Oak Trees in the UK
Oak trees are more than just a part of the countryside of the British Isles. They are an important part of our identity and our history. Around the United Kingdom, grand, ancient oak trees stand testament to the passing of time. In pockets of old-stand woodland and forest around the country, many more, younger oaks quietly provide the backdrop to many of our favourite arboreal scenes, in oak and ash and oak and birch forests, the ancient Caledonian forest, and Atlantic oakwoods that are the remnant of a temperate rainforest that once stretched the entire Atlantic coastline of Europe. But it is the grand specimen oak trees that really capture our hearts and attention.
Let’s take a look, then, at some of those grand old veterans of the woodlands. Here are some of the best known and best loved oak trees in the UK:
Major Oak, Nottinghamshire
Perhaps the most famous of all the ancient oaks in the UK, this pedunculate oak (Quercus robar), also known as English Oak, is entwined in British folklore. Legend has it that this large oak tree in Sherwood forest sheltered the famous outlaw Robin Hood and his merry men.
Most estimates put the age of this oak at between 800 and 1100 years, but no one knows its exact age. We do know that it is the largest oak tree in Britain, spreading its canopy 28m wide. Its trunk measures 11m in circumference and it is believed to weigh a staggering 23 tonnes. It may once have been several saplings whose trunks have fused together.
Unfortunately, all the visitors coming to see this grand tree created a problem with compaction around the roots. So now those who approach the tree to view it may only do so from a distance, so the tree can breathe. The tree is old now, and supported with metal structures. But with out care and sensitivity, Major oak should be able to keep going for a while yet!
Bowthorpe Oak, Lincolnshire
Believed to be one of, if not the oldest tree in England, he Bowthorpe oak has an estimated age of over 1,000 years. This ancient survivor stands proudly on Bowthorpe Park Farm, Lincolnshire. The tree is 12.30m across – wide enough for a dinner party in its hollow trunk. In 1768, George Pauncefort Esq., who rented Bowthorpe Park,was said to have done just that. He had the interior floored and placed benches around the edge.
Until recently, horses, cows, sheep and chickens could be seen grazing around this magnificent oak, though ore recently, has been fenced off for the protection of the tree, from both people and animals.
Ancient Oaks of Bradgate Park, Leicestershire
This area of public park in Charnwood Forest, in Leicestershire, houses a collection of impressive old oaks, a number of which are believed to be hundreds of years old. Tragically, a fire in 2017 destroyed one of the ancient oaks – a great loss and one which could have been avoided.
This was the childhood home of Lady Jane Grey and there is a legend that these ancient oaks were ‘pollarded’ in protest upon news of her execution. Certainly, some of these trees witnessed moments of the lives of some of the important figures of this period of English history.
Ancient Oaks of Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire
Europe’s largest collection of ancient oaks can be found in the expansive and beautiful grounds of Blenheim Palace, in Oxfordshire. Here, no fewer than 291 outstanding oak tree specimens can be seen which have a girth of at least 5m. Unfortunately, the majority of these stand within High Park, a site of special scientific interest that is closed to the public. However, 71 can still be seen elsewhere throughout the park.
Some of the amazing ancient trees to be found in the park may be direct lineal descendants of those recorded in the Domesday Book.
Monumental Oaks of Savernake Forest
Savernake Forest, in Wiltshire, boasts several notable oaks. Most notable of the ancient oaks in this forest, perhaps, are the Cathedral Oak, a grand pedunculate oak tree with a girth of around 10.44m, and two sessile oaks of comparable girth, which have been named The King of Limbs and Big-Belly Oak. These three trees are towards to edge of the forest.
Another well known oak in Savernake Forest is the White Road Oak, located, as the name suggests, along White Road. This is an attractive English oak of around 7m in diameter.
Gog & Magog, Somerset
These two oaks, named for the ancient apocalyptic figures, are also known as the Oaks of Avalon. These trees were believed to have been part of a ceremonial avenue that led towards Glastonbury Tor, which was sadly cut down in 1906 to make way for a farm. At the time of felling, one of the trees of this avenue had more than 2000 growth rings and was 11ft in diameter. A mythology surrounding the site claims that Joseph of Arimathea followed the row of trees towards the tor upon his arrival in Albion.
Gog was already dead, but was seriously damaged in a fire in 2017. Fortunately, firefighters were able to save neighbouring Magog from the flames.
Old Knobbley, Mistley, Essex
This Essex tree is another of the nations most beloved oaks. Tragically, this too was damaged by fire in 2018 – though this one was believed to be deliberate. The tree is believed to be at least 800 years old. It, and surrounding woodland, are said to have harboured or hidden witches when Witch-Finder General Matthew Hopkins was resident in the area between 1645 and 1647, and conducted his brutal witch ‘trials’ in the area.
This grand tree is around 11.5m wide and around 4m tall, and is a characterful local resident beloved by many.
Birnam Oak, Perth & Kinross
Birnam Oak, and its neighbour, the Birnam Sycamore, are believed to be the last surviving remants of Birnam Wood, an ancient woodland along the River Tay that was immortalised by Shakespeare in the play, ‘Macbeth’.
While the exact age of this oak is unknown, it is clearly a venerable resident of this Perthshire village. Large, low branches of the tree are supported on crutches and the first 3m of the trunk are hollow. The tree can be seen on the relaxing Birnam Walk – more information about which can be found at the Dunkeld iCentre.
Malloch Oak, Strathallan Castle, Perthshire
This impressive oak is several hundred years old. It is completely hollow, with a girth of around 6m. Though, today, this is a tranquil and beautiful place, it does have a rather dark history.
The tree is set in the grounds of Strathallan Castle. It is said that the local miller here, a man named Malloch, hoarded flour and grain rather than dispersing them to starving locals during a terrible time of famine. In retribution, locals revolted and strung him up from this oak tree.
The Capon Tree, Borders
This oak tree is one of the last surviving trees of the ancient Jedforest that once surrounded the Jed Water in the Borders of Scotland. It is located around 2 miles south of Jedburgh, and is believed to be more than 500 years old.
Of course, the ancient oaks listed above are just some of many remnants of ancient woodland which still survive today. Visiting them, and working to conserve, repair and replant oak forests is a wonderful way to plan for a sustainable future, and make sure that the venerable oak, that enduring symbol, is never lost.
Major Oak, Nottinghamshire Picture was taken by Simon Collison
Bowthorpe Oak, Lincolnshire Picture was taken by Larry Wilkes
Ancient Oaks of Bradgate Park, Leicestershire Picture was taken by Phil McIver
Ancient Oaks of Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire Picture was taken by Henk van der Eijk
Monumental Oaks of Savernake Forest Picture was taken by Karen White
Gog & Magog, Somerset Picture was taken by Alwyn Ladell
Old Knobbley, Mistley, Essex Picture was taken by Hombeam Arts
Birnam Oak, Perth & Kinross Picture was taken by Droigheann
Malloch Oak, Strathallan Castle, Perthshire Picture was taken by Tom Parnell
The Capon Tree, Borders Picture was taken by Chris Booth
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