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Old Trees In Greenwich Park

January 21, 2018
by the gentle author

On the day my cat died last summer, I went for a walk in Greenwich Park to seek consolation and was uplifted to encounter the awe-inspiring host of ancient trees there. I promised myself I would return in the depths of winter to photograph these magnificent specimens on a clear day when they were bare of leaves. So that was what I did last week, braving the bitter wind and the plunging temperatures for an afternoon with my camera.

In the early 1660’s, Charles II commissioned Le Notre, gardener to Louis XIV, to design the layout of the landscape and the impressive avenues of sweet chestnuts remain, many now approaching four hundred years old. These ancient trees confront you, rising up in the winter sunlight to cast long shadows over the grass and dominating the lonely park with their powerful gnarly presences worthy of paintings by Arthur Rackham.

I have always been in thrall to the fairy tale allure cast by old trees. As a small child, I drew trees continuously once I discovered how easy they were to conjure into life upon paper, following the sinuous lines where I pleased. This delight persists and, even now, I cannot look at these venerable sweet chestnuts in Greenwich without seeing them in motion, as if my photographs captured frozen moments in their swirling dance.

Throughout my childhood, I delighted to climb trees, taking advantage of the facility of my lanky limbs and proximity of large specimens where I could ascend among the leafy boughs and spend an afternoon reading in seclusion, released from the the quotidian world into an arena of magic and possibility. Since the life span of great trees surpasses that of humans, they remind us of the time that passed before we were born and reassure us that the world will continue to exist when we are gone.

Secreted in a dell in the heart of the park, lies the Queen Elizabeth Oak, planted in the twelfth century. Legend has it, Henry VIII danced with Anne Boleyn beneath its branches and later their daughter, Elizabeth I, picnicked in its shade when this was a hunting ground for the royal palace at Greenwich. After flourishing for eight hundred years, the old oak died in the nineteenth century and then fell over a century later, in 1991, but still survives within a protective enclosure of iron railing for visitors to wonder at.

If any readers seek an excuse to venture out for a bracing walk in the frost, I recommend a pilgrimage to pay homage to the old trees in Greenwich Park. They are witnesses to centuries of history and offer a necessary corrective to restore a sense of proportion and hope in these strange times.

Queen Elizabeth’s Oak dating from the twelfth century

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37 Responses leave one →
  1. David Tarrant permalink
    January 21, 2018

    What a wonderful blog! Awesome prose and awesome photographs. Thank you so much.

  2. Anne Scott permalink
    January 21, 2018

    They are like the apple trees in The Wizard of Oz. Such haphazard arrangements of branches. Would you go back in the spring when the leaves appear and show us more photos? Thanks!

  3. Wm Auld permalink
    January 21, 2018

    Truly amazing and wonderful.

  4. Celt permalink
    January 21, 2018

    They are magnificent! Thank you!

  5. January 21, 2018

    Wonderful trees, they could tell a lot of stories if they could speak. Thanks for sharing the magnificent photos. Valerie

  6. Greta kelly permalink
    January 21, 2018

    Reminded me that I too climbed a tree to find peace from my siblings and read! Those images are breathtaking.

  7. SandraD permalink
    January 21, 2018


  8. Georgina Briody permalink
    January 21, 2018

    I have known and lived near this park since a child and love this story. Will be going there next week with my cousin so, being familiar with these trees, will look at them in a new light! I feel fortunate to be near such a special space.

  9. Sue permalink
    January 21, 2018

    Wonderful pictures of these ancient beauties. And how strange to see a parakeet sitting on the branches.

  10. Paul Phillips permalink
    January 21, 2018

    Lovely pics did you notice the skeletonal ‘skull’ peeping out of the bottom left corner of the roots in photograph 3 from the top? I also liked the Ring Necked Parakeet happily perched on one of the pics. Well done and thanks for sharing. P

  11. January 21, 2018

    Such knarliness. Your photos of tress are masterclasses in knobbled barks and twisted lower boughs and branches.

    My eyes are always drawn to the higher branches where the twig like matrixes are framed by air and sky. David Hockney captures this perfectly. I do love the barks of trees but tend to find myself seeking out younger more graceful trunks, where I fancy I see dryads disguising themselves from the gaze of humans. I think the woods near where I live are not so ancient. Your trees are like ancient druids. Merlin, so the legend goes, was trapped within an ancient tree.

    At the risk of sounding like an old hippy, I think, perhaps, you are an old soul, Gentle Author. One who cannot help but be drawn to the old and venerable places, the heroic wrecks, the ancient pathways and long vanished alleys of the London you love so dearly.

  12. David Ransom permalink
    January 21, 2018

    Wonderful. I must go there.

  13. January 21, 2018

    This is magnificent! One of the most beautiful blogposts I’ve seen. Would you allow me to re-post it on our blog?

  14. Marcia Howard permalink
    January 21, 2018

    What wonderful images, and a very interesting blog read. I love trees too. Growing up in London, the first I really remember were the London Planes. I longed to scuff through the leaves in autumn, but my mother would never let me ‘in case of dog muck’. Yes, deprived childhood! I’ve let my 5 yr old granddaughter scuff through leaves, and jump in puddles, from the time she learned to walk.
    My next significant tree memory as soon as I could read, was reading Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. It became my favourite book, and eventually, also my youngest son’s favourite story. Now his daughter, my 5 year old granddaughter has inherited our love.

  15. Peter Harrison permalink
    January 21, 2018

    Fabulous pictures!

  16. Roy Emmins permalink
    January 21, 2018

    Lovely pictures of magical tree’s

  17. Helen Breen permalink
    January 21, 2018

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, you always draw a larger meaning from an ordinary experience:

    “Since the life span of great trees surpasses that of humans, they remind us of the time that existed before we were born and reassure us that the world will continue to exist when we are gone.”

    Well said. And somehow we see a hint of spring in these studies, just beyond the horizon. I particularly enjoyed the 2nd to last shot in silhouette and the wide shot of the green with the Tower in the distance.

    Many thanks…

  18. January 21, 2018

    What an array of wizards!? Yes, wizards.
    They look so mysterious, commanding, enduring, and powerful.
    The final photo almost looks as if they are gathering for a procession.
    Thank you for a beautiful, thought-provoking post full of optimism.

  19. Jill wilson permalink
    January 21, 2018

    Fantastic shapes! I am a prop maker and one of my favourite jobs is making trees – the gnarlier the better…
    Has a new cat found you yet? I often think of you when my cat comes for a cuddle in the middle of the night. Life wouldn’t be the same without it! X

  20. January 21, 2018

    I also love trees, and also found them easy to draw when I was younger. One of my joys is to stare outside at the trees that surround my home or, on milder days, walking around and admiring the trees in my neighborhood.

  21. January 21, 2018

    When I become a tiny little fairy woman I will come and live in the nooks and crannies of these beautiful trees.

  22. Barbara McHugh permalink
    January 21, 2018

    Just beautiful. Thank you.

  23. pauline taylor permalink
    January 21, 2018

    Lovely photographs of magical and magnificent trees. Thank you GA. I too have always loved drawing and painting trees, there is nothing like them and they all have a presence. Much of my childhood was spent climbing trees but I now have to content myself with admiring the beautiful oak trees at the bottom of my garden, one of which my son grew from an acorn, it is now much much taller than my house and we love to watch birds and squirrels cavorting amongst its branches. What would life be like without trees !

  24. Ade Callaghan permalink
    January 21, 2018

    Wonderful trees. I missed the parakeet first time but I did spot two squirrels. Thanks GA.

  25. Sally Hirst permalink
    January 21, 2018

    A truly inspiring set of photos. I will make a point of looking for these on my next visit. I was also comforted by the comments, which indicate that are many tree lovers amongst us. I am not alone.

  26. Mary Moulder permalink
    January 22, 2018

    Hello from Arizona,
    What amazing fantastic images my imagination found in those noble elderly trees. Each time I look I see new images.
    Thank you, Mary of East End Rondeau line

  27. Marie-Anne permalink
    January 22, 2018

    Such wonderful trees and so important that they are still with us.

  28. Annie S permalink
    January 22, 2018

    Amazing sculptural shapes!

  29. January 22, 2018

    What wonderful trees — remind me to my 500 year old oak-tree near my home … (see link)

    Love & Peace

  30. Richard permalink
    January 22, 2018

    Absolutely love it there

  31. Malcolm permalink
    January 23, 2018

    Many is the happy hour I’ve spent in Greenwich Park, both as a child and an adult. It is, in my opinion, the best park in London and I never tire of walking among the magnificent trees in all the seasons. When I was a child the Elizabeth oak was still standing and although it had a fence around it, there was a gate that allowed you to enter and approach the venerable old specimen. It was hollow and there was a space at the base of the trunk where you could sit inside the tree, which I did on many occasions. Perhaps I have sat where Kings and Queens once sat…
    The other great trees are the ancient Yews in the flower gardens at the top of the park – where there are also a couple of sweet Chestnuts that are even older than those out in the main park, I believe. As children we would climb the ancient Yews and perch high up in the canopy. On any Sunday afternoon in the summer the trees still play host to adventurous kids, clambering among the great spreading arms of the old Yews.

  32. gkbowood permalink
    January 23, 2018

    These definitely need to be seen in the daylight! I can’t imagine how spooky all those old gnarly trees would appear on a windy moonlight night. I love the huge burls and holes everywhere. Please do a repeat visit in the spring or summer when they are in leaf. Thank you for another great story.

  33. Bruce permalink
    February 4, 2018

    As a child a favorite song was Paul Robeson singing “Trees”
    How true the opening line….. “I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.”
    I wore out that old 78 record.

  34. Denise permalink
    February 4, 2018

    Gentle Author, your photos are as beautiful and eloquent as your word pictures.

  35. February 5, 2018

    So nice to know I am not the only one who ventures out on cold winter mornings to Greenwich Park, solely for the privileged of visiting and photographing these wonderful old characters. I envy the squirrels who live within their huge bark shells, how lovely it would be to listen to a winter storm from inside one of them. Many of these trees I consider my good friends, and I have created woodcut portraits of 6 of them. (I’m an artist specializing in trees, you might also like ‘The Arborealists’ a group I belong to who all specialize in trees). I also like very much your writing about the old Richmond Park trees, much closer to where I live, and also characters I visit often. If you venture outside London may I recommend Croft Castle in Herefordshire, the home of literally legions of ancient sweat chestnuts, and some veteran oaks too. Many thanks for your lovely images and words.

  36. Sara permalink
    August 14, 2019

    Beautiful place, I’ve been there 3 years ago in november and I was inspired by one of these trees to make a beautiful draw. I took also some photos of them. Probably I will come back next summer!

  37. Bob Campbell permalink
    June 24, 2020

    I so remember playing on and around these trees 60+ years ago,I now live in Florida but I have been back and walked the avenues and the places we hunted for conkers years ago,Thank you for the memories these pictures evoke.

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