We pass them by with barely a thought, yet they’ve been here far longer than any of us. They’ll be here long after we’ve gone. The mighty oaks.
“Uh oh, here we go – a boring lecture on botany”, I hear you say. Not at all, a little to start maybe, but then a good look at oaks’ place in our ancestors’ lives: they have been both worshipped and exploited. We’ll visit both topics in turn. They’ll be druids and mistletoe, kings-in-hiding, ink-making, lost ships and lightning bolts, amongst other oakey topics.
But to start, here’s the botany. What makes a tree a native of these islands? It doesn’t mean that the species has “always” been here. It means that it’s arrived by completely natural means. Seeds or nuts are carried by the wind, by birds, insects or animals.
Until only a few thousand years ago, you could walk across the Dogger bank from northern Europe to Britain. (Fishermen regularly dredge up pre-historic artefacts dropped by migrating folk in “Doggerland”). So it’s easy to imagine the fruits of new trees hitching a ride, perhaps in the furs of animals.
Jays do a lot of the work, apparently. Each bird buries up to 5,000 acorns in a year, for later retrieval when food is scarce. The forgotten ones become oak saplings.
Plenty of trees which you might think of as native are in fact “introduced” by man. And the prime suspects? – our friends the Romans. They must have given a thumbs-down about the standard of British cuisine very early on. Most of their introductions produce edible nuts and fruits! They brought walnut trees, plums, damsons, pears, sour cherries, mulberries, – and the sweet chestnut. Not forgetting the fragrant box tree.
Incidentally, we can thank the Romans for fennel, onions, leeks, peas, lentils, radishes and garlic. And a whole garden-full of herbs, such as rosemary. No wonder the British Celts were so belligerent, they must have been in a permanent state of bad-tempered indigestion. Such a limited diet before the Romans arrived!
Back to the forest – oak eh ?
Enough botany, let’s look at the mythology. It’s no big surprise that in pre-Christian times oaks were considered sacred. Not only by the celts, but throughout European cultures – Greek, Roman, Norse, Germanic, Slavic. And the common denominator of “sacredness” was a trinity: oaks, chief god, lightning.
So, the Roman Jupiter with his thunderbolt, dwelt in oak groves. Zeus was prayed to amongst the Greek oaks, to invoke rain. Thor, the Norse and Germanic god of lightning – and thunder – was worshipped in man-made clearings in the oak forest.
In Germanic languages, a forest clearing is called a ley. Fellow Essex inhabitants can perhaps picture the pre-Christian worship of Thor in the hamlet of Thundersley, near Benfleet.
Thunderbolts and lightning, very very frightening…
Lets look further at this connection. Tristan Gooley wrote a very useful tome, shown here (I do so love a nerdy book). It’s an absolute treasure, especially if you get lost in the wilds surrounding the M25. He tells us that there is actually some truth to the old country lore that you shouldn’t shelter under an oak tree during a storm:
Beware of oak, it draws the stroke.
Avoid an ash; it courts the flash.
Creep under hawthorn,
It’ll save you from harm.
Apparently, scientific studies have confirmed that oaks tends to be struck by lightning more than other trees. One study found that in a given period, oaks were struck over one hundred times, but beeches took only one strike. The ancients probably observed and drew their own conclusions around the relationship between oak trees and lightning.
Pliny the elder – ace blogger
And what of the celts and their veneration of the oak? We should thank Pliny the elder, the blogger of his day, for his notes. He was interested in and wrote about anything and everything. He recorded his jottings throughout his army career, and then once he retired, at his home near Naples.
In fact, his curiosity caused his death, since he insisted on travelling towards, not away from the volcanic explosion at Pompeii in 79AD, to have a look around. So said his nephew, Pliny the younger, who tried in vain to reason with his uncle. The elder Pliny perished, but the younger lived to tell the tale.
Old Pliny was a mine of information on the celts. From him we learn many things. That celtic women were fond of all-over skin dyeing, and that they tattooed their faces. That celts used horse hair to make sieves. How they tipped their arrows with hellebore juice when hunting. That they washed their hair with a soap that turned their hair red. He was obviously a fellow-lover of interesting trivia.
Oak and mistletoe
According to Pliny, the British celts thought of oaks as sacred trees. The name given to their priests – druids – was derived from two celtic words: “dru”, meaning oak and “id”, meaning knowledge. They also considered the mistletoe found growing on oaks as a gift from the gods.
Dressed in white, druids collected mistletoe on the fifth day of the new moon using a golden sickle, letting it fall into a white cloth held below. They then sacrificed two white bulls, under the oaks. The mistletoe juice was diluted and used medicinally for both humans and animals. According to Pliny, the celts called it “an antidote to all poisons”.
Green men and sacred oaks
Things changed here after Christianity was introduced, and the old pagan ways were discouraged. But oaks were still secretly honoured. Look at medieval stone and wood carvings in old churches. You may well find images of the green man – a face or a figure of a human, covered in leaves – invariably oak leaves. They are symbols of the old pagan religion which managed to infiltrate the new regime. Perhaps they were carved by craftsmen whose ancestors kept alive and passed on the old tales and customs.
Pig barks and leaves*
Now let’s look at how human-kind have exploited the sturdy oak. They may have been venerated, but that hasn’t stopped us using all its component parts to support human endeavours.
Acorns have long been used to feed both pigs – and humans. Archaeologists regularly find pre-historic stashes of roasted acorns and flour. And in the New Forest in Hampshire, foresters are still granted the ancient, pre-Conquest right of Pannage, where their pigs can feed on fallen acorns.
The bark of oak, full of tannin, is an ancient cloth dye. And when the gall wasp lays its eggs on the underside of oak leaves, a protective cover forms around it, called a gall. Its common name is an oak apple. The liquid from oak galls has been used to make ink from around the 5th century, and you can still buy it today.
* “Eats, shoots and leaves: the zero tolerance approach to punctuation” by Lynne Truss. Apologies to her for borrowing the pun.
Hearts of oak
But it’s the wood of the mighty oak that has served us the best. Archaeologists have found the remains of stone-age boats fashioned from hollowed oak bark. Excavated iron-age boats were made of oak planks, held together with strands of rope made from yew.
And the Royal Navy was very grateful for Britain’s groves of oaks. But there were never quite enough trees to satisfy the demand for oaks for its ships. Over the thousand years since there’s been a national navy, oak timber had to be procured from all over Britain and overseas. It took over 4,000 trees to construct the hull of a ship of the line. (For the technically-minded, this very academic paper, “Insatiable Shipyards: the impact of the Royal Navy on the World’s Forests 1200-1850”, explains the problem).
Oak was not the only wood needed to build a ship – the decking and furnishings used others. The masts were made from timbers from taller trees. These were often pines imported from the Baltic, or later from the new “colonies” of Canada and North America.
But oak formed the backbone of the navy. And when a ship had out-worn its service, usually around 30 or 40 years, nothing was wasted. Wooden craft were towed to boatyards to be broken down, and the wood reused.
The Oak Papers
James Canton has written about this recycling of oak in a book called The Oak Papers. It’s a diary about his regular visits to an oak tree near his home. And it’s a love letter to all things oaky. I’d like to say it’s a good read, but I listened to, rather than read the book. It was a recent Radio 4 Book of the Week.
Canton tells how old ship timbers would be recycled, often as wall and roof beams in old cottages, including his own. He says that you can often tell by the holes in the wood, made by ship nails, and the marks of the tools used on the wood in the naval shipyards.
A favourite Sunday walk is around the sea wall out on the watery edge of Essex, by the village of Paglesham. The old boatyard there has a great claim to fame. It’s the graveyard of the Beagle, Darwin’s ship for his historic trip to the Galapagos Islands. The trip triggered his ideas on natural selection, which led to The Origin of Species.
After its naval service, The Beagle was towed to Paglesham, where it was the local Customs Officer’s look-out for many years, before it met its end. Late last year, archaeologists found the actual dock on the mudflats where the ship was broken up. But they found no remains of the actual ship. Perhaps the Beagle’s beams are holding up the ceilings of some of the quaint old houses and cottages dotted around the Paglesham marshes.
The history isn’t hard to find – find any great oak tree, and you’re looking at a living entity that started as a sapling hundreds of years ago.
You can find any number of Gospel Oaks dotted around the country. A sermon was preached in the shade of the Gospel Oak, after “beating the bounds”. The boundaries of every parish were ceremoniously walked once a year, to confirm in common memory exactly where the limits of the parish were. The ceremony predates the Conquest, and still continues in some parishes today.
…and oaks hiding in plain sight
But some ancient oaks have their own special fame. The Major Oak in Sherwood Forest is somewhere between 800 and 1,000 years old. According to legend, Robin Hood and his Merrie Men sheltered under its branches.
The old oak tree at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire was where the young tudor princess Elizabeth sat. There she heard of the death of her sister Mary, and that she was now Queen of England.
James Canton’s oak, visited most days over two years, was the Honywood Oak, found in the Mark’s Hall Estate, near Coggeshall in Essex. It’s around 800 years old – Canton thinks it was a sapling when King John signed the Magna Carta. An early owner of the estate, Sir Thomas Honywood, commanded a troop of Roundhead soldiers in the Civil War. They marshalled on his estate before marching to nearby Colchester, to take part in the siege of the castle. Canton imagines the Parliamentarians camping in the shade of the oak, before their journey.
On the other side of the Civil War divide, the Boscabel oak in Shropshire, still living, sheltered and hid the future king Charles, after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, and is still revered on Oak Apple Day. I recall celebrating Oak Apple day, 29th May, as a school kid, without really understanding its significance.
So, perhaps stand and wonder a little, next time you see a magnificent oak. Who has stood under its canopy in the many years before you arrived? How many folk will do the same, after you’ve departed?