The British Oak

by frankbeswick

Oak trees are inextricably linked with Britishness, for if there is a national tree that stands as a symbol of the island of Britain it is the mighty oak.

People often talk of the English oak tree, as if there were a special species of oak found in England. But the oak is in truth a symbol of Britain, for it has played a part in the history of all the four nations of this sceptred isle, to use Shakespeare's terms. The wood of oak trees constructed significant elements in British architecture, and before metal clad ships rendered wooden ships redundant British warships were known as metonymically as hearts of oak. The oak is not merely a tree, it is a cultural icon and was and is a major resource.

Picture courtesy of Luidmilakot

Famous Oaks

February 2018 and a life that began maybe as far back as 893 came to an end in one of the storms that have recently scourged the Britain. The Buttington Oak fell and its broken body, long wracked with the decay of over a millenium of life, was found split into two, the finders being two walkers taking an early morning stroll. The historically sensitive folk of Britain mourned its passing, for it had witnessed much history, the Viking attacks, the Norman conquest, civil wars, industrial and agricultural revolutions and so much more.  Planted near to Offa's Dyke, the symbolic and utterly useless earthwork constructed by Offa of Mercia, an English kingdom, to mark the boundary with Wales, it may have been planted just inside Wales to celebrate the Battle of Buttington when an English and Welsh army overcame a force of Vikings. It had been a working tree for many a century, its pollarded wood providing a resource for locals, its acorns giving animal food, and more recently being a tourist magnet. By the end it had achieved a girth of eleven metres,mighty indeed. 

We will jump ahead to1225. The court  annals of the Yorkshire town of Wakefield are brief, so we will imagine the scene. The sheriff of Yorkshire, a Norman aristocrat who does not take kindly to insolent Saxon peasants, bangs the table in fury. The defendant has not bothered to turn up in court, and the constable sent to bring him has reported that the man has escaped. You know where he has gone, the vast oak forest of Sherwood, whose northern edge is nearby. This peasant not only evaded arrest, but made a public name for flouting the sherriffs and their laws. The court records name him Robhod. Whether this is Robin Hood of the legend we know not, for the legend of Robin acquired a life of its own. But the image of Robin and his band dwelling in the unpopulated greenwood is surely wrong, for the sheriff could have taken him out quite easily,  if that was the case, but the oakwoods were heavily populated by craftspeople and  traders, few of them supportive of  Normans, so Robhod swam in a sea of sympathizers. But there is in Sherwood Forest a tree known as the Major Oak,in whose hollow heart Robin and his band are said to have taken  refuge from the sheriff. This is probably just a legend, as the tree was younger and healthier in Robin's day and therefore would not have been hollow. You can see it in the picture below, worn with age, but a cultural icon of English resentment against the establishment.

The Major Oak

The Major Oak
The Major Oak
Stephen Bramall

Oak in History.

Oak was a major resource in Britain. Look at the picture below, which shows Salisbury Cathedral in Southern England. It is a panoply of stone, a  masterpiece of the mason's art. Well almost all of it. Having constructed the tower of stone the church decided to add a spire, a finger pointing Godwards to draw human minds to heaven. But the weight of stone would have been too  much for the spire to bear, so they chose a framework of oak to hold the roof tiles together. Moreover, it was not just English oak, but these master craftsmen in wood, who knew the strengths of different kinds of wood, chose a judicious blend of English and Irish oak. Why? Well  examination of the tree growth rings reveals that English oak has thicker rings than Irish oak does, simply because the damp Irish climate is less conducive to tree growth than the English climate is, so Irish oak is the lighter of the two kinds, rendering it eminently suitable for a high and heavy  structure. English oak for strength;Irish for lightness.The oak beams have been lovingly tended for centuries,kept painted or varnished to prevent decay, just as the stone of the building has also been maintained, quite an expensive task. 

"Hearts of oak are our ships,jolly tars are our men,

We always are ready...we fight and we conquer again and again"

So goes the patriotic song celebrating Britian's naval tradition. I am not enamoured by warlike songs, but it is worth mentioning for the oak of which it speaks. Britain's warships were constructed of oak, and Lord Nelson's flagship Victory, now a permanent exhibit at Portsmouth naval base was made from the wood of 6000 oak trees. Upto the advent of metal ships retired naval officers used to roam the country planting acorns to maintain the supply of wood for Britain's vessels. One officer is said to have planted 69200 acorns around the country. The oaken ships are gone, but these loyal gentlemen gave us so many trees and we can be thankful. 

I prefer to put wars behind me, so descend with me into the bowels of the Houses of Parliament where all the written copies of every law passed in this England are kept. We have the oak to thank for their preservation, for since law making began in England the laws were enscribed in oak gall ink. An oak gall is a swelling on an oak tree produced by a particular species of wasp, and each gall is unique to a species. There is one type of oak gall, which when crushed makes a virtually indelible ink, and this ink is used in the venerable parchments that record the doings of  parliaments. 

The oak provided acorns to feed the peasants' pigs,and wood from coppiced or pollarded oak trees provided many wooden tools [see my article on coppicing.] Many of the poor in the Tudor period made a cheap flour out of crushed and blanched acorns that made up for the wheat flour that they could not afford.

Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury Cathedral
Salisbury Cathedral

The Oak Today

Britain is working hard to restore its tree cover, and so the large monocultures of softwood conifer that were planted as  a timber resource after the dearth of wood sufffered in World War 1 are being discarded and in their stead there is a new emphasis on native, deciduous woodland planted with species indigenous to Britain. Trees such as the various species of oak, beech, yew and small- leaved lime are spreading and with them comes wildlife in all its abundance. Rarer species of native oak, such as the sessile oak, which suffered excessive loss due to its use to fuel the iron industry and is reduced to pockets in national parks, such as the Lake District, are being planted and thus making a return. 

The oak is a species which provides a habitat for about four hundred species of insect, all of which have evolved in harmony with it. Some are parasitic on the oak, but the tree has developed chemical defences to protect itself and even signals chemically to other oaks in the vicinity when it is under attack so that the others can prepare for trouble. A wide range of birds makes a home in its branches. Even the fact of mast years is ecologically significant, for years of surplus mean that predators cannot eat all the acorns produced in a wood and so some  at least will survive long enough to become trees, which cannot be guaranteed in other years. 

The rich life of the wood is explored in the beautiful book The Secret Life of an Oakwood, which I used to share with my children when they were younger. There are lovely pictures in it. 

The roots of the oak spread widely and constitute a vast system of wood that serves to anchor the soil in woodlands, and that is before we take into account the enormous and intricate network of mycorrhiizal fungi with which the roots are  enmeshed. These networks hold the  soil together and retain water in times of flood, so the presence of oaks is of enormous significance for the ecological well being of Britain. The size of an oak tree guarantees that it will recycle a vast amount of CO2 to be turned into wood and oxygen and therefore prevented from warming the globe. The oak therefore is a great contributor to the ecological well being of the planet and its people.   

Updated: 02/24/2018, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick 21 days ago

What. a contrast! I was just about to write that snow has stopped falling here, but then I looked out of the window.

blackspanielgallery 21 days ago

On the news last night there were pictures of Saint Peter's Square with two inches of snow, and more falling. we are breaking high temperature records in the mid 80s.

frankbeswick 21 days ago

Thanks for the Physics. I passed an exam in Physics with a reasonable grade when at school, but did not go further to advanced level. The sciences that I have taken further are, as you might have gathered, botany and soil science.

Today 27 February in Britain we are snow covered, it snowed overnight and is still snowing now at 8.35 am. We have been hit with what is nicknamed the Beast from the East, a powerful high pressure system over Europe. As usual, where I am in the North West of England, the snow is not so bad, but the east of the country is suffering worse conditions and wind chill is making the temperature feel minus 15. It will be interesting to see whether the ground under trees has less snow than unprotected ground does.

blackspanielgallery 21 days ago

Here we rarely get below freezing, but hoarfrost can occur when the temperature is in the thirties, say about 35 on down. The reason is the bottom one inch of air has its own climate, colder air having settled, so it might be below freezing. And metal cars also form hoarfrost because the radiation of energy from metal is quite efficient. So, when we have a white ground it is a very delicate balance with the temperature becoming too high. What happens is infrared rays lift from the ground and are either reflected or absorbed and re-emitted back, so the slight increase can prevent the temperature under a tree from becoming cold enough to produce hoarfrost. I suspect the tree could be any with leaves or even a conifer. Our climate is warmer than yours, so I would not expect this to happen there, at least not often. But seeing green circles in a white field is quite a sight.

frankbeswick 21 days ago

This is not just a problem with oak, for other trees can lift concrete.

Hoar frost is frozen dew, so any cover over the ground,such as the leaf canopy, prevents it from settling, but in the frosty season there is little heat to reflect, as the oak's metabolism has gone into hibernation. The lack of grass under oak can be due in part to the lack of light under the tree. But you are right that some plants deter the growth of other plants near them by chemical means. However, if this is happening with oak, there are plants that are worse: rhododendron is one and walnut is another. Yew is notorious for having bare ground beneath it due to its chemical defences.

blackspanielgallery 22 days ago

Interesting. I have noticed that oak trees often have bare ground beneath them, for oils from their fallen leaves deter grass from growing. They also provide warmth. I once noticed several oaks had circular clear areas beneath their canopies when the rest of the ground was white with hoarfrost. The heat radiated back to the ground kept it warmer than then the rest of the area. The only problem with oaks is they tend to have roots that are thick and sometimes rise above the ground. Their strength is such that they can lift concrete and lay waste to paved walks. Never plant too close to concrete, or in years to come the oak will win.

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