There’s something wise and magical about old trees and one of the best places in England to see some ancient trees is at Burnham Beeches which I used as a setting in the fourth book in the Moon Stealer series. I was particularly interested in the Druid’s Oak trees and their deep rooted connection to the planet.
The wind has been whistling through the leaves of the trees in Burnham Beeches for hundreds of years. The remnants of an extensive forest which originally covered the entire county of Buckinghamshire, this land was owned by the Lord of the Manor of East Burnham but was available for use by everybody in the surrounding region. The Corporation of London purchased it in 1880 in order to preserve the forest, and still manages the day-to-day maintenance of the park. In addition, it is also protected under The Green Belt Legislation. Burnham Beeches has been the site of the filming of many movies which require a forest as part of the scenery, including: Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves to represent Sherwood Forest.
After the park was saved, the Duke of Buckingham planted a tree to celebrate and this tradition has been carried on by the Lord Mayor. In recent years it has been modified to make an existing tree a pollard, meaning to cut it at head height in order to force the tree to send up multiple shoots. As a result of frequent use for firewood the trees in Burnham Beeches were cut every 10-15 years, until regular pollarding stopped in the 19th century. This meant that some of the oldest trees became susceptible to damage in their top limbs. Pollarding has been reinstated in the park, and within the last 50 years there have been at last 1000 pollards added to the original trees.
Many of the oldest pollards in Burnham Beeches are over 500 years old, and this makes them an ideal habitat for other species. The rotten stems and bark become hollow and animals are able to make them their homes, feeding on the sap runs and water which collects in the trees’ natural depressions. Many of the species found in Burnham Beeches are unable to survive in other environments and their existence is threatened. This includes many species of fungi that are only able to live on large, old trees.
During Victorian times some of the trees in the park were given names, due to their unique appearance or inherited stories. These include:
The Druid’s Oak – The size of this tree’s trunk makes it obvious that it is the oldest in the park, and believed to be at least 700 years old. Even though the origin of this tree’s name is unknown, many speculate that it was given due to the fact that Druids worshipped old trees.
His Majesty – This branched royalty received its name because of its immense size, and the manner in which it stands out in the crowd.
The Elephant Tree – This tree appears to be an elephant lying on its back with its feet up in the air.
The Lace Maker – Named as a result of the lace making, and gossiping, that would take place under this tree whenever the weather would permit; it was a favourite of ladies in the area.
The Maiden Tree – One of the very old trees in the park which had never been made a pollard.