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Ancient New Forest Trees - Knightwood Oak, Eagle Oak and many more

The location of featured named oaks
Map of the New Forest and surrounding area

The New Forest, perhaps not surprisingly, has its fair share of aged trees, huge, majestic oaks, spreading beech trees and gnarled old hollies. Many of the oldest live out their lives within the open pasture woodlands - the New Forest's ancient, unenclosed woodlands - where oak and beech are the predominant trees of the canopy with hollies below in the under-storey. Some, however, survived the axe during the creation of 17th - 20th century forestry inclosures - early broad-leaved inclosures and later, often coniferous inclosures - and continue to live behind the inclosure fences alongside younger upstarts of a variety of species, reminders of how things were before clearance and replacement.

Although occasionally admired by passers-by, most of these trees all too frequently are little noticed. Some, however, 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 for whilst trees can be aged by counting their annular rings, 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, only with ‘best estimates’ of age.

Girth, usually measured at a height of between 1.2 and 1.5 metres (3 feet 11 inches - 4 feet 11 inches) from the ground, provides a good indicator of age and so, too, does the size of the crown. Girth and crown size, though, are not everything. Some huge trees located in places that offer particularly favourable growing conditions may be comparative youngsters, whilst pollarding - the once widespread practice of cutting off the tops of relatively young trees at around 2.4 metres (8 feet) from the ground to stimulate the re-growth of multiple shoots suitable, for example, for firewood and for use by charcoal burners of old - is known to slow girth growth until the tree’s crown again reaches full size.

(In 1698, in the interests of encouraging the growth of timber suited to naval ship-building, legislation - the 1698 Act for the Increase and Preservation of Timber in the New Forest - was introduced that forbade pollarding. It's tempting to assume, therefore, that all aged pollards pre-date the legislation but this is not necessarily true as occasional 'illegal' pollarding continued for many years after).

The Oaks

That oaks are potentially long-lived is well-known - they are resistant to drought and are infrequently blown over, even in the strongest gales. Perhaps one of the best-known in England is the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, a huge 800 to 1,000 years old specimen that it has been claimed is the biggest oak in the country - in 1999 it had a girth of a little over 10 metres (33 feet), a spread of 28 metres (92 feet) and an estimated weight of 23,000 kgs (23 tonnes).

However, growing conditions in the New Forest dictate that dimensions such as this are never reached. Indeed, John Wise, the mid-19th century chronicler of the New Forest, described the Forest oaks thus: 'The oaks here do not grow so high or so large as in many other parts of England, but they are far finer in their outlines .....', and who would argue with that?

Oaks in the ancient woodlands of the New Forest are mainly of the species Quercus robur, or pedunculate oak; but Quercus petraea, or sessile oak, is also present together with a number of intermediate forms. Quercus cerris, Turkey oak, a species introduced to Britain in the 18th century, was also present but many of these trees, if not all, have relatively recently been removed by the Forestry Commission, as was, along with some other alien species.

Encouragingly, it's thought that there are far more large oaks in the New Forest now than there were in John Wise's time, 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. (Chris Read, for example, in the 1990s discovered over 80 oaks with girths of 5.2 metres (17 feet) or over - Proceedings of the Hampshire Field Club & Archaeological Society, Volume 54, Ancient New Forest Trees: Chris Read).

Here are just a few of the larger examples.

(1) The Knightwood Oak (A)

When considering the New Forest's most venerable trees, the Knightwood Oak generally gets a mention as possibly the oldest of them all. A pollard, the Knightwood Oak stands quite near to the A35 at the start of the Bolderwood Ornamental Drive, close to Knightwood Inclosure - it is at grid reference SU2653 0650.

The Knightwood Oak
The Knightwood Oak

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 lovers of the old woods.

John Wise, for example, in the mid-19th century recorded its girth as 5.3 metres (17 feet 5 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 8 inches).

In the late 1970s the trees girth was recorded by Nicholas Flower as 7.2 metres (23 feet 7 inches), whilst in the late 1990s, as recorded by Chris Read, it had increased to 7.4 metres (24 feet 3 inches) making it the largest oak, by girth, in the New Forest.

(2) The Eagle Oak (B)

The Eagle Oak
The Eagle Oak

Another named tree, the Eagle Oak, situated 1 kilometre (0.6 miles) to the south-west of the Knightwood Oak - at grid reference SU2556 0613 - also featured in both Nicholas Flower's late-1970s survey and Chris Read's 1990s survey, during both of which its girth was measured at a comparatively modest 5.4 metres (17 feet 9 inches).

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.

(3) The Moyles Court Oak (C), the Adam Oak (D), the Withybed Oak (E) and the Spreading Oak (F)

The Moyles Court Oak 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 SU1628 0837, girth measurements up to and including one in the early 20th century had this tree as larger (and potentially older) than the Knightwood Oak, but growth relative to the Knightwood Oak subsequently slowed such that from the 1920s, the latter tree has been the larger of the two.

The Moyles Court Oak
The Moyles Court Oak

John Wise, for example, in 1860 measured the girth of the Moyles Court Oak at 5.7 metres (18 feet 8 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 1970s, it measured 6.8 metres (22 feet 4 inches) and in the 1990s, 7 metres (22 feet 9 inches), and is still going strong today, albeit much trimmed, no doubt for health and safety reasons.

(To put this tree's age into context, it 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).

The Adam Oak is another notable named oak. Situated in a Minstead hedge at grid reference SU2788 1088, it had a recorded girth of 7.3 metres (23 feet 9 inches) in both the late-1970s and the late-1990s surveys. The origin of the name: perhaps a simple association with Adam's place in antiquity.

The Withybed Oak, situated near Lucas Castle, close to Withybed Bottom at grid reference SU2494 1057, was measured at 5.9 metres (19 feet 6 inches) in both surveys, whilst the nearby and very descriptively named Spreading Oak, which is close to the A31, not far from the eastern edge of Slufters Inclosure and south-west of Winding Stonard wood, at grid reference SU2389 1075, measured in the 1990s survey 5.6 metres (18 feet 6 inches).

(4) Undersley Wood and the Undersley Oak (G)

Wedged between Lyndhurst Road, the road linking the A35 with Burley, and South Oakley Inclosure - across the road and to the north of the Lucy Hill car park, Undersley Wood is a tiny sliver of glorious open 'ancient and ornamental' woodland, the last remnant of a far larger block of ancient woodland that was largely destroyed when the inclosure was created way back in the mid-19th century, 170 years, or so, ago.

It now is an almost anonymous little wood, its name not shown on modern maps although it is named on old Ordnance Survey maps.

The 1872 Ordnance Survey map
The 1872 Ordnance Survey map

The 1872 Ordnance Survey map, shown above, names the wood and also, intriguingly, two of the gates that provide access to the adjacent inclosures: Tufty Beech Gate and Dog Pit Gate. Richardson, King and Driver on their late 18th century New Forest map also name Dog Pit Gate and it is a reasonable assumption that this referred to a pit where the barbaric sport of dog fighting took place.

Despite its small size, Undersley Wood contains many splendid ancient oak and beech trees including the Undersley Oak at grid reference SU2278 0488, a fine, huge pollarded specimen.

Pigs during the autumnal pannage season rooting about below the spreading branches of the Undersley Oak
Pigs during the autumnal pannage season rooting about below the spreading branches of the Undersley Oak

Chris Read's late-1990s survey recorded the tree's girth as 6.3 metres (20 feet 6 inches), whilst the earlier survey in the late-1970s (Nicholas Flower) recorded the girth as 6 metres (19 feet 8 inches).

(5) The Balmer Lawn Oaks (H)

The Balmer Lawn, visible from the A337 on the northern edge of Brockenhurst, is notable for its wide open, grassy spaces; the large hotel that bears the same name; its picturesque cricket pitch and the nearby Lymington River that in spring and summer attracts its fair share of visitors.

There is far more than this to the Balmer Lawn, however, for there can be found a number of magnificent old oak trees. Indeed, it has been suggested that these trees survive from ancient woodland that occupied the site many centuries ago - if that is the case, the woodland existed prior to the late 18th century for Richardson, King and Driver on their map of that age show the Balmer Lawn as open space, much as it is today.

The maiden oak near the Balmer Lawn Hotel
The maiden oak near the Balmer Lawn Hotel

One of the most impressive of these trees, shown above, is hidden away in a small copse a little to the north of the hotel at grid reference SU3047 0330. A maiden tree, that is a tree that has not been pollarded, its girth was reported in the 1990s survey to be 5.8 metres (19 feet) whilst more recently, David Martindale Russell notes its girth as 6.25 metres (20 feet 6 inches), which may, at least in part, reflect a difference in measurement methods rather than what would be remarkably rapid growth in a relatively short a space of time.

Equally striking oaks are visible a little to the north of the B3055 road to Beaulieu and from the gravel track leading to Standing Hat (in the vicinity of grid reference SU3067 0325), whilst at least two more are at the edge of nearby woodland close to the B3055 at grid reference SU3084 0317. One of these, a two-branched pollard shown below, featured in the 1990s survey when its girth was also recorded as 5.8 metres (19 feet).

A two-branched pollard close to the B3055
A two-branched pollard close to the B3055

(6) Four more huge oaks

A magnificent pollard oak on the edge of Sloden Wood
A magnificent pollard oak on the edge of Sloden Wood
A fine pollard oak that has already lost a number of its massive boughs, hidden away in Winding Stonard wood, on the edge of Stoney Cross Plain
A fine pollard oak that has already lost a number of its massive boughs, hidden away in Winding Stonard wood, on the edge of Stoney Cross Plain
Oak and beech trees growing together in Mark Ash Wood
Oak and beech trees growing together in Mark Ash Wood
The feint outline of a huge oak seen through a winter's mist in Brinken Wood
The feint outline of a huge oak seen through a wintry mist in Brinken Wood

The Beech trees

Large, aged beech trees (Fagus sylvatica), along with oaks, are common and widespread in the New Forest. They like considerable amounts of water but dislike waterlogged soils, and unlike the oaks, are badly affected by drought. Fungal decay is also an enemy of beech trees whilst their extremely shallow, well-spread rooting systems make them susceptible to being blown over. Yet many fine examples survive in the New Forest despite significant losses in the great storms of 1987 and 1990.

In summer, the beeches' dense, dark green foliage casts all below into shade which, along with the nutrient-hungry shallow rooting system, restricts the growth of other plants beneath the trees. But at other seasons, the beech presents a wonderful spectacle. The bare branches of winter allow the smooth silvery-grey bark to be best appreciated; spring brings fresh lime-green leaves fringed with fine, pale silky hairs, the foliage at this time in the half-light of dusk and dawn appearing as a mist in the woods, floating unsupported above the ground. And then there's autumn, when the leaves arguably present perhaps the most colourful spectacle of any native tree, a kaleidoscope of reds and yellows, oranges and greens, and more besides.

Nationally, the Woodland Trust considers that when managed by pollarding, beech trees may live for up to 400 years, although 250 years may be more typical; that beech trees can be considered ancient from 225 years of age; and that they can grow to up to 6 metres (19 feet 8 inches) plus, in girth. However, the trees at Burnham Beeches are said to be up to 450 years old making them amongst the oldest pollards in the country, whilst the greatest girth ever recorded for a pollard in England seems to have been 7.9 metres (26 feet).

In contrast, the largest maiden beech known in Britain in the 1990s - see below - had a girth of 6.7 metres (22 feet), there were only 28 British maidens recorded at that time with a larger girth than 5.8 metres (19 feet) and the oldest maiden for which a date was known was 315 years of age.

(7) Ancient beeches

New Forest beech trees were included in the late-1970s and 1990s surveys, to which reference has already been made. The former found the largest, a pollard, to be at Queen Bower (grid reference SU2887 0436) where a girth of 7.4 metres (24 feet 3 inches) was recorded. Re-measurement in the 1990s, however, yielded a reduced girth of 7.3 metres (24 feet).

The largest pollard beech recorded in the later survey was at The Knowles, near Acres Down (at grid reference SU2660 0860), where the girth of the tree, another pollard, was almost identical to that of the Knightwood Oak - 7.5 metres (24 feet 6 inches) - this beech tree is thought to be one of the largest beeches in the country. In the 1970s survey, its girth was listed as 7.2 metres (23 feet 7 inches)

The largest maiden beech in the New Forest, a huge tree in Burley Old Inclosure (at grid reference SU2475 0439), was considered by Chris Read to be the equal of any maiden beech in Britain with a girth in the 1990s of 6.7 metres (22 feet). Dating from around the time the inclosure was created, this tree was thought to be around 295 years old. (This was, in fact, the only maiden large enough to appear in the 1990s New Forest list).

A pollard beech in Undersley Wood
A pollard beech in Undersley Wood

The pollard beech shown above, a fine old tree in Undersley Wood (at grid reference SU2270 0480), had a girth of 6.2 metres (20 feet 3 inches) in the 1990s.

An ancient pollard beech near Warwickslade Cutting
An ancient pollard beech near Warwickslade Cutting

The pollard beech located close to Warwickslade Cutting, shown above, appears to have a considerably larger girth than the Undersley tree, but doesn't appear in either of the surveys.

Another fine pollard beech, this on the edge of Bratley Wood
Another fine pollard beech, this on the edge of Bratley Wood
Beech trees in spring in the open woodland close to the New Forest Reptile Centre
Beech trees in spring in the open woodland close to the New Forest Reptile Centre

The largest New Forest beeches, then, have a similar girth to the largest oaks, whilst the number of big beeches in the 1990s survey was similar to the number of large oaks, and it was concluded that the oldest beeches were probably of comparable age to most of the oldest oaks.

Oddly, though, few of the beeches have been named.

(8) A further selection of magnificent ancient beech trees

The bare trees of winter in Mark Ash Wood
The bare trees of winter in Mark Ash Wood
The fresh green leaves of spring in Bratley Wood
The fresh green leaves of spring in Bratley Wood
A winter scene in the Frame Heath Inclosure / New Copse Inclosure driftway
A winter scene in the Frame Heath Inclosure / New Copse Inclosure driftway
Autumn colours in Rushpole Wood
Autumn colours in Rushpole Wood
Ashurst Wood in spring
Ashurst Wood in spring

The trees shown here, and many other majestic specimens, 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.

References:
Silva - The Tree in Britain: Archie Miles
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
Visit Nottinghamshire - the Major Oak
The Woodland Trust - Ancient Tree Inventory


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Content produced by Andrew Walmsley
Content produced by Andrew Walmsley