WE'VE CLIMBED THEM, felled them and even given them names. The stately oak tree has a history rich in anecdote and folklore. In issue 15 of The Simple Things we have a preview from Archie Miles' latest book, The British Oak. Plus we have two copies of the book to give away.
SOME OAKS HAVE consistently attracted more notice than the rest. The Major Oak in Sherwood Forest has to be the most photographed individual oak in the whole of Britain. Victorian tourists were lured by the romantic tales of Robin Hood and his Merry Men and began to flock to Sherwood Forest. As it became a tourist honeypot, local photographers began setting up studios in the field. Here they could offer portraits taken with the tree; photographed, developed, printed, and mounted for tourists to carry home for all to marvel at. By 1900 the postcard boom was churning out thousands of Major Oaks.
Old tree books reveal many examples of anomalous oaks that captivated tree enthusiasts a century or two ago. As a result, a rich legacy of anecdote now accompanies such trees – one can even say that sometimes it’s the stories that shade the trees. Take for example the ancient oak tree in Melbury Park, in Dorset. The tree has acquired the unusual name of Billy Wilkins. Nobody is exactly sure why, although it was very likely someone who lived and worked on the estate.
One story, which is unsubstantiated, was that Wilkins was a bailiff on the estate, and was sent to warn his master, Sir John Strangeways (the owner, and a Royalist sympathiser) that Parliamentarian forces were approaching. Sadly, he was overtaken and killed by the Roundhead soldiers, and therefore never delivered his message. Whether the coup de grâce was delivered near the oak, or the tree was simply named as a tribute to this loyal servant, is uncertain. JC Loudon mentions that the tree had a girth of 30 feet at the smallest part of the bole, and that it was 50 feet high, with a spread of 60 feet in 1838. In his Dendrologia (1827), James Mitchell describes it as “as curly, surly, knotty an old monster as can be conceived”.
It also receives a mention in Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders, as “Great Willy, the largest oak in the wood”. Henry John Elwes and Augustine Henry paid a visit to the old oak for their Trees of Great Britain and Ireland and included a beautiful photogravure plate of the tree. Elwes measured the girth, and by 1906 it had grown to 35 feet at chest height. It survives in good health to this day on the private estate.
ONE OF THE most recent oak stories involves part of the 2012 London Olympic legacy. In 1890, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic movement, visited Much Wenlock in Shropshire to observe the Olympian Games (as they were then known) devised by Dr William Penny Brookes, who believed (quite rightly) that health and spiritual wellbeing were promoted through exercise. After this, de Coubertin was inspired to hold the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. In celebration of his visit to Much Wenlock, an English oak cultivar ‘Concordia’ was planted on Linden Field, in the town. In 2004, acorns were collected from the original tree by local school children, grown on at Kew Gardens, and then 40 saplings were planted out at various sites, in a ribbon between Much Wenlock and the Olympic Park in London. If the Olympic Games comes round to London in another 64 years, it will be interesting to see how our commemorative oaks are getting along.
READ MORE ABOUT the facinating story of the British Oak tree in issue 15 of The Simple Things.