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(Soon to be replaced by my own linocut efforts…)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

3: The Fortingall Yew

The ancient yew that stands in the grounds of Fortingall church, Perthshire, is between 2,000 and 5,000 years old, making it the oldest tree in Europe (even at the most conservative estimate of its age). Local legend has it that Pontius Pilate was born under the shade of its branches, when his father served as Roman ambassador to the Caledonians. It's more likely that Pilate was a Samnite, born in the village of Bisenti in Central Italy, although there are references in Roman literature of him spending time in Gaul and/or Germany after his time as Prefect of Judea. There is certainly evidence that some of his descendants found their way to Britain.
Either way, it's a good story.

Whether or not the Fortingall Yew ever sheltered Pilate (and it's certainly old enough), it holds a special place in Scottish lore; and not only for its sheer grandeur. It is said to lie at the geographic centre of Scotland, at a point where three major ley lines intersect – and was seen by Druids as a sacred tree of life or knowledge.

Today, the old yew isn't quite as imposing as it once was. The natural ageing process, together with the attentions of souvenir hunters over the centuries, has meant its trunk has split into separate stems. However, in 1779, its circumference was recorded by Thomans Pennant as 56 and a half feet, "thus being greater than that of any churchyard Yew of England or Wales."*

*The Churchyard Yew and Immortality, V Cornish

Sunday, January 10, 2010

2: Oswald's Tree

On August 5, 642, the pagan King Penda of Mercia amassed his own forces, together with the Welsh armies of Gwynedd, Powys and Pengwern, against Oswald, the Christian King of Northumbria. They met at the town of Maserfield in modern day Shropshire, where Oswald was killed. In the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, it is recorded that Oswald died a martyr's death and "ended his life in prayer" for the souls of his soldiers, before he was decapitated by an axe and his body was dismembered by Penda's men.

Legend has it that, as a warning to others, Oswald's limbs were hung from the branches of an ash tree by his victors, and that a holy well sprang up at the spot where his arm fell from the tree. Variations suggest that one of his arms was carried to the tree by an eagle, where it was dropped to the ground below.

The town of Oswestry ('Oswald's Tree') has stood on the site of Maserfield since at least 1190. The site of Oswald's Well marks the spot where the spring is supposed to have originated. Oswald was made a saint for converting the people of Northumbria to christianity and his remains are said to have been removed to St Oswald's Priory in Gloucestershire in 909 by Lady Aethelflaed (the formidable wife of Aethelred II, the last king of Mercia), who gathered together St Oswald's various relics so that they may be interred in one site.

1: The Cliveden Redwood

What better way to kick of the Great British Tree Biography than with an American émigre?

In 1897, William Waldorf Astor, the 1st Lord Astor, imported a section of Californian redwood from Vance's Wood, Humboldt County, and had it set up in the woods overlooking Cliveden House, the English estate he bought in 1893 for $1.25 million. At 16 ft 6 in (5.03 m) across it is the largest section of a Sequoia gigantea (Giant Redwood) in Britain.

Quite why Astor had the stump shipped all the way to the banks of the Thames is unclear. Several theories were proposed; the most outlandish of which was that he had drunkenly entered into a $50,000 wager that he could find a tree large enough to serve as a dining table with 50 guests sat around its circumference.
Sadly, as a report in the January 15, 1899 edition of The San Francisco Call (pictured) made clear, this turned out to be a malicious rumour, believed to have been spread by the captain of the British ship employed in its transportation. Astor himself was so upset at the reports that he wrote the following letter to The Times, also in 1899 (the same year he became a British citizen):

"Editor of the Times — Sir: Will you allow me to publish in your columns a contradiction of the reports that have been circulated about a section of California redwood recently brought to Cliveden? The section referred to has been placed on the ground as an object of interest, but it has never been intended to use it as a dining table, nor has any bet been made as to the number of persons who could be seated around it. The report repeating these details, and purporting to give an account of a banquet, is a deliberate and mischievous fabrication. I have given instructions to my solicitor, Sir George Lewis, to commence proceedings against the newspaper, which has published the false statements in question.
Yours faithfully,
Cliveden, October 25."

The true reason followed Astor to his grave. Maybe he just wanted a piece of his native country to remind him of home. Although the likeliest explanation is also the simplest: he did it because he could.

"Brian has a thing about trees": an introduction

When Brian Clough died, all his best witticisms and arrogant proclamations were predictably rolled out. But one quote, from his brother Bill, stood out. “Brian has a thing about trees. Can’t stop looking at them. I’ve been abroad with him when he’s been in rapture over an avenue of pine tress. ‘Look at them, Bill,’ he’d say. ‘Aren’t they beautiful! People don’t appreciate beauty these days. They look at everything but they don’t really see. Who really looks at trees and sees their shapes and colours? They’re magic! That’s what it’s all about!’”

Trees are magic. Think of how many trees you walk past in an average day. Think of how long they’ve been there. Think of the things they’ve seen. Think of the things they could tell you. If only they had eyes. And mouths. And brains. Well, you get the picture.

Cloughie would probably have had a soft spot for the The Major (or Great) Oak, in Nottinghamshire’s Sherwood Forest (pictured in 1790). Not just for its location, nor for its sheer grandeur (it’s so vast, its lolloping branches have to be propped up with struts); but for sheer chutzpah. This, we’re told, is the very tree that Robin Hood and his Merry Men used as their HQ. Like Old Big ’Ead himself, it’s hard to distinguish the myths from the facts. But it’s certainly old enough to have been around in the reign of King John, and it’s nice to imagine Will Scarlet perched on one of its limbs, even if he never existed.

And while we’re on the subject of legends, how about the Glastonbury Hawthorn: a holy thorn tree on the site of Glastonbury Abbey that flowers on Christmas Day, and is believed to descend from an original thorn planted on the grounds by Joseph of Arimethea. And then there’s Oswald’s Tree: where the dismembered body of Oswald, the Christian King of Northumbria, was said to have been hung by Penda, King of Mercia, as a warning to others – and from where the town of Oswestry takes its name.

You’ll have gathered by now that I’m a little obsessed with trees and their backstories. I can’t visit a town in Britain without trying to track down a famous tree. Which isn’t as easy as it sounds. Some, like the sycamore next to which the Tolpuddle Martyrs formed the country’s first trade union in 1834, are relatively easy to find. (It, and the small triangle of grass it stands on, represents the National Trust’s smallest property.)

Some places, of course, are too good to be true: Sevenoaks turns out to be named after a Saxon chapel called ‘Seouenaca’; it wasn’t until the locals belatedly planted seven trees around the local cricket ground in 1902 that the town lived up to its name. Of more historic value, perhaps, is the distinct silhouette of the tree in nearby Knole Park that The Beatles sat in while filming the video to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ (taking a somewhat literal approach to the line “no-one I think is in my tree”).
I think I’ve found it. But to be fair, it doesn’t really matter whether Ringo sat in it or not. It’s still magic.
And, as Cloughie would say, that’s what it’s all about.

And that’s what The Great British Tree Biography is all about. Enjoy.

This introduction first appeared in Manzine issue iii