Tree reasons why ancient oaks survived the felling of ancient forests in Britain

Majesty, a pedunculate oak at Fredville Park in Nonington, Kent, is arguably the most impressive tree in Britain, and indeed the whole of Europe.
Majesty, a pedunculate oak at Fredville Park in Nonington, Kent, is arguably the most impressive tree in Britain, and indeed the whole of Europe.
Britain has 2,000 ancient yew trees yet there are only about 100 left in mainland Europe. England is home to more than 100 great oaks - trees aged over 800 years - more than the entire region from Calais to Cadiz. Author PETER FIENNES reflects on why so many old British trees have been saved from the axe
We should seek out our ancient trees and give them the protection they need.

It is a mysterious truth - and one the experts struggle to explain - that Britain has fewer woods than just about any other European country a nd yet it has vastly more ancient trees. We have destroyed our forests, while opting to spare a large number of individual trees, most frequently the oaks and the yews. Perhaps the two facts are connected. 

Over the centuries, there must have been thousands of moments when someone was eyeing up an ancient tree, axe in hand, and yet they decided – once again – to leave it alone, while their European counterparts just started swinging.

And this is why, when you walk in the bountiful broadleaf woods of Normandy or Lombardy, you will find you are looking at trees of an invariably uniform age and size, whereas, lurking in the last few woods of Britain – and not just in the woods, but in the fields, hedgerows and car parks – there are giants. 

This is something we have chosen to do. It can’t just be because we harbour trace memories of the time when trees were sacred. That’s important, for sure, but it’s also true of the rest of Europe. Perhaps what’s more significant is the British history of common land.

We gaze at trees

Why would you want to destroy something of value and beauty that belongs to you? The ancient trees all show signs of having been lopped, pollarded and harvested: but they were not felled. So even when the land was enclosed, or some absentee landlord was vandalizing his own woods, it’s possible that the local people tried to save what they could. We can but dream.

There may be spiritual reasons. John Stewart Collis, writing in Down to Earth, thought that the love of Nature was embedded so deep in Britain because we sense there’s something hidden, waiting to be revealed.

This is true. We gaze at trees, we hug them, we lean our backs on their welcoming trunks, we lie on the ground above a busy mesh of roots, staring at the lulling branches – we are enfolded by the trees. Perhaps we are waiting for them to answer our questions. But can we really say this is an exclusively British trait?

Even so, there are something like 2,000 ancient yew trees growing in Britain, while there are only about 100 left in the whole of the rest of Europe. And oaks! There are well over 100 ‘great oaks’ in England (the ‘great’ means that the trees are over 800 years old); but you won’t find that number in a vast swathe of land stretching from Calais to Cadiz and Athens.

We should seek out our ancient trees and give them the protection they need.

Shows us in a good light

What’s more, we are uncovering ancient trees in Britain all the time. Remember the 60 medieval oaks that were discovered last year in the grounds of Blenheim Palace? Where have they all been hiding? Do they think it’s now safe to come out? Of course, we shouldn’t get too carried away. Over 100 great oaks left in the whole of England – that’s compelling evidence of a massacre. But it is nonetheless something to celebrate. 

There is another possibility: in Britain, do we love the trees, but fear the woods? Have we cleared the undergrowth and thinned the trees, so we can stand back and admire a few mighty specimens free from the hidden menace of outlaws and boggarts? Is this what we’re really after? Pasture and parkland and a republic of sheep?

It’s possible, despite the enthusiasm of ‘rewilding’ devotees, that what most of us really want is more order; and perhaps we’d all secretly prefer something along the lines of a Sunday night BBC country estate, complete with grand trees, sweeping lawns, a table set for tea, a chewing of cows just beyond the ha-ha and Tom Hiddleston’s famous white buttocks humping rhythmically in the shrubbery. 

If I were to stretch for one final reason why Britain has more ancient trees than other countries, I’d say it’s because we like our history – especially (but not only) the history that shows us in a good light.

Of course, we are also famous for our world-class hypocrisy: we have saved these trees even as, at the same time, we have demolished the woods and forests that once surrounded them.

But the survival of these few ancient trees is thrilling. We have passed them through the generations with veneration and love and they are still here, our friendly giants, looming in the woods, cities, hedgerows, farms and parks. We should seek them out and give them the protection they need. They have a wisdom that we need. 

This Author

Peter Fiennes is the author of Oak and Ash and Thorn: the ancient woods and new forests of Britain, published by Oneworld Publications on 7th September 2017. This is an extract from the work. © Copyright Peter Fiennes 2017.