Hard to believe it was 14.5 degrees on Christmas Day in Exeter and now it is -4 degrees in Northamptonshire ….
For the last few weeks spring has been unfolding at a steady pace, today my garden has burst into life. There are butterflies, solitary bees, bumblebees, hoverflies, beetles and bugs everywhere. I even surprised a grass snake on the lawn which promptly slid off into the undergrowth. I’m sure who was most startled ….. I have managed to photograph a few species.
Finally I found this and to be honest I don’t know what it is – any ideas anyone?
“Hatfield is of supreme interest in that all the elements of a medieval Forest survive: deer, cattle, coppice woods, pollards, scrub, timber trees, grassland and fen …. As such it is almost certainly unique in England and possibly in the world. Hatfield is the only place where one can step back into the Middle Ages to see, with only a small effort of the imagination, what a Forest looked like in use.”
Oliver Rackham in ‘The Last Forest’
I visited Hatfield Forest in Essex the other day – it is one of my favourite places and the quote above by Britain’s greatest historical ecologist and woodland expert, the late and greatly missed Dr Oliver Rackham explains why.
I never tire of visiting Hatfield Forest – one of the National Trust’s greatest places. I was lucky enough to visit Hatfield in 1985 with Oliver Rackham and I will never forget that day. Hatfield Forest is near Stanstead Airport just off the M11 – if you are in the area I suggest you pay a visit – you won’t regret it.
The Meavy Oak or Meavy Royal Oak is one of the most famous and old trees in Devon. It is thought that the tree is over 900 years old and was planted in the reign of King John. Meavy is a village in south west Dartmoor not far from Yelverton and Sheepstor.
The oak is now hollow – indeed it has been for several centuries – the adjacent pub in the 17th century used to store peat for the fire in the cavity and it is suggested that in 1826 the landlady of the Royal Oak pub once held a dinner party for 9 people inside the tree.
In the 1970s measures very taken to protect the tree by installing wooden and steel props to give it support. The crown was also reduced to prevent it collapsing. The tree is very much still alive and in the following photograph you can see it is starting to come into leaf.
The tree predates the Church in the village which was built in the 12th Century. Before the Church was built it is thought that people gathered around the tree for Christian Services – it is therefore known also as a Gospel Oak. The Cross in front of the tree was erected in the 15th Century.
On the third Saturday of June every year the Meavy Oak Fair is held which involves the celebration of the tree, May Pole dancing, feasting and drinking. In days gone by the crown of the Meavy Oak was trimmed so a platform could be erected in it – people then climbed up via a ladder to eat drink and be merry in the tree!
The Legendary Dartmoor site also includes an old story about a tin miner, a wealthy traveller and the Meavy Oak – see here.
After looking at and photographing this wonderful tree I went to the Royal Oak pub for lunch – ham, egg and chips which I was able to eat outside so I could view the tree at the same time. Fabulous on all counts.
It is a fantastic tree with an amazing history which has many years of life left in it as long as it is carefully looked after and tended which I am sure it will be as it is a central feature of the village.
My only concern about the tree is the ivy growing on it – I am not anti ivy and I don’t believe that ivy kills trees but looking at older pictures it does appear that the ivy is getting more prominent. I noticed a similar situation when I visited the 1000 year old Tortworth Oak (see here). This is what I wrote then
One final comment and some food for thought. I was told that historically the area where the Tortworth chestnut grows had been grazed. Today it is fenced off to protect the tree. It would appear that as a result ivy has been able to establish itself and it has started to colonise some of the trunks. Normally I am quite happy to see ivy growing on trees and would never want to remove it. However for such an ancient and venerable tree as this perhaps we should not allow ivy to establish – we wouldn’t let ivy grow on an ancient building in case it caused damage and because it would partially obscure the spectacle of the building.
It might be worth getting some advice from the Devon Ancient Tree Forum who know much more than I do about such things.
I thoroughly recommend a visit to see the Meavy Oak followed by a visit to the Royal Oak pub
Ash before oak – we are in for a soak
Oak before ash we are in for a splash
In reality oak pretty much always comes into leaf before ash. In the last fifty years oak has always leafed before ash. It has not always been this way – in the 18th century when it was less mild ash did often flower before oak – thus the quote.
Climate change has changed all of this – usually oak leafs in late March-May which is about two weeks earlier than 30 years ago. Ash usually leafs during April and May, about 7-10 days earlier than 30 years ago.
In my garden I have 5 large oak trees and a couple of ash trees. 3 of the 5 five oaks are now in leaf but none of the ashes are.
The two oaks in my garden which haven’t come into leaf yet are clearly a different genetic stain from those which have.
Here are the Sessile Oaks of the Teign Valley at Fingle Bridge – a few hundred metres higher in altitude and not yet anywhere near leafing – spring is a long drawn out process …..
Outside the front door of the Devon and Exeter Squash and Racketball Club on the Prince of Wales Road in Exeter grows an enormous Eucalyptus tree. I have often wondered about the story and history of this tree – how did it end up here and how old is it? Yesterday I learnt a little more, Adam the current owner of the Club told me it was planted as a sapling by the founders and original owners of the Club Adrian and Anne Hansell in 1977 to remind Anne who is Australian of her home country. If we assume that the ‘sapling’ was one or two years old that makes the tree just over 40 years old.
Eucalpytus trees which originate from Australasia certainly have the reputation as fast growing trees – one of the reasons for this is that they are evergreens and they have the ability to continue growing through the autumn and winter unlike other broadleaved trees.
At the moment I am still trying to find out / work out which species of Eucalyptus it is – maybe a cider gum Eucalyptus gunnii? There are 500 species of Eucalyptus in Australasia but the vast majority of these won’t grow in the UK because they are not frost tolerant.
The first Eucalyptus to be grown in Britain was in 1774 at Kew Gardens from seeds collected on Captain Cooke’s second expedition. Interestingly Barnard’s Nursery in Bovey Tracey played a major role in developing the propagation of Eucalyptus in Britain and working out which species would survive.
Hopefully I will get some information about this splendid tree later. Next time you pass the Squash Club or go in – have a look at the tree and be amazed by its growth rate.
Last night I gave a talk entitled ‘Fingle from the wildwood – a story of a changing climate, prehistoric people, their descendants and their impacts‘ at the Fingle Bridge Inn in Drewsteignton.
I tried to weave together the story of the end of the last Ice Age to the present time by looking at the pollen record, the climate, the actions of prehistoric people from the New Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age and the impact of the extinctions of our mammal fauna over the period. I won’t try and reproduce it all here but you can download my Powerpoint presentation here (I have removed the photographs to make the file a more manageable size) – it may not make much sense if you didn’t hear the words that went with it!
I started with this quote from Oliver Rackham “Conservationists do no service to woodland if they try to remake it on the image of what they imagine wildwood was like” – just in case anyone had a brainwave!
I include here a few tables which people might find useful as they catalogue some of the key timescales and events.
I then discussed what all this means, highlighted the huge gaps in our knowledge and talked about Frans Vera’s counter-theory that the ‘wildwood’ was in fact a savannah with ‘parkland trees’. A controversial theory but one which does help explain how the wildwood was cleared by a small number of people using stone axes.
I talked about some challenges for the future: tree diseases, the growing number of deer, climate change and people.
I finished the talk with a quote from Fingle Woods’ Spirit of Place statement – which Fingle Woods’ managers can use as a benchmark to determine whether their actions are appropriate.
Over the centuries, people have changed the appearance of the landscape from heathland and wild woods to oak coppice and then to conifer, driven by local and then national need, influenced by fashion and economics. As a result, the gorge has been dressed in different ways. In the coming decades, we want to help the gorge to clothe itself again, reverting to its more natural state. Fingle Wood’s inheritance will help shape its future, making it a place of conservation in a changing environment, and inspiration and enjoyment for everyone – today and for the generations to come.
Thanks to everyone who came and seemed to like what I had to say.
Yesterday I met up with an old friend and former National Trust colleague Rob Jarman to talk about PhDs, small – leaved limes and sweet chestnuts. Rob is studying sweet chestnuts for his PhD and I researched small-leaved limes for my MSc back in 1984!
Small-leaves limes are one of the UK’s legendary trees – much less common today that 6000 years ago whilst sweet chestnut is not thought to be a native species as it was brought here by the Romans – at least that is the published fact – Rob’s research is trying to get to the bottom of the sweet chestnut story.
We met for lunch in Tortworth and then visited the Tortworth chestnut. To be honest I was unaware of the Tortworth chestnut and I think Rob took a pretty dim view of that …. but in many ways that is part of the story – a non native tree isn’t that high up the list of priorities for conservationists. But my goodness I am really pleased Rob introduced me to the Tortworth chestnut – it is an amazing thing native or not. As with many things dating back to the Dark Ages it is difficult to unravel fact from myth – this encapsulates the late and great Oliver Rackham’s phrase ‘factoids’ – repeat the story often enough and it becomes fact whether is is right, wrong or unproven!
The information beside the tree tells us that the tree was planted as a nut in 800AD during the reign of King Egbert – which would make the tree 1200 years old!
What is amazing about this tree is that over the centuries branches have split away from the main trunk / tree and have crashed to the ground – instead of rotting away they have put down new roots and have grown in new trees in their own right
This picture perhaps shows that most clearly – all the ‘trees’ in this photograph are all parts of the same tree – the Tortworth chestnut.
The sign at the tree also quotes Peter Collinson – a leading tree expert from the 1700s who states that ‘in all probability it was the oldest, if not the largest see in England’. I very much doubt whether either of these comments are true. When I was working on small-leaved limes in Hampshire back in the early 1980s I found many limes which had grown into huge clonal circles of trees. The above ground branches / trunks had all had a history of coppicing so were generally less than 100 years old but the below ground parts of the trees were probably thousands of years old and may have dated back to the original post glacial colonisation. I need to be careful now that I don’t start peddling factoids – maybe somebody in the future will research those old Hampshire limes and unravel the true story just as Rob is trying to do now with sweet chestnuts.
One final comment and some food for thought. Rob told me that historically the area where the Tortworth chestnut grows had been grazed. Today it is fenced off to protect the tree. It would appear that as a result ivy has been able to establish itself and it has started to colonise some of the trunks. Normally I am quite happy to see ivy growing on trees and would never want to remove it. However for such an ancient and venerable tree as this perhaps we should not allow ivy to establish – we wouldn’t let ivy grow on an ancient building in case it caused damage and because it would partially obscure the spectacle of the building.