The New Forest, perhaps not surprisingly, has its fair share of ancient trees; huge, majestic oaks and beeches, and hollies of more modest stature but of similarly impressive age.
Many of these trees live their lives in anonymity, sometimes admired by passers-by but all too often little noticed. Some, though, have attracted attention for generations and a small number have even been named.
But which is the oldest tree in the New Forest? That’s a good question, but it is almost impossible to answer with any degree of certainty. (Trees can be aged by counting their annular rings, but this is only possible once the tree has fallen naturally or been felled. And even then, ring counting is not always practical as the centre of many of the big, old trees has often rotted. We’re often left, then, with ‘best estimates’ of age).
When considering the oldest trees, though, the Knightwood Oak (A) generally gets a mention as probably the oldest oak in the New Forest. A pollard cut at just above head height to stimulate the growth of new shoots, the Knightwood Oak stands quite near to the A35 at the start of the Bolderwood Ornamental Drive, close to Knightwood Inclosure - at grid reference SU26530650.
A Forestry Commission information board not too many years ago suggested that the tree was around 450 years old, but that estimate has relatively recently been upgraded to 600 years.
Still in the rudest of health and with a copious annual show of leaves, the Queen of the Forest, as it was fittingly known in the 19th century - it was marked thus on the Ordnance Survey maps of the time, has long been of interest to historians. John Wise, author of The New Forest: Its History and Scenery, first published in 1862, recorded its girth as 5.3 metres (17 feet 4 inches), whilst Heywood Sumner 60 years later mentions a 1906 measurement of nearly 5.8 metres (19 feet), and another in 1921 of 6.6 metres (21 feet 6 inches).
In the late 1990s, the tree’s girth was recorded as 7.4 metres (24 feet 3 inches). Indeed, the results of a survey carried out by Chris Read - published in 1999 by the Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Society - had the Knightwood Oak as the largest oak in the New Forest.
Another named tree, the Eagle Oak (B), situated 1 kilometre (0.6 miles) to the south-west of the Knightwood Oak - at grid reference SU25560613 - also featured in the 1990s survey, and was measured at a comparatively modest 5.4 metres (17 feet 9 inches) – there were 36 larger oaks listed.
The Eagle Oak has a fascinating history, however, as in 1810, or thereabouts, a sea eagle was reputedly shot from its branches by an over-zealous New Forest keeper. The unfortunate bird, a white-tailed eagle as the species is now more properly known, was amongst the last of these magnificent creatures to be seen in the New Forest.
Encouragingly, it's thought that there are far more large oaks in the New Forest now than there were in Victorian times, as many of the biggest oaks were felled for naval shipbuilding in the 17th and 18th centuries, and by the 19th century, their replacements still had a lot of growing to do.
Size, though, is not everything, and certainly does not necessarily indicate age. Some huge trees located in places that offer particularly favourable growing conditions may be comparative youngsters, whilst pollarding is known to slow girth growth until the tree’s crown again reaches full size.
The Moyles Court Oak (C) illustrates some of the difficulties associated with estimating the age of trees. Standing by the roadside close to Moyles Court, near Linwood, at grid reference SU16280837, the 1990s survey revealed that this tree was of lesser girth than the Knightwood Oak but also that it was growing more slowly and therefore potentially could be of greater age. (To put its age into context, the tree was probably already well-grown when Dame Alice Lisle, of Moyles Court, was beheaded in September 1685 at Winchester for sheltering two men at her home after the Battle of Sedgemoor. In fact, given the tree's close proximity to her home, Dame Alice almost inevitably passed beneath its spreading boughs and most likely sought shade there during the heat of summer's days).
John Wise in 1860 measured the girth of the Moyles Court Oak at 5.7 metres (18 feet 8 1/2 inches), whilst Heywood Sumner in 1902 measured it at 6 metres (19 feet 8 inches) and then again in 1921 at 6.2 metres (20 feet 4 inches). In 1923 Sumner described the tree as 'the finest oak in the district', but noted that it appeared to be failing, although in the late 1990s it was measured at 7 metres (22 feet 9 inches) and is still going strong today!
Other notable oaks include the Adam Oak (D), situated in a Minstead hedge at grid reference SU27881088. It had a girth of 7.3 metres (23 feet 9 inches) in the late 1990s. The origin of the name: perhaps a simple association with Adam's place in antiquity. The Withybed Oak (E), situated near Lucas Castle, close to Withybed Bottom at grid reference SU24941057, measured 5.9 metres (19 feet 6 inches), whilst the nearby and very descriptively name Spreading Oak (F), close to the A31, not far from the eastern edge of Slufters Inclosure at grid reference SU23891075, measured 5.6 metres (18 feet 6 inches).
New Forest beech trees were also included in the late 1990s survey, which found the largest at The Knowles, near Acres Down. The girth of this tree, another pollard, was almost identical to that of the Knightwood Oak - 7.5 metres (24 feet 6 inches). The number of other big beeches was similar to the number of large oaks, and it was concluded that the oldest of these were probably of comparable age to the oldest oaks. Oddly, though, none have been named.
There are, though, other contenders for the title of the New Forest’s oldest tree, for many humble hollies have been repeatedly coppiced and/or pollarded, and it has been suggested that some of these might date back as far as the 16th century or even earlier.
And of course, though not on the Crown Lands, when considering aged trees mention must be made of the churchyard yew at Brockenhurst Parish Church (G) which really is the daddy of them all - it is known to be more than 1,000 years old. Its girth was 4.5 metres (15 feet) in 1793, 5.2 metres (17 feet) in the early 1860s, 5.6 metres (18 feet 4 inches) in 1915, and now, at 5 feet from the ground, it is more than 6.1 metres (20 feet) round.
These and numerous other majestic trees of many species are waiting to be discovered by the curious visitor to the New Forest. All have witnessed tremendous changes in the world and no doubt will witness many more. Be sure to appreciate their presence, wonder at their antiquity and treat them with due reverence and respect.
Proceedings of the Hampshire Field Club & Archaeological Society, Volume 54, Ancient New Forest Trees: Chris Read
The New Forest: Its History and Scenery: John R. Wise.
The New Forest – A Natural History: Colin R. Tubbs
A Guide to the New Forest: Heywood Sumner
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