Fruitful in old age
The prolonged wet weather and high winds of late have brought down two trees at our holding. The apple tree was a grand old fellow and must have stood more than 9 metres (30ft). Its trunk had been hollowed out and was a favourite feasting venue for our family of woodpeckers! The holes left by their hammering-beaks were evidence of the abundance of insects that must have been living in the slowly decaying giant. The tree was still very fruitful even in its advancing age however, producing large cooking apples. I would spend many days during the autumn collecting the fallers before the dogs could gorge on them. Its absence is daily mourned, as it provided a sculptural elegance to the garden and something of a friendly presence.
Gaps in the treeline
Another large tree also came down. Unlike the apple tree, which had the presence of mind to fall away from any buildings or man-made structures, this one aimed right for the field shelters and smashed the fence in the process. Luckily the fence was not on the perimeter of the holding and the ponies could only have escaped into a flooded ditch, and could not have got away. But it nearly succeeded in demolishing the field shelters and is now completely blocking the ponies out of them. The roots of the tree are upturned and exposed. Its canopy, although denuded of leaves is nonetheless expansive. The gap in the tree line is noticeable. It’s like looking at a smile when a tooth is missing!
Celebrity trees of the New Forest
It’s strange how the presence of trees (or their absence) has such an effect upon us. Many trees on the New Forest have even enjoyed something of a ‘celebrity’ status. One famous tree, which no longer exists, repelled an arrow shot by Sir Walter Tyrrel. It ricocheted from the oak straight into the breast of King William II (or Rufus the Red as he is more commonly known) killing him. Another tree was the cause of much speculation and wonder. A pamphlet written in 1742 records ‘A true account of the Groaning Tree in the New Forest, near Lymington, Hampshire’. This young elm tree came to prominence because it made a noise like a person wailing in agony. The groans were ‘so terrible and shocking to human nature, that few who hear them have power to stir from the place till proper cordials have been administered to revive sinking spirits and confounded imaginations.’ Sometimes the tree made no noise at all, but generally it groaned least when the weather was wet and most when the weather was clear and cold. The noise seemed to emanate from its roots. The phenomenon lasted for18-20 months and drew people, including royalty, from far and wide to witness the astonishing spectacle. Eventually the owner, to discover the cause of the groaning, drilled a hole into the truck of the tree. From that moment the groaning stopped. He even had the tree rooted up but the cause of the groaning was never discovered. It was generally believed to be a natural phenomenon, rather than trickery, but its cause was never discovered.
Trees with names
Other trees were named because of their location, distinctive appearance, use or legends associated with them. The Knightswood Oak, near Lyndhurst, is the largest, and possible the oldest, oak tree on the forest. It is believed to be approximately 600 years old. According to legend Henry VIII took shelter under it during a deer hunt. In Burley an observer saw, in 1868, scattered in some fields, the remains of the Twelve Apostles (sometimes known as the Burleigh Oaks) once enormous oaks, reduced both in number and size, with “Boughs moss’d with age, And high tops bald with dry antiquity.” The ‘Scissors Beech at Bank’ and the ‘Birchen Hat’ were named because of their appearance. While, the ‘bouncing tree of Bisterne’ was so named because an incredibly long branch was used by generations of children playing on it. The ‘Naked Man’ was an oak tree that lacked bark but in its heyday was referred to as the Wilverley Oak. Its stump is all that remains today. Legend tells of highwaymen and smugglers being hanged from it, but this is not borne out by records. The Eagle Oak, in Knightwood Inclosure, was given its name because in 1810 a New Forest Keeper is reported to have shot the last White-tailed Sea Eagle from its branches.
Trees and people
Trees are a potent symbol in human culture, myth and legend. The trees of the New Forest are an integral part, and inspiration for, art, literature, recreation, commerce and tradition. As well as recording the history of the New Forest in their rings, the many varieties of trees – oak, elm, ash, beech – have also charted the social, economic and political history of its people. Yet, it has a deeper more fundamental significance, in the words of Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), ‘It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.’