult ritual, perhaps prompted by the species of tree (the name ‘wych’, in fact, derives from the Old English wice or ‘supple’). The woman’s real identity has never been identified, despite a mysterious graffiti message appearing on a wall in nearby Birmingham six months later, asking: ‘Who put Bella down the Wych Elm?’
‘The Great British Tree Biography: 50 Legendary Trees and the Tales Behind Them’ by Mark Hooper is published by Pavilion Books (£16.99)
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