The village of Ramsbury, where I live, is best known for a natural landmark: a tree. It stands, or rather it stood, where four roads meet, in the exact centre of the village. On one side is the pub, The Bell, and on the other the High Street, curving gently away past the village stores, the post office and houses of locally-made brick and flint. At one time the tree was also flanked by Ramsbury Building Society, the trusted protector of village cash, which took the tree as its icon. Until recently the glass doors of its successor, the Portman Building Society, retained images of the tree in its prime: a billow of green spreading its branches to every corner of the square.
Ramsbury’s tree was a huge Wych Elm said to be at least 300 years old. Indeed, you hear it said that the tree is actually older than the village which grew up around it, though that is nonsense for Ramsbury is a very old village; at the time of the Domesday Book it boasted ten mills when little Newbury had only two and no one had ever heard of Swindon. Most likely the tree was planted for its beauty and shade. Its crenelated, hour-glass-shaped trunk, broad at the base and at the top, indicates that it was a street tree, and, like the limes and planes of suburban London, occasionally cropped to keep its canopy tight and avoid overhanging the lane. Later on, to judge from old postcards, it was left alone to grow outwards and shade much of the square.
A century ago the Ramsbury elm was still a healthy tree, 12 metres tall and nearly 20 metres across its span. Villagers would sit beneath the comforting security of its boughs, gossip and watch the world go by. Children used to clamber up inside the hollow trunk, emerging at the top, far above the street. They knew the tree from the inside, every crevice and hold, the mattress of dry leaves at its base (useful if you slipped) and the smell of mould and sawdust. The hollow was also said to be the ‘scene of countless romantic trysts and even conceptions within its hollow trunk’. And around the spread boughs, the life of a busy rural village went on, the cycle shop and the basket-maker, the cart taking a load of bark to the old tannery, past butchers and bakers and saddlers, and children bowling hoops along the cobbles.
The tree first began to show its age after the First World War, years that coincided with road surfacing and an increase in motorised traffic over its ageing roots. Elms shed their lower branches suddenly and without warning. Once one went, others might have been lopped for reasons of safety. At any rate, by the Second World War the tree no longer resembled its former grandeur. Only a few vertical branches now projected from the trunk, like brooms, and in summer the canopy was roughly the shape of a figure 8. But the tree retained its aura of venerability, a mighty tree from a distant age, another time. Around it the scene was changing but the tree was the one constant in village life. It seemed that it had always been there and always would, and this was in some indefinable way a comfort.
And then, in 1983, the old tree died. Some say that Dutch Elm Disease caught up with it in the end, but more likely its demise was accelerated by the overwhelming crush of buses and lorries on its decayed roots. Everyone knew the legend which told that when the great tree died, bad things would happen. For the Ramsbury elm was a Witch Tree. It had a curse attached to it. Perhaps the story originated in a confusion between ‘wych’, as in wych elm, and ‘witch’, although the former has nothing to do with black magic. ‘Wych’ is an old word meaning supple or pliant, and celebrates the quality of elm wood. But even so, the story was that, long ago, a wicked witch called Maud Toogood had lived inside its hollow and that her bones were buried within its roots. Like the ravens at the Tower of London, the fate of the village was bound up with that of the tree (as it happens, Ramsbury means ‘burg of the raven’). Of course we are not supposed to believe in witches or witchcraft any more, and so it was no doubt coincidence that the demise of the tree was soon followed by a rash of financial scandals, including the arrest and jailing of Ramsbury Building Society’s investment manager for fraud. Even so, that stunning news marked the end of the trust and fellowship that had long characterised the village economy. So, to that extent at least, the curse came true.
The question now was what to do with the dead stump. Some wanted it to be preserved in perpetuity, perhaps by filling the hollow core with concrete. In the eyes of many, it was still the Tree, unique and irreplaceable. A referendum was held on its future but the result was indecisive. Nearly half the village (339) wanted it kept and the other half (356) wanted it removed and replaced. In the process the Tree became a story. TV networks sent their cameras to Ramsbury to report on this Clochemerle-like confrontation and reported on it as far away as New York, Sydney and Cape Town. It made, I suppose, a deeply English story. Where else would they make so much fuss about an old, rotten, and now dead tree? Why didn’t they just plant a new one?
In the end they did. It was health and safety that decided it. The hulk of the tree was brittle and tinder-dry, and so was deemed a hazard to pedestrians and traffic. When the gang came to demolish it, the trunk departed the ground with ease, almost as if in relief, exposing the poor, crippled remnants of its roots. Unhappy villagers gathered to watch it come down. A few had sworn to prevent the desecration, but, as one witness recalled, in the end ‘they allowed themselves to be led away as a loved one might depart from a condemned prisoner for the last time, knowing the situation was hopeless.’ The pile of broken timbers was picked apart for mementoes. The most valued pieces were the circles of swollen wood around knotholes in the trunk that could be turned into picture frames – for pictures of the tree perhaps. I was given one of these by a friend – a ring of rustic timber as light as balsa wood – and I in turn passed it on to The Bell, whose customers had gazed out at the tree since the reign of Charles I. That, I felt, was the right place for it.
The promised replacement was not another elm – that would have been too vulnerable to disease – but an oak. Not a sapling but a young maiden tree carefully excavated from the earth of Epping Forest with its root-ball intact. To welcome the new tree, a day of celebration was planned, with bunting and a brass band and culminating with a folk group playing from the back of a wagon in the pub yard within sight of the new replacement. Much of the village turned out on a blustery late autumn day under a leaden sky, girls dressed as witches, boys as scarecrows. As the band began to play, children linked arms and danced around the new tree in the pattering rain. I wish I had been there to see it: it must have made a scene worthy of Goya, a splashy pageant of witchery and half-buried folk memories. It was as if the curse was being exorcised. And, indeed, after everyone had gone home, it was a wild night. The rain fell in torrents and a whirling wind ripped roofs from houses round about – but not, curiously enough, houses in Ramsbury.
The new tree thrives. It has not yet acquired the same mythic status of the great elm and perhaps it never will. It is simply a small tree, just over roof height, in the middle of a traffic island in front of the pub. At Christmas it is covered in twinkling lights and during street fairs and fetes it helps support the bunting. But only those who know their village history understand its true significance.
I have told the story of our tree in some detail because it seems to me to say something broader about relationships, between people and trees – or rather, a particular tree. We have never in this country adopted the continental practice of preserving ancient trees as monuments, but Ramsbury’s elm was as socially significant as any memorial or carved stone. It was the village equivalent of the British lion, an emblem, an enduring symbol that defined Ramsbury’s sense of what it was and where it was. It linked the past with the present and, like Tennyson’s brook, seemed to say that ‘men may come and men may go, but I go on forever.’ To assert that the tree was valued is to understate the case: it lay at the very core of village identity. The tree, in that sense, was us.
I think this is one reason, possibly even the main reason, why great trees survive in such remarkable profusion in this country. Their custodians (I prefer that word to ‘owners’), whether communities or families, admired such trees for their beauty and great age and took pride in them. They knew that their tree would outlive them and welcome generations yet unborn and become an ornament to the estate. On one level they took the credit for a tree of great character and beauty. On another, they saw that tree as a symbol of heredity, the core of ancient pith that runs through the generations. The tree was like the house: solid and permanent, or seeming so. It was family.
Another example of the deep feeling that trees draw from us lies just over the hill from Ramsbury. Savernake Forest, situated on a plateau of clay and gravel overlooking the town of Marlborough, is unusual in that it has never been bought or sold. It has remained in the same family (inter-linked by marriages) for nearly 1,000 years. From the early Middle Ages the lords of Savernake were also hereditary Wardens of the Forest. And among the woods, commons and enclosures of the ancient Forest were great oaks of unfathomable age. The greatest of all was the King Oak, monarch of Savernake, which stood almost at the Forest’s dead centre, in its own glade, accompanied by a retinue of lesser oaks that would themselves be classed as giants anywhere else.
But although its position is still marked on Ordnance Survey maps, you will search for the King Oak in vain. We know what it looked like from old drawings and prints, and it was, by any measure, a mighty tree. According to Jacob Strutt, who included it among forty-eight of the nation’s grandest trees in his Sylva Britannica of 1822, it stood about 90 feet high and spread its leafy boughs over a circle 60 yards wide. The tree was reputed to be more than 1,000 years old. Strutt imagined ‘our Saxon ancestors’ holding sinister rituals in the ‘shadowy recesses’ under its boughs. His engraving shows a great barrel of a trunk with a cave-like recess at its foot, supporting four or five enormous branches.
Back in 1822, the tree still bore a healthy canopy of leaves but there were already evident signs of strain. The then warden, Thomas Bruce Brudenell, Earl of Ailesbury, was a keen tree planter who also valued ancient trees for their picturesque qualities. Some years earlier he had been concerned that two of the leading branches of the King Oak had begun to split the ageing trunk. A fissure had appeared in the crutch of the trunk which the estate tried to patch up with a sheet of lead secured by nails – while relieving the weight on the trunk with a pair of great iron crutches. But the Earl feared that even this might not be enough to save the tree from splitting apart (and besides, someone was clambering up and stealing the valuable lead). His man, a Mr T. Young, thereby proposed to girdle the tree with an iron band, treatment that has since been accorded to another Savernake giant, the Big Belly Oak. It seems that the work was undertaken but that the band had been attached carelessly, and so slipped from its moorings. Mr Young was of the opinion that the tree nursing had not ‘been of much service’, or as we might say, it had all been a complete waste of time.
Despite concern for its future, the King Oak still appeared to be thriving in 1845 when the Rev. William Lukis, founder and first Secretary of the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, sketched it in pencil. But over the next half century the great tree fell apart, whether gradually or suddenly we do not know. There came a point when the hollow trunk could no longer support the weight of its branches and down they all came. The last of its great limbs crashed to the ground in October 1872, the wettest month in a notably wet and windy year. By the turn of the century the fallen limbs had long been cleared away and all that remained was the shattered, leafless stump.
We can get an idea of what might have happened from another of the great oaks of the forest, the famous King of Limbs. That too was a huge spreading oak whose outstretched branches – its great ‘limbs’ – eventually proved too much for the rotting trunk. A photograph taken in around 1950 shows the tree still intact. Today, though, two of its five main branches lie broken on either side, leaving only the three more upright ones; though fortunately those seem healthy. One of the fallen branches has ripped away a large chunk of the hollow trunk exposing a veritable wooden cave of the kind that once distinguished the King Oak.
Like the Ramsbury elm, the King Oak was revered long after the last acorn and leaf had fallen. What remained was a still impressively gnarled and embossed hulk with a pinnacle of wood pointing skywards above the hollow at its heart as if to reproach the clouds and wind for its fate. The estate circled the stump with a paling fence and left it to stand in its decayed glory, a place of pilgrimage. Each successive series of Ordnance Survey maps marked its position (along with the smaller Queen Oak nearby). The stump appears on old sepia postcards and published photographs. They said that the bracken, which infests the other open spaces of the Forest, never touched this hallowed space.
When the Forestry Commission took over the management of the Forest in 1939, there was some discussion about what to do with the great trees. At the estate’s insistence, the ‘named oaks and other ancient oaks’ were preserved. And, in a spirit of ‘the King is dead, long live the King!’, a ‘new King Oak’ was planted close to the original, taken from another historic oak in the Forest with small, bunched leaves known as the Cluster Oak. Alas, the new king has proved a sickly specimen and seems unlikely to survive its first century. Meanwhile, one final moment of posthumous glory awaited the old king. During the latter part of the Second World War, the Forest was used as an ammunition dump guarded by American servicemen (obscured by dense woodland, the dump was invisible to German aerial photographs). To these men the stump was a familiar landmark and perhaps something more. For when, in 1945, the time finally came for the removal of the hulk, many of the American soldiers took pieces of the trunk and brought them home, perhaps as souvenirs of the days they spent working in an English forest. It would be nice to think that bits of the King Oak still survive far away in the New World, perhaps in farmhouses in the American Midwest, or timber-framed homes in New England, or oceanside condos in California, or as objects in the local museum labelled as ‘pieces of timber from an English oak, said to be 1,000 years old’. The great tree had become a symbol of these men’s wartime experience and identity, so much so that they were willing to find precious space for a piece in their holdalls on the troopship home.
There is one more oak in Savernake whose very name invokes the sense of pride shared by past wardens and their foresters in their great trees: the Duke’s Vaunt (‘vaunt’ is an old word meaning ‘boast’). There is only one duke among the wardens of the Forest: Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector of England during the minority of King Edward VI. The tree is almost certainly old enough to have been the pride of a Tudor duke. Although now swallowed up among the lesser trees and hard to find, the Duke’s Vaunt was once a prominent landmark set by the old road from Marlborough to Bedwyn. At one point a door was set into its trunk enclosing a space large enough for twenty choirboys to squeeze inside, and for a small band, including a violin, a hautboy and a bassoon, to offer tunes from within the compassing bark. Even by the early 1700s the Duke’s Vaunt was in a ‘decayed state’, a testament to the prolonged old age of great oaks. Today, only the broken, hollow shell, some 30 feet in circumference, remains, yet it still supports a slender living bough, like a green flag flying over an ancient ruin. Half a century ago, foresters had tried in vain to save the tree from splitting by circling the crutch with the heavy chains that still hang from the stump. Shrouded in a post-war plantation, today’s damp, moss-grown wreck excites pity more than pride. Yet the place still has an atmosphere. The last time I was there it was loud with crossbills feeding on the cones at the top of the spruces and larches that now far overtop the old Duke’s pride. When no one is about, they say, the birds come down to the forest floor to drink from a natural trough left by a fissure in the Duke’s last fallen bough.
All these trees meant far more to those who loved them than the physical volume of their timber or their harvest of acorns and elm-seed. Although two of them are only memories, and the third is near the end of its long life, their fame lives on; the relationship continues. The timber of oaks and elms is, of course, useful and even valuable. But the Ramsbury elm had no financial value, and no particular use either unless it was to provide shelter or shade. If the King Oak or the Duke’s Vaunt ever supplied wood to the estate – for both appear to have been pollarded in the distant past – they had ceased to do so for the last few hundred years of their lives. In forestry terms they took up valuable space in which dozens of young trees might be planted. They were obviously valued for reasons beyond economy or profit. In sickness they were tended as though they were loved ones, and in death their communities were reluctant to say goodbye. But what is it, exactly, that creates such bonds of love and fellowship with what is, after all is said and done, simply a big plant?
Personally I discount the Druids. The ancient Britons may have performed rites of worship in sacred groves of oak, but whatever they might have felt and believed about old trees has long been wiped out by centuries of Christianity. Nor do trees play any significant role in heraldry, unlike the English rose. As far as I know, the first person to make a fuss of England’s great oaks and elms was John Evelyn in his groundbreaking work, Sylva, in 1664 (all right, there were Tudor texts on the propagation of trees but they seem concerned mainly with the practicalities). Our feelings for trees blossomed with the invention of landscape architecture and our discovery of the picturesque. It was only then, during the past 300 years, that we seem to have given names to favourite trees and brought them into our world and its networks of stories and beliefs.
So, granted they are valued despite being near worthless, what do great trees do for us? I think the key lies in what we see as shared qualities. We stare up at the lofty boughs and down to the stout, fissured trunk of a great oak and see – what? – Endurance? Strength? Power? As something so much larger and older than ourselves we can even see them as protectors (the embrace of those comforting boughs), as in the adoption of the great Tree by the Ramsbury Building Society, where the Tree meant, in essence: your money is safe with us. Today, oak has become a latterday emblem for countries and states across the world, whether it is the Golden Oak of Cyprus or the White Oak of Connecticut or simply a generic oak, not even a species but the quintessence of a strong and mighty tree.
Perhaps the most telling modern borrowing is the Conservative Party’s symbol of a ‘scribbled oak’. In 2006, under David Cameron, the former ‘torch of freedom’ was replaced by a stout British oak. The intention of the rebranding was to provide the party with a softer, friendlier, and above all, greener image (‘We will be the greenest government ever,’ promised Cameron). Open-grown oaks have a distinctively broad, squarish outline that is evident even in the £40,000 scribble created for the Conservatives by the Perfect Day design agency. The Tory oak stood for qualities that it hoped the British people still saw in themselves: ‘strength, endurance, renewal and growth’ – and perhaps they hoped some of this might rub off into Conservative economic policy. Soon the scribbled oak turned a more party political blue, and then, just in time for the 2015 general election, it turned into an oak-shaped Union Jack. Today, green promises forgotten (‘green crap’, said Cameron), the oak now stands for patriotism and the Union: flag and tree combined. Perhaps it also makes a few nostalgic minds think of Nelson and the days when Britannia ruled the waves in ships made of heart of oak. Trees do make versatile symbols.
Many old trees stand in semi-protected places called Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and valued as mini-ecosystems rich in lichens, mosses and rare beetles. But for most people science has little or nothing to do with why they are special. Our historic relationship with old trees has nothing to do with beetles. It is about us, about our sense of the past, and about pride in ourselves and our surroundings. Ancient trees fill us with awe, and perhaps, in an increasingly godless age, they occupy some of the vacant space in minds once filled with religion. They also help define our sense of place in the world. Ramsbury might be just another village in the Kennet valley, but Ramsbury had its Tree. Savernake might be just another big wood, but not every big wood has a King Oak or a Duke’s Vaunt. For anyone and everyone who feels a sense of kinship with them, such great trees are ‘ours’. And, one cannot help wondering, in the unimaginable ways in which a tree interconnects with its environment, are we not also theirs?
Peter Marren has written widely on the natural world and our association with it. Among some twenty books, he is the author of Rainbow Dust, Bugs Britannica, The New Naturalists which won the Thackray Medal, as well as contributions to Collins New Naturalist, the British Wildlife Collection and Poyser Natural History. His most recent book is Emperors, Admirals and Chimney Sweepers, a book about the weird and wonderful names of butterflies and moths. He writes regularly for British Wildlife and Butterfly magazine and is a former columnist in The Countryman. For fourteen years he worked for the Nature Conservancy Council in Scotland and England. He lives in Ramsbury in Wiltshire. ‘The Ramsbury Elm’ was originally published in Arboreal, a collection of new woodland writing that Little Toller published in 2016.