In 1217, the unrest which had led to the creation of the Magna Carta had not yet died down. The Charter of Liberties had failed to stem the civil war. King John’s reign of terror was over and the new king, Henry III, was aged just nine years old. The rebels were sick of the Crown living well whilst they suffered at the hands of poverty; the rich ignoring the laws that had been agreed to, but were not being enforced in the favour of the poor. The Charter of the Forest, which had originally been part of the Magna Carta, was drawn up and signed in the November as a complementary chapter to the main document. It gave the common people access to the Royal Forests. These areas were not just woodlands but included heathlands, grasslands and wetlands; they had their own laws and were used as hunting grounds. The Charter reduced the sizes of Royal Forests, meaning the spare land could be turned into farmland, supporting the ever-growing population of England.
Somewhere, hidden inside this charter, a special tree is mentioned; the Darley Oak. And this wasn’t the first time this tree had been referred to in life-changing literature; it was named in the Domesday Book in 1030 too. When I first heard about this pedunculate oak, which stands on the outskirts of Bodmin, I couldn’t get it out of my head, and very early one morning I found myself making my own pilgrimage just to see it.
The tree is suspected to be around 1000 years old at least. For it to be mentioned in both the Charter of the Forest and The Domesday book, it must at that time have already been something to behold, as a mere sapling would not have been worth recording. In fact, oak trees don’t begin to even develop acorns until they are around 40 years old. So why would such a tree be so important to the people? Our relationship with the oak tree has ancient roots. Celtic Druids would meet beneath oaks, hallowed due to their growth rate and size, the acorns linked to new life. In fact, it is suggested that the word ‘druid’s etymological origin derives from ‘dru-wid’ meaning ‘knower of oak trees’. Their longevity was viewed as wisdom and strength. Mistletoe, which grows parasitically on oaks, was seen as lucky and would be removed and blessed, then hung for luck. And it wasn’t just our ancient culture that held the oak in high regard. The Greek god Zeus and the Roman god Jupiter are both linked to the species, which may have something to do with the fact that oaks the tallest tree species, but also because of this, oaks are often the ones who befall lightening, and both Jupiter and Zeus have tales embroiled in stormy weather.
It is easy to see why, even in god-fearing times, the Darley Oak would have been worth men defending. It stands in the centre of the small village of Darleyford on the outskirts of Bodmin Moor and is a sight to behold. It is tall; towering over the tiny hamlet below. Its trunk is thick and gnarled, and its presence reaches as high as its twisted branches. The acorns, which had long gone by the time I visited, were once kept as amulets for luck, especially by pregnant women for whom childbirth could potentially be a death sentence. The ground is raised around the base, the huge roots pushing their way under the soils surface, commanding the earth around it to fall to its will. The roots must expand for metres, giving the feeling that the whole dwelling has been raised on the life of this tree.
I felt a bit strange standing in the middle of the valley, not another soul in sight, camera in my clutches as I stared up at the tree, like a besotted teenager first spotting some pop-star heartthrob. But when I think about what this single plant has withstood, it amazes me. It has seen thousands of Cornish men march Northwards to fight the invading English. It has seen bombs fall around it, dropped by German planes. It has withstood the industrial revolution, habitat destruction, invasive species, disease, deforestation and construction. It has been cared for, climbed upon, hugged and overheard whispers beneath it, from religious chants to devious plans.
And all the while, it stands silently and watches on.
English oak trees (Quercus robur) create a rich habitat that is important to many British species. In fact, they support more life forms than any other native tree species. Hundreds of species of insect will live in and around them, meaning they are a great place for birds to hunt for food, as well as shelter under. The acorns provide food for mammals such as deer, hedgehogs and badgers. Purple hairstreak caterpillars rely on the leaf buds and in the autumn when the green leaves begin to decay and fall to the floor, they provide a rich mulch to support inverts and fungi.
But despite being seemingly numerous, oaks are under threat. The numbers of invasive species coming into the UK seems to be increasing and the destruction they are cause to our native flora and fauna can be devastating. The oak processionary moth (Thaumetopoea processionea) is native to countries in Southern Europe, but is controlled by predation from species which are not found in Britain. The caterpillars of the oak processionary feeds on oak leaves and whilst this may not pose a serious problem, trees which are regularly targeted by moths begin to suffer. It can weaken the tree, leaving it vulnerable to other potentially deadly issues. More serious however is Acute Oak Decline (AOD) and Chronic Oak Decline (COD). Both of these conditions, first noticed during the 1920’s, can cause canopy thinning, branch dieback, black weeping patches on stems and lesions underlying the bleed spots and eventually death, causing a decline in tree numbers.
Invasive species are on the increase due to climate change and also the exchange of foreign plants, so taking steps to reduce your carbon footprint and trying to stick to native species when planting can help to protect oak trees from further issues.
I spent some time with the Darley Oak, trying to commit it to memory. I longed to touch it, to run my fingers over its writhen trunk, but as it stands on someone’s private land, I couldn’t. The rain began to fall and in the hush of the valley, it softly drummed on the roof of my car. A robin swooped in and sat on one of the branches, watching me momentarily for signs of edible offerings, before breaking into a beautiful song which broke the morning’s silence. It was a moment I will treasure.
I think of what the druids would have made of such a deity, or how a medieval local may have even fought to the death for the land on which such a tree would have stood. It occurs to me, that we have the old saying wrong. Instead, it should be ‘Can’t see the trees for the woods’ because often when we see trees, we don’t really see them. We just see the wider landscape or a collection; we don’t often see the individuals; notice their shape, their texture, the world they have created.
Next time you’re out and about, take a closer look. Look at the individuals, the way they grow, the species they house. And remember that each tree is providing the bricks of life to us and we should take a leaf out of the druid’s book, remembering that we would not survive without such beasts and to always give them the respect they are due.