In the footsteps of trees
Joël Lacey takes a look at some of the county’s oldest, biggest and most impressive trees
Published in February ’15
Billy Wilkins – a great, pot-bellied, ancient oak in Melbury Park – is somehow suggestive of JRR Tolkien’s Ents, the walking, talking tree beings of Middle Earth
The biggest tree in the county by girth is a sweet chestnut in the grounds of Canford School. It may well be the biggest in the country, but being surrounded by other trees it is hard to photograph and more difficult yet to get a sense of its scale, unless one is next to it; it had a circumference of 13.4m (nearly 45 feet) when it was last officially measured in 2006.
Few things in life are permanent, but some come very close. There are trees which have seen in not one, but two or perhaps even three millennia. Resting by the same oak under which a 17th-century judge would sit to collect his thoughts is a thought-provoking idea. Resting by a tree which may have witnessed Roman occupiers – the yew tree to be found in Broadwindsor churchyard, for example – is an altogether more mind-bending affair.
This old ash in Upton Park shows may of the characteristics of trees of a certain age; its trunk has split and hollowed, it is anything but symmetrical and it wears the evidence of its great age on its sleeves
Whilst the oak and yew trees referred to above may be old, they’re not necessarily the oldest living things in Dorset. Coppicing is thought to have been practised by Neolithic peoples (ie before the Bronze age, a couple of millennia BC), and a regularly coppiced tree may, theoretically, almost endure forever. There are ancient lime coppice stools in Duncliffe Wood near Shaftesbury, which have been claimed to be the oldest living things in Dorset, but this is almost impossible to prove.
As old and wizened as many of the living trees in this feature are, this one is 10,000 times older. The fossilised tree boles at Lulworth are around 140 million years old and are thought to be antecedents of the cypress trees of today. They are known as Protocupressinoxylon purbeckensis, in honour of this and their location.
Trees, like us, don’t necessarily stay symmetrical and ramrod straight as they get older. They grow up and then they grow out; their branches break, their trunks hollow out and they become a whole ecosystem to themselves.
The Wyndham Oak in Silton is a pedunculate oak, also known as an English (or French) Oak. This one was the subject of an engraving in the time of George III and is named for a Judge Wyndham who owned the land on which it lay in the mid-17th century and is supposed to have rested under it to collect his thoughts.
With a huge range of insect, bird and small mammal life within their boughs, ancient trees continue to provide a shelter for these various animals even when the tree itself has largely died.
Looking up inside the Remedy Oak, under whose boughs the boy King Edward VI, in the mid-1550s, was supposed to have touched sufferers of scrofula to cure them
So as you whizz past the impressive avenue of beech trees on the B3082 at Badbury Rings, spare a thought for these silent sentinels. When you look at a lichen-covered gravestone, pause a while to consider that the yew behind the grave may have been there a thousand years longer than the now unknown person whose fungible stone monument has succumbed to the elements while the tree behind has continued to thrive.
The beech avenue at Kingston Lacy is a great way of seeing how trees – even those uniformly planted ones – grow diffferently and have their own personalities
A small-leaved lime tree (not to be confused with the citrus fruiting tree) at Parnham. One of a group which has been dated to about 1540. As with humans, at a certain age, things start sprouting from all over the place.