In my earliest recollection of the special relationship we have with these plant giants, I am hiding, perched like a little owl, maybe only three feet off the ground but feeling the excited thump in my chest from being completely concealed from adult view among the large leaves of a thick-set flowering tree in the corner of the tropical garden at our house in Ukay Heights, Kuala Lumpur.
At that age I had already developed a healthy respect for the branches of such trees after a particularly spectacular Tarzan impression of mine left one of my hands painfully bristling with the embedded spines of a hairy grey moth caterpillar.
In the opposite corner of that lush garden there was, in my small child’s, memory a very tall straight tree. Having crafted a smooth wide hardwood seat, my father had slung a swing from its high bough with a heavy coil of the most wonderful smelling coir rope, and I would spend literally hours, both hands grasping that fuzzy barley-twist, leaning far back and gazing up into the green canopy as the coarse grass, dotted with scented white spider lilies and crawling with ants, whizzed past beneath me in long sweeping arcs.
A profound sense of calm and sometimes deep joy often accompanies time spent close to trees. I guess it is handed to us via a long line of ancient ancestors who relied on them for life enhancing, life-giving properties and practical applications. I love to see how survival expert Ed Stafford, when dropped naked into a forested wilderness, makes full use of everything the trees have to offer in the way of shelter, bedding, clothes, fresh water, fire, food and fun.
Having left behind my leafy rainforest friends to start a new life in England I carried with me that early love of trees. The house my parents bought in Kent had been set in a landscape of elegant elms. However, when we moved there in 1978, I remember my dismay, listening to the grown-up conversations about dreaded Dutch Elm disease which had resulted in a proliferation of freshly chain-sawed stumps along the riverbank. A whimsical seven year old, I was already gently mocked for ‘feeling sorry’ for the peas left-over on my plate, or lamenting the demise of the lunchbox orange I annihilated into inedible pulp when attempting to peel it. So it was normal for me to also feel an ache in my heart for those Elms I never even got to know personally.
Nevertheless, the woods provided endless scope for whittling, bow and arrow making, and den building among the ash, hawthorn, beech, horse chestnut and sticky sycamores. But one tree stood out from the rest and became the meeting place for friends and a spot we inhabited most days in the summer. We called it The Swing Tree, a towering perpendicular monolith of rust-red flaking bark with drooping scaly fronds of British Racing Green. These were perfumed with incense and studded with hard little green nodules in summer that browned and opened up to reveal their secret intricacies in winter. The lowest looping branch of this old cypress tree was the perfect height to provide a place to swing like an ape. Facing the trunk and extending my arms straight above my head, an eight-year-old me could, with one quick jump, grasp the bough in both hands and hang like a three-toed sloth. I soon learned how to walk my toes up the trunk and hook my legs over so that if I really wanted to impress, I could let go with my hands and hang freely upside down, my long blonde hair dangling towards the grass. Eventually I could swing my whole self up into the saddle of the sickle shaped branch and with my back to the trunk, stand upright on it so that my top half disappeared into the high dark foliage and I felt like a true tree-dweller. In between trips to the beach or lazing about in my little boat on the pond, this was how I spent my summer days for many years, sometimes happily alone, it felt like the tree belonged to me, (or I belonged to it). The single low branch became polished mirror smooth.
I realize now how annoying we must have been, hanging around it like a little band of baboons. It is located on a riverside section of managed lawns identified as ‘amenity land’, separated from a long row of 1970’s houses by a narrow concrete path. It has only recently occurred to me that the owners of the house, with the large ground floor picture window that faced directly onto the Swing Tree, must have been kind to tolerate our constant monkeyish presence.
Nearly forty years on, this year I took an inter-quarantine visit to see my parents, and as I walked along that concrete path, a startling absence stopped me dead in my tracks. Someone with no knowledge of it’s significance, a person presumably taking wise precautionary steps to prevent an accident, had removed my fabled magic limb. The swooping branch now at shoulder height, the satiny smooth swinging spot that I always stopped to stroke, was gone. Instead, an oval scar stared blindly out from the trunk, and my stomach twisted.
It might have been the shock of this loss that spurred me on to go in search of a very special tree I had long hoped to meet. In my blog Don’t Worry Mummy, back in January, I mentioned a proposed solo walk to a certain tree I had a strong pull towards, The Majesty Oak hiding somewhere in the depths of a Kentish parkland not far from my family home. This time I was determined not to be put off by the prospect of being shot by a farmer or chased by a bull and I set about researching how I could effect this long overdue meeting. There is plenty of writing about the Fredville Oak and it’s history, but the precise location of it stays mysteriously illusive and beyond reach as if protected by a magic spell cast by those who know and love it. This of course made it all the more alluring to my fanciful mind, and one warm sunny afternoon I packed my poor parents into the car and, with a rudimentary notion of the whereabouts of The Majesty Oak, set off to find it.
At the park gates I pulled onto the verge next to a solemn little gingerbread lodge house standing sentry in the dappled shade of tall poplars. I knocked sheepishly at the cottage door, a dog barked from within but no one came so I decided to venture on foot over the cattle grid and go snooping up the drive towards the general point on Google Maps that denoted the location of this aged tree. At the summit of the first gentle rise a wide open tree-studded parkland stretched out before us, and my mother decided to head back to the car to keep my dad company while I valiantly forged ahead and promised to bring back news and pictures of my prize.
As I mentioned before, I am prone to wildly romantic notions and can be unusually enthusiastic about things that most normal people find fairly dull. Eager anticipation grew in me like a wellspring, and my eyes searched hard for a first glimpse of the great oak. As I scanned the far horizon I saw what I believed must be it, and, my heart quickening to match my pace I hurried towards it, possibly muttering under my breath rapturous cries of “Oh there she is! How beautiful!” tears of emotion pricking.
It eventually became clear however that the colossal life-form I had found, with great gnarly burrs as big as a Fiat Cinquecento and heavy ancient boughs propped upon groaning telegraph poles, was in fact a sweet chestnut tree, and while it was indeed an honour to stand beneath its canopy and touch it’s aged bark, I felt rather foolish for my earlier outpouring of misplaced euphoria.
Nearby, there was a rather forbidding driveway, a dark rhododendron tunnel leading to a hidden building, so I steeled myself, ignoring the unfriendly Private sign, and marched onwards with all the confidence of Clarissa Dickson Wright. The tunnel opened to an unpromising stable block with a blind ivy-clad clock tower. I passed under a high stone arch into a cobbled yard and for the second time that day, gingerly knocked at an open door. This time the dog rushed out to greet me, or to see me off, it was hard to tell, but its persistent barking alerted the elderly owner who’s ghostly, silver haired form emerged from the shadows within.
In my politest Grammar School voice I apologized for the disturbance and enquired after the tree I had come to see. Collecting a tall wooden staff from beside the door, she beckoned me to follow her and this I did, as if in a dream. Her demeanor was quiet and enigmatic and my persistent chattering small talk remained mostly one-sided, perhaps on account of the fact that I was the sixth person that day to visit the oak. But she graciously, consoled me with the comment that ‘Poppy the Jack Russel enjoyed an excuse to take another little walk’. We slowly stepped along a dim mossy path littered with the crunch of acorn shells, the air was thick with a supernaturally green light and I gradually became aware that, in the grassy clearing opening up ahead of us like the auditorium of a grand theatre, there stood a monumental living creature, patiently waiting to greet us.
I thought I might sing and dance and hug her, this Maiden Oak, Her Majesty, but like our own Queen, she possessed a gravitas that instead called for dignity and respectful restraint. Maybe the same goes for an encounter with a blue whale or a giant bull elephant, or maybe it was the presence of Linda and Poppy that reminded me to behave with decorum, and not lose myself in gushing reveries.
My five minute audience with The Nonnington Oak, (or Pendunculate Oak or Fredville Oak depending on who you ask) was spent quietly circling her immense hollow trunk, noticing how the ‘windows’ where limbs had been shed in ancient times lined up to allow one’s view to extend right through her heart and up to the toppermost, still vibrant leafy branchlets. There was an unexpected youthful life force surging through the deeply gnarled, deformed and ravaged body of this ancient beast, and the humming, throbbing energy of her hulking size stilled my soul. It is a cliché but I couldn’t help thinking about the single little acorn that sprouted on this spot 450 years ago to become the largest surviving maiden oak tree in the UK. I was very glad to have taken the time and kept my nerve long enough to follow my tree pilgrimage to the end.
Thanking my guides, I returned in a daze to find my dear old parents, who were waiting contentedly on the wooden bench by the little playground where I had left them, the low late afternoon sunshine golden on their backs. I mused on the importance of respecting ancient things, of remembering to contemplate the long and sometimes difficult years that they have lived on the planet and to be grateful for the wisdom and fortitude they show in continuing the daily battle to keep going.
Then I took them to the pub. The Griffin. One of our favourite beer gardens where a hoppy Whitstable Bay ale slips down beautifully with a handful of peanuts and, as always, lots of laughs.
So now, as we stare down the barrel of a darkening Yorkshire winter and we lock down in more ways than we realize, I am daydreaming of the next celebrity tree I might stalk. One that gives me the same hit of earthly joy that transcends the mundane and restores perspective in a topsy turvy world. I’m starting my search here But in the meantime, I will continue to visit the stately beeches of my beloved Bratt Wood and when no-one’s looking I’ll give them big hugs; the hugs I can’t give to anyone outside my household right now.
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