Supreme in state
PUBLISHED: 13:14 24 August 2015 | UPDATED: 13:14 24 August 2015
Symbol of strength, longevity and England itself, the oak is part of our national consciousness. In their full majesty this month, Simon Leadbeater celebrates Hertfordshire’s ancient oaks and the people who look after them
To someone of imagination a tree is imagination itself, the poet William Blake almost said. Having sought out Hertfordshire’s ancient oaks, his insight could not be truer.
A number of the county’s notable trees are well known; although their owners’ care for them is less recognised, while there are lesser known trees of merit found in not obvious but very accessible places.
The earliest reference I could find to perhaps my favourite oak, and a clue to its name, comes from an account of life at King’s Walden Bury estate near Hitchin between 1925 and 1935 written by Ronald Hartless, whose father and grandfather were head gardeners here: ‘the season really began…with a celebration hunt meet in early November…near a massive oak tree which was supposed to date back to William the Conqueror.’
The Domesday Oak has an 11m girth and must have begun life at around the time when the estate passed from Earl Harold to William I. The estate is now owned by Sir Thomas Pilkington and family, who manage the tree’s beautiful pasture surroundings under Higher Level Stewardship, Natural England’s most demanding standard for preserving and enhancing farmland and its wildlife.
Hatfield Park provides a haven for a wonderful collection of veteran oaks; perhaps the most ancient, Old Stumpy, is around 1,200 years old, which means the tree was young at the time of Alfred the Great (849-899). Estate owner Lord Salisbury and his forestry team led by Glen Harding also take pride in nurturing the veteran oaks of tomorrow, such as the Queen Elizabeth Oak. In 1985 the Queen planted this tree grown from an acorn from the original oak under which Queen Elizabeth I is said to have be sitting when in 1558 Sir John Brocket informed her that Queen Mary had died and she was now queen of England.
Another Hertfordshire tree with an Elizabethan connection is the Great Oak of Panshanger, which was reputedly planted by Elizabeth I, situated in an estate owned by the Earls Cowper from 1700 until 1952. Panshanger Park’s elegiac air (the house was demolished soon after the estate was sold following the death of the last Earl’s niece, Lady Desborough) is confounded by the tree’s vitality. With its 7.6m girth and upper limbs towering beyond sight, the Great Oak is the largest maiden oak in the UK and perhaps the most famous, visited by Queen Victoria and Sir Winston Churchill. In 2002 the Tree Council named it as one of the UK’s 50 Great British Trees.
These living monuments owe their survival to the care of private estates by successive owners. However, there are at least two locations in the county where veteran oaks grow in public places. Carola Oman, writing in her 1831 Ayot Rectory, A Family Memoir, describes the hamlet of Ayot Green near Welwyn as ‘the prettiest thing in the world, with fine old oaks’. More than 180 years later a few remain, reminding us that even in busy Hertfordshire some settings endure little changed for centuries. In the village of Offley, near Hitchin, the Great Offley Giant stands in a quiet residential street and its near 6m circumference intimates a tree of between 350 and 400 years old.
Ancient trees also have a quality which transcends historical associations, however apocryphal, we attribute to them; they have lives of their own. John Dryden summed up the oak’s life cycle as:
Three centuries he grows, and three he stays
Supreme in state; and in three more decays
It is oak trees’ capacity to die gradually over a period of centuries that enables them to host life of increasing diversity and abundance, and even in death to provide a continuity of habitat for hundreds more years. As Cambridge University’s Professor Oliver Rackham commented in his 2006 Woodlands, a single 400-year-old oak, especially a pollard with its labyrinthine compartment boundaries, can generate a whole ecosystem…for which ten thousand 200 year old oaks are no use at all.’
Nothing comparable connects us with the past and to the future more than ancient trees. In Hertfordshire we are fortunate that traditional landowners such as Sir Thomas and Lord Salisbury care for and cherish them - and for Lafarge’s stewardship of Panshanger - and that one or two survive in sometimes incongruous places.
This is only the start of my quest to locate all of Hertfordshire’s ancient oaks; if readers know of any observably old trees please contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org