GO AND HUG AN ANCIENT TREE
by Nicola Slade
At the bottom of our garden stands an oak tree; well, it’s not actually in the garden, more the nature reserve just beyond, but as it overhangs our lawn, drops its acorns yearly and is generous with great chunks of branch that crash down regularly, we tend to think of it as ours. I also think of it as fairly ancient, after all it’s probably getting on for two hundred years old and a tree expert told me that our oak is senescent, that is on its downward curve.
But by ancient tree standards our oak tree is just a baby, practically still an acorn. An oak is said to grow for 300 years, mature for 300 years and decline for another 300 years so ours is definitely a wimp, a weakling, giving up and on its way out after the merest fraction of time.
An estimated 80% of the ancient trees of Europe grow in Britain which, when you consider the relative size of these tiny islands and the landmass across the Channel, is astonishing. If that snippet of information wasn’t enough, I was even more surprised the other day, to learn that there are trees in Britain whose age is measured not in hundreds, but in thousands of years.
I really didn’t know that. I suppose I might have expected the odd tree to manage a thousand years, maybe dating from the Norman Conquest of 1066, but thousands? In the plural? These incredible relics of the past aren’t usually oak trees though, not at that age. We’re talking about yews. In this country we’re used to seeing yew trees in almost every ancient churchyard and I had vaguely supposed they were planted around the time the church was built, but it seems it’s the other way round. It’s possible, instead, that the yews marked a place that was sacred and that’s the reason the church was there. Perhaps someone pragmatic decided to cash in on an already holy place in order to reassure the worshippers that there was nothing to fear?
One of these trees, the Llangernyw Yew in Wales, is believed to be more than three thousand years old and another, the Fortingall Yew in Scotland is at least five thousand and may be as much as eight thousand years old. It’s said that Pontius Pilate played around the yew and the standing stones nearby. Imagine that? (It's such a great story that I really want it to be true, not just a legend!) I’ve written about the way the great man-made edifices thrill me but the idea that, by touching one of these prehistoric living creatures we can link somehow with our past, is even more exciting.
Ultimately though, it has to be the oak trees that delight me most, living as I do a few miles from William the Conqueror’s New Forest, where his son, William Rufus, met the death that is still debated to this day (http://www.new-forest-uk.co.uk/history.htm). Not far away is Buckler’s Hard (http://www.bucklershard.co.uk) where the oaks from the forest were turned into ships of the line. Oaks were always going to be special but I’ve not yet been to see some of the giants that are celebrated in history such as The Sherwood Oak or the Birnam Oak in Birnam Wood; at about 400 years old it’s not old enough to have seen Macbeth destroyed but had Shakespeare taken a quick holiday in Perthshire, he could well have sat underneath it while he sought inspiration! One of the oldest oaks yet catalogued is the Temple Oak in Worcestershire; it has an enormous hollow trunk and, at an age estimated to be 1,000 -1,200 years old, makes Robin Hood’s oak look like an upstart.
I know there are trees even more ancient than these, the Huon pines in Tasmania and the Bristlecone pines in California for instance, but those grew in wonderful, wild isolation. These English oaks and ancient yews grew up beside the people who sheltered under them, worshipped them, used them for warships and longbows to safeguard Shakespeare’s ‘sceptered isle,’ then ultimately took them for granted and, in far too many instances, chopped them down, history vanishing in a flash.
You’ll open your eyes at the girth of an ancient tree but it probably won’t be particularly tall; like humans, ancient trees tend to shrink a bit and get gnarled and knobbly, often propped up by crutches. It’s an astonishing survival and the UK Woodland Trust has begun cataloguing these gnarled guardians of the past to make sure that future generations can marvel as much as we do today. One of their methods is to encourage people to go and hug a tree. Of course the definition of ancient varies among the species but I love the idea that you can measure a tree’s age in ‘hugs’ (see below) — there’s that connection again, the idea that you can actually touch history.
Do excuse me, I’m off down the bottom of the garden to give my oak tree a nice, warm hug.
The 'hug' method for measuring trees
A hug is based on the finger tip to finger tip measurement of an adult, which we take to be about 1.5m. This distance is usually almost the same as your height, and means you can measure a tree even if you forget your tape measure.