If you ever wander over to my Amazon author bio you’ll see that it begins:
‘Lance was aged only four when he was first bitten by the travelling bug. His older brother snuck him out the house late one night with a promise to explore ‘the woods’. Sadly, they were discovered by a dog-walking neighbour before reaching their destination and returned to their angry parents. But it was too late; his sense of adventure had been ignited.’
It is indeed true that my older brother, keen to share his exciting new discovery, attempted to show me the nearby woods. And so we were found, in our pyjamas, at the threshold of ‘the woods’. It would be a few more years before I was deemed old enough to go far enough to reach the woods and explore it properly. It didn’t really occur to me at the time, but I now realise I was lucky to grow up in an urban area that still had such an inexhaustible supply of fun and adventure nearby.
A stream ran through the woods and on occasions we would don our wellies and wade through the stream from one end of the woods to the other. I was one of the youngest of the group at this time and therefore one of the smallest. Consequently, I had some of the smallest wellies. I can still remember the thrill and trepidation of wading through the deepest parts of the stream unsure of whether my wellies would be high enough to keep the water at bay. Inevitably, they often weren’t. I’m sure my Mum wasn’t too impressed when I would return home soaked and muddied. Much like I imagine she wasn’t too impressed on the occasions when I would arrive home proudly brandishing a bucket of freshly caught freshwater shrimps.
Alongside such adventures were the obligatory camps, campfires, bonfires, the secret paths, the bogs (also explored in wellies) and the networks of hidden tunnels built through ferns. As I got older there were expeditions further afield to some larger woods several miles away. This occurred with little more than a casual, “See you later Mum! Back for tea!” as I walked out the door. Sadly this appears to be a degree of freedom denied to many children these days (even though kids are statistically far safer today than they’ve ever been, but that’s a different story). But, of course, one of the greatest thrills for a young boy in the woods was climbing trees.
I became quite adept at tree climbing. A friend and I even managed to climb the tallest tree of our woods (we had to climb several others before working out which was the tallest. We simply climbed one that looked pretty tall, and after reaching the top looked around before concluding, “Nah, that one over there’s taller,” and continued climbing until we couldn’t find any taller ones). We were the only two kids in our area that could reach the top of that tree, and we would often sit in the canopy swaying around in the breeze and enjoying the views.
It was perhaps this childhood love of woodland mixed with my interest in history that ignited my interest in ancient trees. And it was probably this that led me to inadvertently embark upon a treasure trail of ancient trees during my UK travels (although my urge to climb them has been replaced by my reluctance to end up in hospital casualty departments). These trees were some of fifty chosen, due to their historic and cultural value, to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. I first discussed the story here but I’ve decided to return to the subject because there were many other fascinating trees that I didn’t get around to visiting during my travels.
Returning to my childhood, I did venture to Sherwood Forest and visit the Major Oak. It’s between 800-1000 years old, which is pretty good going for an oak. It also has a girth of 10 metres, which is also pretty good for an oak. It’s named after Major Hayman Rooke, whose 1790 description led to it becoming a Victorian tourist destination. The source of the interest is that it was supposedly the tree in which Robin Hood and his Merry Men once hid. Today it’s believed to receive over 600,000 annual visitors from across the world.
Another interesting historic tree honoured for the jubilee was planted by a young girl named Mary Ann Brailsford in her Southwell garden in 1809. Mary’s house, along with the tree, was later purchased by a local butcher in 1846. The tree was an apple tree that young Mary had planted from pips. In 1856 a local nurseryman named Henry Marryweather requested permission to take a cutting from the tree and sell the apples. The butcher agreed, provided the apples bore his name. And so, in 1862, the first sale occurred of Matthew Bramley’s apples and the Bramley apple was born. The apples have since won many awards and a huge industry has grown up around them. They’re now the most important cooking apples in England and Wales and, in 2007, covered 95% of culinary apple orchards.
In 1900 the original Bramley tree blew down in a violent storm. It survived and a hundred years later still bears fruit. As such, the tree marches on as the matriarch of an industry worth over £50 million pounds. But, although the Bramley tree is still soldiering on, there are many such trees that are struggling to resist the ravages of time.
The Pontfadog Oak was awarded the title of the UK’s oldest and largest oak tree, with a girth of over sixteen metres. No wonder it became Wales’ national tree. A 1996 study estimated its age to be between 1,181 and 1,628 years. This made it the oldest tree in Wales, one of the oldest in Europe and the third largest in Britain. No records could be found of a larger girthed oak tree of any species anywhere in the world.
A missing local bull was once found inside the hollow trunk of the Pontfadog Oak, having spent two days there. It was also used as a shelter by sheep and somewhere to play for children, not least of all when a local Easter-egg hunt began using it as a starting point. The Brownies even began using it as the site to do their promise and it became the symbol of the local primary school. But its interesting connection to the local people isn’t just a recent phenomenon. The 12th century Welsh prince Owain Gwynedd is believed to have rallied his army beneath it before defeating the English at the battle of Crogen.
But besides history there is another important aspect of these historic trees. The older a tree is the more valuable it is for wildlife. Ancient trees provide valuable habitats to at least a fifth of woodland species. And the UK possesses 80% of northern Europe’s ancient trees. Many of these are over 500 years old and another 100,000 are considered to be of notable age. But many are under threat from a lack of care, as well as housing and road developments (at least eight are in the way of the proposed HS2 railway line.) Ted Green, one of Britain’s leading ancient trees experts, even went as far as to say: “We should recognise that the UK’s greatest obligation to the conservation of European biodiversity, heritage and culture rests in our ancient veteran trees.”
In 2012 a group of experts from the Ancient Tree Forum visited Pontfadog Oak to survey its status as its health had been noticeably declining. They proposed a list of actions to aid the ailing tree. The total cost of the work was estimated to be around £5,700. Sadly, the actions were never undertaken. In the early hours of 18th April 2013 a fierce storm struck and the Pontfadog Oak was toppled, resulting in the death of the world’s largest and the UK’s oldest oak. It was a sad day for the local people, a sad day for the UK’s conservation legacy and a sad day for those who value these veteran trees. But at least Huw Williams, the land owner on which the tree stood, managed to muster a little humour. While lamenting the way the tree had missed his house he said, “If it had just fallen a few feet to the left, we could have had a new roof.”
If you would like to read more: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-26340039