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The UK was once covered in forests, of which only a small percentage remains. Although we have lost much of our ancient woodland, we still fortunately have many ancient and venerable trees remaining. Here we look at just a few of them in an eclectic mix of trees famous for their age, their myths, their scientific, historic or social associations. All of the trees listed here can be visited by the public.

The Chained Oak, Staffordshire

This ancient oak tree in the Churnet Valley is the only one in the world which is bound in chains. About 1300 years old and the oldest in the valley, the oak tree would probably have been a place of local veneration and mythology, as pre-Christian communities often worshipped oak trees, believing them to be sacred. Greeks, Romans and Celts all associated the oak with the most powerful god in their individual pantheons, and Druids practised their rites in amongst oak trees. Steps were added to the base of this tree, which are several hundred years older than the chains, which show that easy access to the tree was important, probably for use in rituals.

The Chained Oak and steps leading up to it
The Chained Oak near Alton Towers

No-one quite knows why the chains were added. They were made in the 1800s and are huge, heavy things that must have taken some considerable effort to place in the upper reaches of the tree.

The most prosaic reason is probably that it was an attempt to keep the sacred oak tree from falling down, although the use of chains rather than ropes is an interesting one, and implies more that it needed to be caged and imprisoned rather than protected.

The myth surrounding the chains is that a member of the local gentry, the Earl of Shrewsbury, was riding home through the forest when an old woman stopped his carriage and begged for money. He refused to give her any so she placed a curse, saying that for every branch which fell off the tree, a family member would die. Later that night there was a violent storm, a branch fell off and a family member died. The Earl then undertook to protect the tree, bounding it in chains and ensuring that no further branches would fall. Although this myth doesn't add up when researchers have looked at the dates involved, it still stands as the origin story of the tree, and in fact has now become the subject of one of the rides at nearby Alton Towers.

Photograph Gary Rogers

The Knightwood Oak, New Forest

The canopy of the Knightwood Oak
The Knightwood Oak is a huge and ancient tree

The Knightwood Oak is over 500 years old and is the oldest tree still standing in this ancient woodland.

It has been dubbed the 'Queen of the Forest' and has been a tourist attraction for hundreds of years - the Victorians in particular would travel from afar to visit.

The tree has a huge girth, currently 8 metres, and was pollarded for many years, which is probably why it has lived for so long. It can be found in a beautiful, peaceful part of the New Forest.

The Mottisfont Plane, Hampshire

The Mottisfont Plane is a London Plane tree in the grounds of rural Mottisfont Abbey. Planted about 350 years ago it is a vast tree, with a height over 40 metres and a massive girth of 12 metres making it the biggest plane tree in the country. It was probably planted around 1740 by then owner Sir Richard Mill when he was re-landscaping the grounds at the same time as building the Georgian Manor House.

A close up of the Plane tree in Mottisfont
The canopy of the Mottisfont Plane

Not only is it the largest plane tree in the UK, it is one of the largest in Europe.

There are 14 other Plane Trees on the Mottisfont Estate, making it the holder of the National Plane Collection. Other significant British Plane collections are held at the principal botanic gardens, such as Kew Gardens and The Hillier Arboretum, also in Hampshire.

Mottisfont is also home to the National Collection of pre-1900 roses, as well as beautiful gardens and a fascinating manor house. It is owned by the National Trust and is definitely worth a visit, particularly in June to the incredible walled rose gardens.

Newton's Tree, Lincolnshire

This simple apple tree, a Flower of Kent variety, is in the grounds of Woolsthorpe Manor where Isaac Newton was born in 1642. Regarded as one of the greatest scientists and mathematicians of the time, it was watching an apple fall from this tree that led him to the realisation of gravity, wondering why the apple fell downwards and not sideways or upwards.

The tree is over 400 years old and has been a tourist attraction for over 240 years. It was blown down in storms in 1820, and visitors still came to see it lying on the ground, taking parts away to make wooden ornaments with. Fortunately, the roots were not damaged and the tree re-grew into the tree you can see there today.

Woolsthorpe Manor is owned by the National Trust and is open to the public, who can visit to learn more about Newton, his life and his legacy.

The Harry Potter Tree, Oxfordshire

This cedar tree is the only remaining tree which featured in a Harry Potter film, after the demise of the Whomping Willow in 2014. It featured in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and is where Snape has a flashback of being bullied by James Potter and Sirius Black, during which Snape is held upside down from the top of the tree.

The tree was planted when Capability Brown re-modelled the huge landscape gardens of Blenheim Palace between 1763 - 1774. Cedars of Lebanon were planted in the grounds of many stately homes in the 18th century, a fashionable and decorative evergreen addition to the British landscape with historical and biblical associations which can live for centuries.

This one, in the grounds of Blenheim Palace, needed some serious restoration in 2016, with its branches attached by cables to nearby trees to help keep it upright, as the tree is hollow. You can see the cables wrapped around the branches and other trees, and there is a fence protecting it from the heavy visitor footfall.

The tree is accessible for free if you follow the public footpaths through the grounds of Blenheim Palace, or you can buy a ticket and include it as part of your visit to the palace (not something we recommend due to the excessive price).

The Tolpuddle Martyr's Tree, Dorset

A sycamore tree in the small village of Tolpuddle, this tree has huge historical significance as it is associated with the start of the trade union movement. It is about 350 years old and underneath its branches is where the six agricultural labourers met in 1833 to discuss and plan a rebellion against the low pay and appalling conditions they were forced to work in.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs tree in Dorset
The tree under which Trade Unions were born

The men formed a Friendly Society to protest about their wages, which involved swearing an oath, for which they were arrested and sentenced to transportation to Australia and Tasmania. The British public protested their fate, and the six men returned home after 3 years away.

The tree is now on land owned by the National Trust, who have pollarded the top to try to reduce its weight and hopefully keep it alive for longer. It features as a part of the wider landscape in Tolpuddle which is now considered home to the Trade Union movement, which is celebrated every July with a festival where thousands of Trade Unionists from across the globe join to celebrate in solidarity.

The village also has a museum, memorial cottages, a sculpture, a Shire Hall and a walking trail which are all connected to the movement, and in nearby Dorchester you an visit the atmospheric cell where the men were all kept while awaiting their trial.

Photograph Alyssa

The Witches' Trees of Grovely Woods, Wiltshire

In the depths of Grovely Woods are three gnarled beech trees which stand out amongst the upright pine trees which surround them. These huge trees are believed to have grown over the bodies of the Handsel Sisters who were falsely accused of witchcraft when an outbreak of smallpox arrived in the town of Wilton not long after they did.

The residents attacked the sisters, bludgeoning them to death and burying them in the woods. The trees appeared over the graves and are now a sacred site for modern day witches, with the branches decorated with offerings of all varieties.

A tree covered in offerings
Offerings decorate the branches of one of the Witches' Trees in Grovely Woods

The 1917 Tree, Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire

The recent film blockbuster 1917 by director Sam Mendes was filmed on Salisbury Plain and tells the fictional story of two young soldiers who had to deliver an important message to the frontline. The film is famous for not only its portrayal of the horrors of World War I, but also a one-take footage of one of the soldiers running parallel to the frontline to deliver the message. The film starts with the two soldiers resting against a tree, and ends with one of them resting against a different tree, looking at photographs of his family back home.

Both trees are located on Pear Tree Hill near the village of Erlestoke in Wiltshire. The tree used for the final scene looks like it should be CGI, a lone tree which is also known as the Lollipop Tree. It is sited on MOD land but can be visited most of the time, just check for any red flags flying in the area, which mean military manoeuvres are taking place in the area.


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