As Norfolk’s trees begin their spectacular autumn show, STEVE SNELLING revels in a spellbinding reappraisal of our arboreal heritage.

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The great oak was a source of wonderment, a genuinely gob-smacking force of nature. Known respectfully as the ‘King of Thorpe’, it was described as “an object of veneration and awe” whose fame spread far beyond the village boundaries.

Tree chronicler James Grigor, who was drawn to its sprawling bulk in the first half of the 19th century, recounted how local people spoke with “sorrow and joy” about an ancient landmark that had been “three times condemned and as often reprieved”.

The reflections of a Victorian nurseryman are evidence of the enduring fascination with our tree-lined history which is gloriously reflected in a ground-breaking study of Norfolk’s arboreal heritage.

As UEA-based landscape historian Tom Williamson and former Norfolk County Council environment manager Gerry Barnes make clear in their new book, Ancient Trees in the Landscape, our love affair with broad-girthed, gnarled and root-tangled old trees is nothing new.

They relate how Grigor, writing in the 1840s, described the loss of one ancient tree, the celebrated ‘Marsham Oak’ by the highway in Worstead, in terms that suggested a heinous crime had been committed: “Evil was the hour of its fall to the inhabitants of the surrounding neighbourhood, who beheld it with fond veneration.”

Of all Norfolk’s grand old trees, however, few gained more renown than the wood massif known as the ‘Winfarthing Oak’, the only individually labelled tree on William Faden’s trailblazing 1797 county map. When surveyed in 1820, it was said to measure 70ft in circumference “at the extremities of the roots” and 40ft around its middle trunk. By the time Samuel Taylor visited it some 15 years later it was a “mere shell, a mighty ruin, blasted to a snowy white” and yet still appeared “magnificent in its decay”.

That such natural spectacles came to be highly-prized — they were lauded as landmarks and tourist attractions as well as being sources of local pride — is plainly evident, but quite what it is about ancient trees that affects us so deeply is harder to define. Scale and longevity clearly have something to do with it. But Tom Williamson believes there is something more. “The truth is,” he says, “people have always had a thing about very old trees not just because they are very old but because they are alive and there’s nothing quite like that.

“When ever I take students out into Earlham Park, just next to the university, I take them to see a whopping great big old oak pollard. It must be a good 500 or 600 years old and, as I tell them, apart from the parish church, this is the oldest thing in Earlham. The difference is that this is alive and the parish church is well and truly dead.”

Ancient Trees in the Landscape represents the findings of an unusually and unexpectedly fruitful journey into our living history. In many ways an epic saga of survival against the odds, it is the chronicle of an exploration rich in discovery that spans more than a decade of painstaking research and writing involving a team of volunteers and students backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Williamson traces the roots of the project back to an earlier joint venture, a book on the county’s hedgerow history.

“It was while we were doing that we became interested in old trees,” he says. “There’d been a lot of things written about ancient trees but most of it was from the point of view of how good they are for wildlife. We were interested in plonking them in the landscape; finding out why they were where they were. Almost as simple as that. “So, we got together a group of volunteers, did the survey on which the book is based and it just so happened we found out much more than we thought we would. It was one of those nice projects where your original aims are relatively limited and what you get out of it tell you much more than you expected.” Not the least of their discoveries concerned the dating of trees. “We were very keen to examine some of the theories people have put forward about how accurately you can date trees by measuring them,” says Williamson, “and the simple answer to that is you can’t.”

In their book, Williamson and Barnes explain the difficulty: “Even if we could fell, or core, every specimen we were interested in and count the annual growth rings this would not help us much in dating the oldest examples, for most trees more than three centuries old, and some younger than this, have lost their earliest rings through decay. Many, indeed, are almost completely hollow.”

Even without accurate ageing techniques, however, Williamson and Barnes have been able to explode the myth about one of the county’s most notable trees – the so-called ‘Kett’s Oak’ in Hethersett, where the rebel Robert Kett was said to have addressed his supporters ahead of their march on Norwich in 1549.

Described as an “aged oak” with a trunk “wasted to a mere shell” in 1829, it was measured a few years later by James Grigor when it was shown to have a girth of 7ft 7ins at a height of 5ft above the ground. “This,” say Williamson and Barnes, “seems rather a small for a tree which was by then supposedly over three centuries old.” But by then, the legend had already taken root.

Across Norfolk researchers found more than 5,000 ancient trees. But that figure was as nothing compared with the past. “One of the most interesting things we learned from the examination of old documents,” says Williamson, “was that the landscape of the 16th and 17th centuries contained an incredibly large number of trees.”

Importantly around 70-80% were managed. The reason is simple, as Williamson explains: “In a pre-industrial economy people were absolutely desperate for fuel.”

Not all of Norfolk’s trees are that old. Take the case of the Scots pine. This iconic Norfolk tree has bizarre roots in the area. “As far as we can tell,” says Williamson, “Scots pine rows were all planted originally as hedges over a very short period in the early 19th century. So, they were completely functional, although actually they make rubbish hedges.”

However, they ended up as what we now think of as a quintessential feature of the Norfolk landscape.

■ Ancient Trees in the Landscape: Norfolk’s Arboreal Heritage is published by Windgather Press, priced £25.

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