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Ancient Trees in Richmond Park

February 4, 2018
by the gentle author

The Royal Oak

The presence of great trees in the city has always been a source of fascination to me as one born in the countryside. I often think of the nineteenth century rural writer Richard Jefferies who, while struggling to make a career in London, took lonely walks in the parks for consolation and once, to ameliorate his home-sickness for the West Country, spontaneously wrapped his arms around a tree. Thus he originated the notion of’ tree-hugging,’ a phrase that is now used to embrace the deep affection which many people feel for trees. It is a tendency I recognise in myself, as I came to realise last week, while prowling around Richmond Park in the frost in search of ancient trees.

Yet I did not have to look very far, since this Royal Park has more than nine hundred oaks which are over five hundred years old – thus qualifying as ‘ancient’ – many of which are over seven hundred years in age. In fact, it is claimed that Richmond Park has more ancient trees than in the whole of France and Germany.

As I came upon more and more of them, the wonder of these tottering specimens filled me with such an accumulating sense of awe and delight that I could not understand how I could be entirely alone in the great empty park, enjoying them all to myself. It seemed incredible to me that the place was not teeming with visitors paying adoring homage to these gnarly old time-travellers, although I was equally grateful for their absence because my pleasure in communing with these ancient oaks was greater for being an intimate, solitary experience.

The ultimate object of my quest was the celebrated Royal Oak at the heart of the park. Since it is not marked on any map, I had no choice but to stop the few people I did meet and ask directions. Yet all of those of whom I enquired simply replied with a shrug and a polite grin, and consequently I could not avoid a certain absurdity in asking my question of unwary visitors while in a park surrounded by ancient trees. Eventually I had no choice but to retreat to a lodge where, after several phone calls among the park wardens, I was offered directions.

Returning to the woodland, I wondered how I might distinguish the wood for trees or rather – in this case – the Royal Oak from its fellows. The low-angled winter sunshine emerged at intervals from the passing clouds, casting a transient golden light upon the forest. As I reached the edge of the tree line and the landscape opened up, declining towards Pen Ponds, the clouds separated permitting a shaft of afternoon sunlight to illuminate a tree standing apart from the rest. A massive trunk, twisted and split, testified to seven centuries of growth, while the whirling crown of branches spreading in all directions was a product of more recent time, when the tree was no longer pollarded for the supply of oak staffs. I stood and contemplated its implacable presence in silent awe, confronting the aged monarch among an army of elderly cohorts in a forest of ancient trees. This was the Royal Oak.

The Royal Oak is over seven hundred years old

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19 Responses leave one →
  1. Robin permalink
    February 4, 2018

    Those handsome old fellows have seen much since the days their acorns broke open freeing them as little saplings.

  2. Caroline permalink
    February 4, 2018

    It is the most brilliant place to take children as there are so many trees which are hollow and / or easy to climb. I love Richmond Park’s trees.

  3. February 4, 2018

    Dear GA. I love Richmond Park. So does half of London on a warm sunny Sunday. To see it like this is inspirational. And very nostalgic. My mum and dad loved the Isabella Plantation . I remember going by bus with them over sixty years ago. But now the walk from the car park to the garden passes a number of those ancient trees.

  4. John Barrett permalink
    February 4, 2018

    London is packed with old trees nice for the visitors to see. Authorities just leave them – be no put- downs please. Trees are with us and for us, they are our friends. John he’s a poet from Bristol

  5. February 4, 2018

    Such proud beauties. Humans could take a good lesson from these ancient trees and the fruitless folly of trying to remain looking youthful when plainly at the other end of the spectrum. It would appear that a thickening of the trunk is common to both of us. And yes, we do love trees, I think. I talk to my potted lilac trees and my sturdy olive all the time.

  6. Leana Pooley permalink
    February 4, 2018

    Wonderful photographs, wonderful trees and those deer……..Two years ago in the autumn my husband and I collected acorns from the Silton Oak in north Dorset, a vast, sagging tree presumed to be a thousand years old. The acorns were perfectly ripe and fell from their cups into our hands. We planted them immediately into pots. Now we have 22 baby Silton Oaks about a foot high each. A small wood. We’re hoping that a local landowner or farmer will be happy to plant some eventually when they are taller and more sturdy.

  7. Maura Blackburn permalink
    February 4, 2018

    As an ex West London resident, Richmond Park was such a contrast to the fences, paths and signage in local parks – it was a chance to escape to another world and we often got lost but discovered hidden places. It may not be your thing, but the Isabella Plantarion is a joy in the Spring – my children saw it as a “fairy dell”.

  8. Marcia Howard permalink
    February 4, 2018

    Wonderful place. Wonderful trees.

  9. Helen Breen permalink
    February 4, 2018

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for the lovely late winter excursion through Richmond Park to commune with these ancient oaks – wonderful photos too.

    Well said -“It seemed incredible to me that the place was not teeming with visitors paying adoring homage to these gnarly old time-travellers, although I was equally grateful for their absence because my pleasure in communing with these ancient oaks was greater for being an intimate, solitary experience.”

    And I learned another word – POLLARD,” a tree cut back to the trunk to promote the growth of a dense head of foliage.”

  10. February 4, 2018

    I can highly recommend, if you haven’t already read it, Peter Wohllben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees”. Makes walking among them even more fascinating.

  11. February 4, 2018

    Magnificent! You’ve done it again! Spitalfields Life is becoming a treasury of arboreal life. Would you mind if I share this one again? I recognise that feeling of surprise and wonder why more people are not queuing up to worship these ancient guardians.

  12. Gary Arber permalink
    February 4, 2018

    Was it pollarding over the ages that has caused these venerable trees to increase more in girth than in height ?

  13. Hetty Startup permalink
    February 4, 2018

    Wonderful photographs, GA, Makes me homesick. This park was a favorite for Sunday walks before a drink at a pub near Syon or Strand on the Green on the way home. Thank you. If I share one of your photos on social media I will be sure to credit you unlike SOME people!

  14. Connie Unangst permalink
    February 4, 2018

    Another enjoyable article. I remember seeing them when I visited the UK

  15. February 4, 2018

    Those trees are so inspiring for character design! I think I’ll sketch some from your photos now, but I definitively want to go see them myself.

  16. Peter Holford permalink
    February 4, 2018

    Memories of childhood! Thank you – being brought up in Putney, Richmond Park was one of many fantastic open spaces to play in. I noticed the Pen Ponds in one photo – a magic place to catch tadpoles. Unfortunately the trees were just incidental to me as a child – they were just part of the whole.

  17. Marcelle Garner permalink
    February 5, 2018

    Thank you for those photos .I will never go too Richmond Park again as the journey to the UK is

    now not possible .I too have a great love for trees .

  18. Sue permalink
    February 5, 2018

    Spent many a Sunday in my childhood cycling round the park with my friend. Wonderful memories.

  19. September 18, 2019

    The fallen tree of Richmond Park has just been nominated as a Woodland Trust ‘Tree of the year 2019’ It would be great if you could support and vote for it. Thank you. Andy Thomas

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