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Six of the UK’s historic trees and their curious stories

British woodlands are alive with stories. From cursed oaks to thousand-year-old yews, we take a look at some of the country's most fabled trees.

Published 21 Nov 2020, 06:05 GMT
Apple tree at Trinity College Cambridge

The original apple tree that inspired a curious Isaac Newton is believed to stand in his native Lincolnshire, but a scion of the tree was planted (and is still growing) at Trinity College Cambridge, where he once studied.

Photograph by Getty

We’ve a lot to thank the trees for. Other than their vital role in the ecosystem, they’ve played an important part in mythology, agriculture, industry and medicine since humans first walked the Earth. Remarkably, a good number of our most ancient trees — most of them yews and oaks — still stand today as living, breathing witnesses to centuries of British history.

In fact, so important and fragile are some of these trees that they’re now managed by the National Trust to ensure their majesty can be enjoyed by generations to come. To celebrate National Tree Week (28 November to 6 December), which marks the start of the winter tree-planting season, we take a look at some of the UK’s most fabled trees — and the intriguing stories that surround them.

Ankerwycke Yew, Berkshire

Yews are guardians of churchyards throughout Britain, and many represent our oldest and most storied tree specimens. Few are more spectacular than the Ankerwycke Yew, in the village of Wraysbury, near Staines-upon-Thames. Measuring 26ft in diameter, it’s a botanical behemoth that’s believed to be around 2,500 years old, making it one of the oldest trees in Britain. It long outlived the now-ruined St Mary’s Priory, a Benedictine nunnery whose grounds it stood in, and some even believe it to be the true site of the signing of Magna Carta in 1215, rather than Runnymede on the other side of the river. Its intrigue doesn’t end there — it’s also alleged to stand on the spot where Henry VIII wooed a young Anne Boleyn. If only trees could talk. 

Isaac Newton’s apple tree, Lincolnshire

Numerous trees are cited as being the very one that inspired the young physicist to investigate the theory of gravity. But the apple tree in the grounds of Woolsthorpe Manor, near Grantham, has arguably the greatest right to this claim, with a scion planted (and still growing) at Trinity College Cambridge, where he once studied. While the apple story is probably the stuff of scientific myth, it’s almost certain that Newton would’ve been familiar with the tree — which today is at least 350 years old — as it’s the area in which he was born and raised. The county is also home to another of the country’s stalwarts: the Bowthorpe Oak, reputedly the UK’s girthiest oak, with a hollowed-out trunk so wide that it’s said to have hosted the Earl of Bowthorpe’s parties.

Some experts estimate the Fortingall Yew in Scotland to be the ripe old age of 3,000, which would make it date as far back as the Bronze Age.

Photograph by Shutterstock

Fortingall Yew, Fortingall, Perthshire  

Widely believed to be one of the oldest living trees in the UK (and indeed in Europe), the Fortingall Yew spills over its walled enclosure in a village churchyard like a great shower of dark green needles. Some experts estimate the tree to be the ripe old age of 3,000, which would make it date as far back as the Bronze Age — some 1,000 years before the Romans had even come up with the name ‘Caledonia’ for Scotland. The sheer age of the tree means that over time the trunk has split, and it now resembles several smaller yews rather than one sole, mighty plant. The future of the Fortingall Yew, however, is precarious, with souvenir-seekers stealing needles and branches, and so compromising its health. Ongoing conservation efforts that preserve the tree’s DNA by planting saplings in other Scottish churchyards will be key to maintaining its history.

Spanish chestnut trees, Herefordshire 

Of all the ancient trees at Croft Castle, near Leominster (including the 1,000-year-old Quarry Oak), most noteworthy are perhaps the huge Spanish chestnuts. Planted in one grand avenue, their origins are believed to hark back to the battle with the Spanish Armada in 1588, when chestnuts were salvaged from the wreckages and planted here at Croft. In fact, the planting arrangement is said to represent a flotilla when viewed from above. But it’s at ground level that the trees truly amaze, as they’re almost fantasy-like in their size and contortion. Take time to admire the gnarled, grotesque trunks and the twisted branches reaching towards the sky.

The historic Chained Oak in Staffordshire is — almost literally — bound in legend, its story intertwined with a curse on the family of the Earl of Shrewsbury.

Photograph by Alamy

The Chained Oak, Staffordshire

This old oak in scenic Dimmingsdale is now bound in rusty chains. Local legend has it that in the early 1800s, the Earl of Shrewsbury was accosted by a beggar as he was passing by. He snubbed the old woman, and in retaliation she placed a curse on his family that held that every time a branch fell from the oak tree a member of the Earl’s family would die. That night during a storm, one of the branches fell from the tree and — lo and behold — a relative of the Earl died. Siezed by paranoia, he chained up all the branches to prevent any more falling from the oak. Even today, as you approach the tree through the thick woodland, there’s a mysterious air to this gnarled old giant. Just moments away at Alton Towers, the legend is the inspiration for Hex — a psychological hair-raiser of a ride set within the Alton Towers building itself.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Tree, Dorset

Beneath the boughs of a 350-year-old sycamore in the village of Tolpuddle, a small group of agricultural workers gathered in 1833 to lament their poor working conditions and paltry wages — only to be arrested, tried and sentenced to penal transportation in Australia for seven years. The six men became known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and after much public outcry, they were pardoned and returned to England. Their cause was a key step in the workers’ rights and unionist movements and is remembered in the annual Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival; a memorial plaque sits beside this great tree.

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