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Old Trees in Greenwich

January 7, 2022
by the gentle author

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On the day my old cat died, 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, 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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19 Responses leave one →
  1. Laura Williamson permalink
    January 7, 2022

    Wonderful pictures, thank you GA. Possibly exactly the sort of trees Tolkien was thinking of when he imagined the ents!

    Happy New Year to you and all.

  2. Maggie permalink
    January 7, 2022

    Wow! Love these trees.
    Thankyou so much for sharing.

  3. Peter Hart permalink
    January 7, 2022

    I’m so glad you did return and take these beautiful photos (sorry about your cat) thank you GA

  4. Libby Hall permalink
    January 7, 2022

    So beautiful! Both words and photographs.

    I found this especially comforting:

    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.

  5. pauline taylor permalink
    January 7, 2022

    I share your love of trees and am so grateful that I grew up in the country where we had hedges and trees around our garden including oaks and an ash, with sweet chestnuts close by beside my cycling route to catch the bus to school. In the opposite direction was a wood in which you can still see the ramparts that date from Boadicea’s murderous attack upon the Romans.

    Recently I was talking to a lifelong friend about our childhood and she said, “you were always up a tree!” Well, I did spend some time on the shed roof but I did enjoy climbing the trees as well, when I was not swinging on ropes attached to the branches that is.

    Thank you for yet more happy memories GA.

  6. Ann V permalink
    January 7, 2022

    If only these wonderful old trees could talk, what tales they could tell! Thank you for sharing and Happy New Year to you and all your readers.

  7. January 7, 2022

    Beautiful old trees! They remind me of MY old oak tree, which I visit regularly.

    Love & Peace

  8. Helen permalink
    January 7, 2022

    Thank you showing how lovely these trees are. Greenwich Park was my favourite park growing up into adulthood, and I still try to get there every now and then. I remember the Elizabeth Oak when it was upright, although it was only the heavy layer of ivy that kept it standing up.

  9. Geraldine Anslow permalink
    January 7, 2022

    Oh thank you for this post and the wonderful images. I feel like you have introduced us to some venerable old characters in the same way you bring us stories of your human friends and acquaintances. I once kept some bees who had the chance to feast on Sweet Chestnut blossoms and produced a honey with an amazing red-gold colour and an exquisite taste. There used to be a lovely bee garden at Greenwich Park that I had the chance to visit. I hope it is still there; it was among trees hidden behind discreet tall hedges and was near to a surreal miniature showjumping arena that turned out to be for training police dogs.

  10. Mark permalink
    January 7, 2022

    Beauties! So London does have something to offer after all….

  11. Peter J Washington permalink
    January 7, 2022

    Many thanks for such a thought provoking post, they are such wonderful specimens, sentinels of the age and ages from which they sprang and witnessed, lovely in there own beauty, thanks again.

  12. Charlie Page permalink
    January 7, 2022

    I know exactly how you feel, my Wife and I have had many cats over the years and we remember all of their names. We have buried all of them in our garden. Losing a pet is one of the saddest things, so we should always keep them in our thoughts. I wish you and your new baby all the best.

  13. January 7, 2022

    Magical trees full of fairies and… an exotic green bird. Their capacity to adapt is incredible. In memoriam of Mr. Pussy.

  14. Pamela permalink
    January 7, 2022

    Beautiful! Thanks for photographically taking us along on your walk. I enjoyed imagining Mr. Rackham’s renditions of the impressive trees, as well as the silvery quadruped and green parrot! Sorry about your dear old feline friend – they are very special, those trusty little supervisors.

  15. Toni Bracher permalink
    January 7, 2022

    Beautiful story & photos honouring these old trees. I’m sure I see a green parrot in the 7th photo.

  16. Marcia Howard permalink
    January 8, 2022

    Trees are a great comfort. I confess I’ve hugged a few in my time

  17. David Simons permalink
    January 8, 2022

    Thank you for the photos of these ancient trees and their history. The more I thought about the changes that have taken place around them over 400 years, the more remarkable their survival into our world seems.
    I’m Australian and our ancient trees are to be found in unlogged forests. I had no idea such trees existed in Britain, let alone on the outskirts of London. I too find their existence reassuring and will be sure to see them next time I visit the UK. Thanks again.

  18. John permalink
    January 8, 2022

    A lovely post about one of my favourite places anywhere. We live about 30 minutes walk from there. One of our favourites of the trees is the Evergreen Oak just off the path from the main gates to the General Wolff statue. The Elizabeth Oak was used as a lock up for miscreants in the early 19th apparently according to local legend. I don’t know if that’s true. Thanks again for sharing these wonderful photos and words.

  19. Gregory Rose permalink
    January 22, 2022

    As always, LGA, wonderful pictures of my favourite trees in London. I walked through the park on Thursday and Friday mornings last week on my way to work in Blackheath and, as always, was overjoyed to see them. The reward for walking up the steep hill on the West side is enjoying the gorgeous Rose Garden, another hidden treasure of London.

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