In winter when I do the washing up I can see the Cricket Field Oak. It’s usually through Somerset rain which, as you can see, has left its mark over the last several hundred years. I had to dash out to take this photo when the sun appeared briefly! This wonderful English oak, Quercus robur, was there centuries before cricket was played next to it and will stand for centuries after the last ball was bowled there.
It’s officially an ancient tree, with its own reference in the ancient trees directory, 46732. A minor celebrity – not that the family of Little Owls who live there would know. And I didn’t know either. I had admired and wondered at this single oak, but I didn’t realise it had been officially recognised. I’m indebted to the Ancient Tree Forum for this. They record our ancient trees and advise on their upkeep – invaluable work.
Why are these trees important? They support extraordinary biodiversity – English oak trees support over 280 invertebrate species, together with lichens and fungi. The older it is, the more diverse a tree’s associated flora and fauna becomes.
I love their cultural significance. Many are named after people or events that happened in their shade. Last year I visited Windsor Great Park. There I saw the great Signing Oak (13623), whose 9.72m girth dwarfs our little Cricket Field Oak. South of us here is the equally enormous Wyndham Oak (6884), where Sir Hugh Wyndham took his ease in the 1650s. These trees are over 900 years old.
We are blessed with ancient oaks in this corner of Somerset. We live on what was the edge of the great royal Selwood forest, where Alfred gathered the fyrd before the battle of Edington*. Later, the land hereabouts was wood pasture, used in the middle ages for hunting deer, grazing domesticated animals and producing timber. This open environment is ideal for single oak trees, hungry for light, to flourish. Many of the oaks were managed carefully and pollarded, which has extended their lives.
It’s an accident of history that these trees weren’t felled. They would have been on mainland Europe. For this we can be grateful for the failure of the Commonwealth and – shortly after – John Evelyn’s Sylva. Deer parks were the preserve of the Crown and aristocracy, who came to appreciate the value of trees in the landscape.
Oaks are said to spend 300 years growing, 300 years maturing, and 300 years “veteranising”. There’s no hard and fast rule as to when a tree is a veteran and when it becomes “ancient”. Just down the road from us over the road from the pub is a fabulous ash tree (55789), which is officially a veteran; it’s a mere 5m round.
This ash is a big tree, but as it gets older, like an old man it will shrink. Its trunk will continue to thicken but its crown will reduce as a survival strategy to reduce the ravages of weather and decay.
These ancient trees are extraordinary. They are their own secret worlds, teeming with life. They have their own told and untold histories. Older and more mysterious than cathedrals or castles. Worth more pondering while doing the washing up.
*The night before the battle (in 878) Alfred stayed by the great Iley Oak, which was still used as a gathering point in the 1650s.