Knightwood Oak, Eagle Oak and other ancient New Forest trees
The Knightwood Oak
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 centres of many of the big, old trees have rotted. We’re often left, then, with ‘best estimates’, which frequently vary depending upon who is asked the question.
When considering the oldest trees, though, the Knightwood Oak generally gets a mention. A pollard cut at just above head height to stimulate growths of new shoots, the Knightwood Oak stands close to the A35 at the start of the Bolderwood Ornamental Drive. A Forestry Commission information board not many years ago suggested that the tree was around 450 years old, but now that estimate has 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, 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, and published in 1999 by the Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Society had the Knightwood Oak as the largest oak in the New Forest.
An enormous pollard beech tree
on the edge of Bratley Wood
Another named tree, the Eagle Oak, situated 1 kilometre (0.6 miles) to the south-west of the Knightwood Oak, 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 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 had a lot of growing still to do.
Size, though, is not everything, and certainly does not necessarily indicate age. Some comparative youngsters may simply be located in places that offer particularly favourable growing conditions, whilst pollarding is known to slow girth growth until the tree’s crown again reaches full size. In fact, the 1990s survey revealed that the Moyles Court Oak, which stands by a roadside close to Moyles Court, near Linwood, was of lesser girth than the Knightwood Oak - 7 metres (22 feet 9 inches) – but was growing more slowly and was therefore considered to be of greater age.
A knarled old holly in Matley Wood
New Forest beech trees were also included in the 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 of comparable age to the oldest oaks.
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.
All that can be said, then, is that many of the gnarled old trees in the New Forest are of great age; that they have already witnessed tremendous changes in the world; and that hopefully, they have many years of life still left in them.
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