Ancient trees Street Trees Urban landscape Walking

The Carlton Road Oak: Ealing’s Elephantine Tree

A few months ago, I heard the strange tale of an oak tree in Ealing which marks the spot where an elephant is buried. My interest increased when one of my Twitter friends, a former gardener, told me she had uncovered a huge bone while doing some work nearby. I realised it was the duty of any tree-regarder worth their salt to investigate, so off to Ealing, ‘Queen of the Suburbs’, I went…

Showstopper: Circus celebs of yesteryear

Back in the days when any self-respecting circus had a menagerie of badly-treated animals as part of its entertainment, great processions of clowns, acrobats, caged tigers, feather-adorned horses and semi-comatose elephants would progress slowly through towns and cities drumming up business before they pitched their big top in the local park. And so it was back in 1889, as a circus was trooping down Ealing’s Castlebar Road, when one of its four-legged stars expired. Being of such bulk, the deceased animal was buried, presumably with little ceremony, on the spot it fell: the junction with Carlton Road. Such a memorably macabre event must have impressed those who witnessed it, the fact that the story circulates to this day is testament to that. 

Today, an old and rather battered oak tree grows in the middle of Carlton Road just near that fateful junction with Castlebar Road. But was it planted as an elephant memorial?

Island Queen: The middle of Carlton Road, a very precarious spot for a veteran oak tree

The tree is a local landmark and, judging by its appearance, something of an obstacle too. Its trunk shows signs of having been whitewashed in the past, no doubt in an attempt to make it more conspicuous to speeding motorists, some of whom, it seems, may have had a tussle with the tree, which sports a few battle scars.

The Elephant Tree, or the ‘Carlton Road Oak’, is actually one of four trees – three other oaks on the verge just across the road are in much better shape – forming a row suggesting they mark a boundary, now long forgotten. They are clearly old, maybe veterans of several centuries. So, the Elephant Tree must have been here when the circus was passing all those years ago, and the death of a hulking great pachyderm on an Ealing street has been conflated with an equally memorable tree that also happens to grow in the middle of an Ealing street, into a single super animal-arboreal memorial.

Gang of Four: The Elephant Tree is one of a row of veteran oaks

But how did the tree, elephantine in appearance, come to be in the middle of the road? If it is part of a boundary row, it could be that a lane always went past it, and even forked at the grassy triangle known as Tortoise Green (what might be buried here I wonder?), but perhaps in the past the tree was not dislocated from the Green. It’s likely that road widening over the years has resulted in its isolation, along with its rather diminished canopy and swollen and battered trunk. It is remarkable that the tree has survived in this position, not only because of the knocks it has sustained, but also because of the pollution and the compaction of the ground around it.

Roadblock: Explore Carlton Road on Google Maps to get a closer look at the tree and to see how the local environment might be improved by shutting off the street

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the road could be narrowed to a single fork at this junction? Or, better still, blocked altogether – the residents of Carlton Road would surely appreciate the lower levels of traffic that would result in it becoming a cul-de-sac?

Road Hog: The Carlton Road Oak in all its battered yet resilient glory

Circus elephant image from Alison Marchant on Flickr.

The Carlton Road Oak features in my new book, London Tree Walks, signed copies of which are available from yours truly.

Ancient trees Countryside

Wyndham’s Oak: a great survivor

A couple of weekends ago I was staying in Dorset where I heard about Wyndham’s Oak, an ancient tree I felt compelled to seek out. It is a pedunculate Oak (Quercus robur) and it is ancient, maybe 1000 years old. It is a shrinking hulk in an unlikely setting but it is a local landmark and has been for centuries.

Wyndham's Oak, Silton, Dorset
Outstanding In Its Field: Wyndham's Oak, maybe 1,000 years old and once part of a Royal hunting forest

Also known as the Silton Oak, it can be found in the Dorset village of the same name. Now it stands discreetly in a meadow by the river Stour behind St. Nicholas’ parish church. It is not visible for miles around and no road runs close by, yet it is marked on the Ordnance Survey map.

Called Wyndham’s Oak after Sir Hugh Wyndham, an obscure 17th century judge and local worthy who managed to keep a low enough profile to ensure his public service career spanned the rules of Charles I, Oliver Cromwell’s interregnum and Charles II. According to the story, Sir Hugh did nothing more than sit in the shade of this great tree – undoubtedly a magnificent sight at the time – forever linking his name to the tree at the apex of its height, spread and girth.

At the time of the English restoration then, this tree was perhaps 600 years old. It may have been hollow as it is now, but it almost certainly would have been considerably larger than today’s enormous bole surmounted by little more than a toupé of branches.

Wyndham's Oak bole
Burred Bole: Centuries of growth have produced huge girth and a splendid gnarled trunk

Possibly planted as a boundary marker of the Gillingham Forest, a royal deer hunting chase favoured by King John, Wyndham’s Oak survived the forest’s destruction during Charles I’s reign adding further weight to the notion that it was so remarkable that it was intentionally saved from the sawyers supplying the needs of the King’s fleet.

The UK is Europe’s hotspot when it comes to aged timber – Richmond Park in west London supports ‘more 500-year-old trees than France and Germany combined’ – Wyndham’s oak is one of the most enduring of Britain’s many remarkable trees.

There is no obvious reason why there are so many ancient trees in this country, but perhaps the feudal system allowed trees to grow old in aristocratic deer parks unmolested by fuel hungry peasants, or perhaps Britain got off lightly from the ravages of wars that brought in their wake pressing need for fuel and shelter to large parts of the continent.

Ultimately though these survivors are testament to the great fondness we great apes have for trees.

Further reading:
• Wyndham’s Oak described on the Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Hunt website
• Telegraph article about ancient trees in Britain including the Richmond Park quote above
• Antiquarian description of the, even then, long gone Gillingham Forest from John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales 1870-72
• More pictures of the Wyndham’s Oak and it’s surroundings in my Flickr photoset

To find Wyndham’s Oak, go through the churchyard and out into the field beyond…