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The Oak

The Birnam Oak

The Stumpy Oak

The Lochwood Oaks

The Big Belly Oak

The Clachan Oak

The Major Oak

The Marton Oak

The Meavy Oak

The Strathlevan House Oak

The Bowthorpe Oak

Pansanger Great Oak

The Darley Oak

The 'Gate of the Dead' tree

The Royal Oak at Boscobel

Kett's Oak

The Oak at Croft Castle

Wyndham's Oak

Gabriel Oak

Queen Elizabeth I Oak

Oak and Holly

The Pontfadog Oak

The Oaks at Powys Castle

The Sidney Oak at Penshurst

The Mistletoe on the Oak


Oak Leaves

King of the forest, father of trees
Bare branches antlering the winter sky
thick-boled, reclothing at midsummer
But at winter solstice harbouring like snow
rare visitation, god's fertility,
white berried mistletoe

Sacred to the druids, as was the mistletoe which often grew on it, the druids priests often held their rites in the groves of the oak, which represented the male principle. (While the priestesses held their rites in groves of rowan or willow). The priests saw the oak as a symbol of endurance and strength. It has been suggested that the word 'Druid' may derive from the root of the Celtic word for oak: 'dru' which is itself related to the word for door, from the Sanskrit dur. The druids held a religion of nature, and although a few buildings have been discovered, their sacred sites were usually outside, not in buildings. These sites included springs, mountain peaks and rivers as well as groves. There was an oak grove recorded near Colchester, from which, it is believed, the overrunning of the Roman Colchester garrison was organised.

The little acorn, from which a great oak grows, was often worn as an amulet, representing long life and good luck. There is a tradition that an acorn placed on a windowsill offers protection and the acorn was often used as a windowshade pull. Brass representations of an acorn are still often used for this purpose. Also, because it take a long time for an acorn to grow into a tree, it is often a symbol for a project which has taken a lot of hard work to accomplish.

The oak is the most long-lived of the trees apart from the yew and so represented perseverance, stability and steadfastness. Its links to the sun and lightning gave it oracular powers and it was the habitat of the oak god, Herne the hunter. It battled the holly at midsummer to win back its crown (see "the oak and the holly," below). At Lughnasadh it produces new shoots to revive its glory.

The superstitions of touching wood or knocking on wood are believed to have originated with the Druids. Mentioning your good fortune was believed to attract the jealousy of evil spirits. Touching wood would encourage protection from good spirits. The Druids believed that good spirits lived in trees and they could touch wood and ask a favour from them. If the favour was granted they would go back and knock on wood. Knocking on wood three times has the added advantage of frightening away the evil spirits so that they do not hear of the good fortune.

To the Celts the Oak represented their most prized virtue, hospitality. The Celts loved to hunt in oak woods, as did the Anglo Saxons and in Celtic mythology it was the tree of doors, believed to be a gateway between worlds, a place where portals could be erected and sacred to the god Tiaranis. Hence the derivation, mentioned above, to the Sanskrit for door, dur. To the Norsemen it was sacred to the thunder god, Thor and Thor was its protector, possibly because it was frequently struck by lightning. This could be because oaks often grow directly over underground watercourses and may also be related to the extraordinarily high level of electrical activity in these trees. In the middle ages, the other most common target for lightning was the church steeple, as it was the tallest structure in the village and a that time did not have a lightning conductor. Lightning was considered to be divine retribution against sinners. It was difficult to understand why God targeted his own houses of worship for this purpose.

In Greek mythology it was the sacred tree of Zeus. In the Bible, the oak tree at Shechem is the site where Jacob buries the foreign gods of his people (Genesis 35:4) . Also, Joshua erected a stone under an oak tree as the first covenant of the Lord (Joshua 24.25-7). In Asia Minor the acorn was sacred to the goddess of nature. The Romans made crowns of Oak leaves symbolising bravery and humanity. The crowns were awarded for killing the enemy in battle or saving the life of another Roman. This tradition continues in modern times with awards being given "with oak clusters", representing a higher award than without clusters.

Oak is the common name of any of over 400 species in the genus Quercus. The flowers are catkins, produced in spring. The fruit is a nut called an acorn, borne in a cup-like structure known as a cupule; each acorn contains one seed (very occasionally, two or three) and takes between 6 and 18 months to mature, depending on species. The oak is home to more than 500 species of insects, spiders, birds and other animals, far more than any other tree in the temperate zone. From ancient times to he middle ages and beyond, pigs were put out to forage in oak and beech groves, while the oak was favoured for battlements by both the Celts and the Anglo Saxons.

According to Tree Yoga (see acknowledgements below) the key words related to the energy of the oak are Life energy, strength and determination.

Natural Healing

A tree of Jupiter, Culpeper recommends the leaves, bark and acorn cups which "do bind and dry very much" to restrain "the spitting of blood, and the body flux", as well as bleeding at the mouth. The acorn in powder, he says, "provketh urine and resisteth the poison of venomous creatures". A decoction of the acorns "resisteth the force of poisonous herbs and medicines". Inflammations can be reduced with the distilled water of the oaken buds before they break out into leaves. "the same is singularly good in pestilential and hot burning fevers, for it resisteth the force of the infection and allayeth the heat."

Culpeper also says that "the water that is found in the hollow places of old oaks, is very effectual against any foul or spreading scabs".

Hippocrates used the fumes of oak leaves for women who were troubled with the strangling of the mother; Galen applied them, bruised, to cure green wounds.

Common Oak bark is strongly astringent because of its high tannin content. For this reason it is a traditional treatment for diarrhoea and dysentery, and used externally for haemorrhoids, inflamed gums, wounds and eczema. A concoction of acorns and oak bark was traditionally used as an antidote to poisoning but as we've said elsewhere, don't rely on any of this, consult a doctor. The tree essence is said to boost energy levels and the ability to reach our goals.


The Birnam Oak

The Birnam Oak

The Birnam Oak

Standing on the banks of the Tay, the Birnam Oak is believed to be the last surviving tree of Birnam wood, immortalised in Shakespeare’s Scottish play (I’m not going to name the play – bad luck! But I can name the character in a quotation):

“Macbeth shall never vanquished be till
Great Birnam Wood in High Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him”.

Those familiar with the play will know that the wood did, in fact, move against him; the soldiers used the branches of the trees for camouflage as they moved towards his castle.

It is unlikely that the tree was around in 1057 when the battle supposedly took place but it is several centuries old and is undoubtedly a veteran of the original Birnam Wood. Its girth is in excess of 18 feet.

The Clachan Oak

With a hollow trunk having a girth of 16 feet, the Clachan Oak stands in the village of Balfron in Scotland. It gets its name from the former hamlet of Clachan and it stood in the middle of the green. It was first recorded in 1867 and was in "flourishing condition" despite having been struck by lightning forty years before. It was considered at that time to be 334 years old.

The trunk is surrounded by three iron bands which have a useful function in holding the hollow trunk together. However, in ancient times they had a much darker function. Criminals were chained to the tree with iron neck collars, much in the way the stocks were used.

The Strathlevan House Oak

This had the largest girth of any oak in Scotland and was probably the oldest, at least several centuries. The hollow trunk was very decayed. It stood in a small copse, a hundred yards from Strathlevan House which is now in the Vale of Levan Industrial Estate.

Unfortunately vandals started a fire in the hollow trunk. The tree was completely burnt out and a significant landmark therefore no longer exists.

The Pontfadog Oak or 'Gate of the Dead' tree

The Woodland Trust's Tree 195, This tree is situated at a location near Chirk, Wrexham, North Wales, near to Alison's home village of Gresford, called the 'Gate of the Dead'. It is a location where Owain Gwynedd rallied his army in the 12th century before they went on to defeat Henry II at the Battle of Crogan a mile away.. The field opposite this tree has never been ploughed since and is said to contain bodies from the battle. It is Wales' largest sessile oak with a girth of 12.9 metres.

The Stumpy Oak

The Stumpy Oak in Devon stands at the intersection of two roads near Holne. Legend has it that it marks an old monastic route known as ‘The Monk’s Path’ and if you listen closely you can hear the murmuring of a lone monk who had been sheltering from a storm under the tree.

The Major Oak

Said to have associations with Robin Hood, this oak grows in Sherwood Forest. It was known in earlier times as the Cockpen Tree because “a breed of game cocks use the tree as a roosting place”. Over the years the branches have needed propping up to prevent them falling and eventually it was fenced off to protect the roots. It now has the status of an ancient monument and is virtually a mini nature reserve. The oak first came to the attention of the public at large when it was written about by Major Hyman Rooke (from whom it gets its name) in 1790. It is now one of the most famous trees in England. The tree has an overall girth of 35 feet and its branches spread to 92 feet.

Because of its national importance, conservation measures to the tree have been carried out continually since 1908. In Edwardian times, metal chains were used to support its weighty branches, and lead sheet attached to protect the trunk. In the late seventies, these measures were replaced by large wooden struts, supporting the heaviest branches. Today, slender steel poles prop the sprawling limbs of this forest giant. Tree surgeons check the oak periodically and carry out remedial work as needed. A fence prevents the ground above its roots from being compacted by the feet of thousands of visitors, enabling moisture and nutriments to penetrate the soil and continue to nurture the mighty tree.

The Major Oak

Looking out
from inside
the Major Oak

The Bowthorpe Oak

Having the largest girth of any oak in the UK, 42 feet, this oak at Bowthorpe Park Farm near Bourne in Lincolnshire has been fashioned over the centuries by the strong prevailing wind. It is believed to be over 1000 years old. The hollow trunk was fitted by former owners with a door to make it an eating place and it is rumoured that at one point over 39 people stood within it. The floor and benches have long since been removed but some of he original graffiti is still visible.

The tree has also played host to many childrens' tea parties, with the children from the local chapel holding their annual tea and treat in there.

The Bowthorpe Oak

The Bowthorpe Oak

The Royal Oak at Boscobel

This oak has unfortunately now disappeared. Formerly standing on a farm near Shifnal in Shropshire, it is where Charles II lay in hiding after the battle of Worcester. The five Pendrell brothers, tenants of Boscobel and white ladies, helped Charles to hide from his pursuers and in recognition of this, by a patent dated 24 July 1676, certain farm rents were settled on them and their heirs in perpetuity. The Times newspaper of 26 November 1931, reported that the Pendrell pension was at that time being drawn by a certain Mr. George Pendrell, of Brooklyn USA, who was a retired laundryman.

Oak apple day, the 29th of May, is the anniversary of the restoration of Charles and oak leaves or oak apples are worn in memory of his hiding in the Boscobel oak.

Wyndham's Oak

Now standing quietly in a beautiful Dorset parish, Wyndham's Oak has a bloody history and is one of the few remaining 'hanging', or 'gibbet' trees. Another is the Dool tree in Scotland (see under 'sycamore'). This pendunculate tree was named after Sir Hugh Wyndham, born 1603 and appointed as a judge by Oliver Cromwell in 1659. He was very undpoular and was deposed on the restoration of Charles II to the throne. However, with the money he had obtained he was able to buy Silton Manor in Dorset, close to the site of the tree. It is said that he liked to sit under the tree to contemplate.

After Charles died and his catholic brother James II succeeded, a revolt began in favour of Charles' illegitimate son the Duke of Monmouth. This was speedily suppressed and many of its supporters condemned to death, frequently by 'hanging judge Jeffries'. It is said that two of them were hung on this tree.

Gabriel Oak

Gabriel Oak isn't a tree at all. He's a character in Thomas Hardy's "Far from the madding crowd".


The Oaks at Powys Castle

The "The Powys Oak", a sessile oak (Quercus petraea) in the prime of its life, it is the finest specimen of many mighty oaks which grace the extensive deer park at Powys castle in the Welsh Marches. It stands on a low knoll facing the ramparts of the castle. Its trunk girth is over 25 feet, and its height is 66 feet although it would be higher but for the tendency of oaks to "spread" their crowns as they mature and the highest branches gradually die back.

There are other notable oaks in this park including "Lady Powys' Oak" and "Gwen Morgan's Oak" which has recently been re-pollarded to prevent the massive weight of the branches from crushing the hollowed trunk.

The Lockwood Oaks

These are a small group of ancient sessile oaks (Quercus petraea) close to the Lockwood Tower near Moffat in Dumfries and Galloway. They are the last surviving remnants of a forest dating back over many centuries

During the seventies the Lockwood trees played a key role in helping scientists to develop dendrochronology, the science of not only dating trees by the number of rings but also assessing the climate in any particular year. This is possible because the thickness of each ring is determined by the amount of growth which occurred in that year.

The scientists were able to construct a ring sequence from 1571 to 1970. By using this sequence to examine timbers from local buildings it was then possible to accurately date the buildings.

The Marton Oak

Two hundred years ago Daniel and Samuel Lyson in their survey of Cheshire, recorded that "not far from the chapel" this oak was "a very fine oak, believed to be the largest in England". Two hundred years later the tree is still standing, now in four separate sections with a combined trunk girth of 44 feet. It was later recorded, in 1880, to be the biggest tree in England. It stands in a private garden in Marton village and has served, over the years, as a bullpen, pigsty and Wendy house.

The Pansanger Great Oak

The "King of the Park" the Great Oak of Panshanger can be still found in what were formerly the Pleasure Gardens of Panshanger, near Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire. It is the largest clear-stemmed oak in the country and is believed to have been planted by Queen Elizabeth I. The tree is to the north east of the town and takes its name from a large house and grounds called Panshanger House slightly further to the east. The 400 hectare Panshanger Park lies north of Hertingfordbury and was designed in 1801 by landscape architect Humphrey Repton.

Sir Winston Churchill planted an oak nearby grown from one of its acorns and he commented that it was the finest and most stately oak growing in the South-East of England.

Kett's Oak

Kett's Oak at Hethersett Kett's Oak stands at the village end of a lay-by half a mile before Hethersett on the road from Wymondham, Norfolk, and it is said to be the oak under which Robert Kett of Wymondham (b. 1492) addressed an uprising before it marched on Norwich in the "Norfolk Rising" against the enclosure of common land, in 1549. This was one of many uprisings over the gradual enclosure of the Common Lands. The town of Falmouth, in Cornwall, illegally celebrated the life of Saint Thomas Becket on the weekend of 6 July 1549. The anger of the townspeople boiled over and they started ripping down enclosures in the nearby village of Morley St. Botolph. They then moved on to John Flowerdew's estate.

Flowerdew bribed the people into ripping down Robert Kett's enclosures instead. Kett himself had been a tanner and was wealthy, owning the manor at Wymondham. However, rather than get rid of them Kett ended up leading the remainder of the rebellion. on the 9th of July 1549 he took them to a nearby field, and motivated them with a rousing speech from under an English oak (Quercus robur), now known as Kett's oak, before leading an army of 20,000 which marched on Norwich.

The "Norfolk Rising" was unsuccessful and Kett fled the battle. However he was caught a couple of days later. Several other ringleaders were hanged at the Oak of Reformation. while Robert Kett and his brother William Kett were taken to Norwich Castle, and subjected to torture there. Eventually they were taken to the Tower of London, where they were convicted of High Treason.

On the 7 December 1549, Robert Kett was taken back to Norwich castle and hanged over the side, where his death was drawn out over days as an example to the people of Norwich. William Kett was hanged over the side of Wymondham Abbey in a similar manner.

If this is the original tree it would have to be 500 years old and although this is well withn the lifespan of these trees, it appears to be rather small for such an age. The local authority has offered three possible explanations. This could be a tree grown from acorns after the original tree had been destroyed following Kett's execution, it could be a commemorative tree planted sometime after 1549 or it could simply be that this tree is slow-growing, as suggested by analysis of a wood sample.

Whatever the truth may be, this tree stands as a living memorial and as a local landmark. A new information sign has recently been formally unveiled by Dr John Alban, Norfolk County Archivist, on June 22nd, 2006. Among those present were Vic Redington whose father John Plumstead wrote his Cambridge University dissertation on the rebellion and Adrian Hoare who analysed the rebellion is his book "An Unlikely Rebel."

Queen Elizabeth I Oak

Said to have been visited by Queen Elizabeth I who was reputedly amazed at its size and girth. While this story is hard to verify, it is undoubtedly one of the largest oaks in the country with a trunk girth of 41 feet at the present time. It stands on the Cowdray estate in West Sussex. This estate covers 16,000 acres of which 36 per cent is woodland.

The Sidney Oak at Penshurst

The Sidney oak, in the grounds at Penshurst, is said to have been planted on the third of November 1554 to celebrate the birth of soldier and poet, Sir Philip Sidney. Sir Philip served Queen Elizabeth I and was the first commoner to be granted a state funeral. Other accounts suggest that it was planted to mark his christening but it is, in any event, much older. Its girth is evidence that it is in the region of 1,000 years old.

The tree has suffered from fire, vandalism and old age and has recently been cloned. The young, new tree has so far grown the height of four feet.

The Big Belly Oak

The Big Belly Oak in Savernake Forest The earliest mention of Savernake forest is in 934 A.D. when King Athelstan referred to "the crofts alongside the woodland called Safernoc". The Forestry Commission now has a long-term lease on the forest and within it many ancient trees are being preserved including this one. Scott described the forest in 1930 as "one of the most interesting places in the kingdom for lovers of the wild wood". After the Norman Conquest the forest, along with the New Forest, became the Royal property of William the Conqueror and a Royal hunting preserve.

The 1100 year old English Oak which would have taken root around the Reign of King Harold and is known as the Big Belly Oak is now a well known landmark on the A346 (which is the route of an ancient trail) between Marlborough and Salisbury in Wiltshire. According to legend the Devil appears to anyone who dances naked around the tree, twelve times in an anticlockwise direction, at midnight.

The A346 passes very close to the tree which has a girth of 11 metres and a huge crack recently appeared in it. The tree has recently been braced by the Forestry Commission to prevent it from falling into the road.

The tree is a rare survivor from the so-called Wild Wood that covered much of southern England, before being cleared for farming and Henry VIII may well have seen the tree while hunting in the royal forest of Savernake. The Big Belly Oak even survived the two world wars, when the forest was heavily plundered for timber and was also used as an ammunition dump.

The Meavy Oak

The Royal Oak at Meavy, Devon is by tradition thought to have been known to King John and the followers of his hunt. It stands in the grounds of the church of St. Peter's. The church was built in 1030 A.D. and another oral tradition claims that the oak was used as a pulpit tree while the church was being built.

The Darley Oak

The largest oak in Cornwall, this tree stands on Darley Farm in the village of Upton Cross. It is on land which was owned by the Dingle family from the twelfth century through to the early twentieth century. Earlier landowners refer to it growing on their land in 1030. It is believed that the tree can cure boils and that "persons afflicted with diverse diseases being passed through the tree" will be cured.

The Oak at Croft Castle

The Croft Castle Oak

The grounds of Croft castle, on the B4362 between Bircher and Mortimer's Cross, Herefordshire, comprise a beautiful landscape of ancient parkland surrounding the castle. This giant sessile oak, one of the largest in Britain, shares the park with avenues of oaks and chestnuts, including the avenue of the "Spanish Chestnuts", believed to have been grown from nuts salvaged from the wreck of the Spanish Armada. About 150 yards away, near the tennis court, is ano0ther famous oak; "Sir William's Oak".

The Holly and the Oak

The Celts believed the Holly King ruled over death and winter while the Oak King ruled life & summer. This ancient (conceivably originally Druidic) belief was preserved into medieval times in mummers' plays.

The oak and the holly
when they are both full grown
the oak fights the holly king
on midsummer's morn

The oak beats the holly king
and reigns for half a year
but the holly rises up again
when winter draws near.

The Holly King was a warlike giant who bore a great wooden club made of a thick holly branch. He found his way into Arthurian Legend as the Green Knight, who challenged Sir Gawain during a Yuletide feast, baring as his weapon "a solitary branch of holly."

The Mistletoe on the Oak

The Druids' most sacred ceremony at the winter solstice was the ritual cutting, with a golden sickle, of the mistletoe which had grown on the oaks as if falling from heaven. Known as all-heal it was believed to carry the seed of life. The mistletoe was caught in a pure white cloth before it touched the ground and was taken to a sacred altar where two white bulls were sacrificed, marking the ritual fertilisation of the earth goddess by the sky god. The golden sickle symbolised the combined sun and moon. The mistletoe branch was a mystical silver branch used to summon the powers of the otherworld.


Acknowledgements and further reading:

The Heritage Trees of Britain and Northern IrelandJon Stokes and Donald RodgerConstable
The Oxford Companion to English LiteratureSir Paul HarveyOUP
The Observer's Book of TreesFrederick Warne & Co. Ltd.
Tree Yoga - A WorkbookSatya Singh & Fred HagenederEarthdancer
Celtic Myths and LegendsGeddes and GrossetGeddes and Grosset
The Meaning of TreesFred HagenederChronicle Books
The Celtic Book of Seasonal MeditationsClaire HamiltonRed Wheel
A - Z of SuperstitionsCarole PotterChancellor Press
The Complete HerbalNicholas CulpeperGreenwich Editions

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© Ken James 2008