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Ancient Trees In Richmond Park

March 29, 2023
by the gentle author

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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 sunshine emerged at intervals from the passing clouds, casting a transient 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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9 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy Strowman permalink
    March 29, 2023

    A great article and yes too, I am an admirer of the great story by Richard Jeffries called “Bevis”.

  2. Sarah Travers permalink
    March 29, 2023

    A lovely post, thank you! A pity it took a while to find the Royal Oak- it is not signposted. In front of Holly Lodge there is another veteran oak, not I think in your photos, which is Sir David Attenborough’s favourite tree- it got a moment of fame in Wild Isles. The very oldest Oaks in Richmond Park are, according to what I have heard, in High Wood on the other side of the Isabella Plantation. Lastly, although not a veteran, there is a famous oak near Bog Gate which was felled by a storm, now has its trunk horizontal to the ground, yet still survives, a living testament to the resilience of these great trees.

  3. Annie S permalink
    March 29, 2023

    Wonderful trees – if you look carefully, some of them appear to have a face, what they could have witnessed over all the years!

  4. March 29, 2023

    A wonderful story, which I can of course relate to. Because my “own tree” belongs to the same generation of trees — it is an over 500 years old Oak Tree at the Sensenstein near Kassel, and a natural monument. He has lost some larger branches during the last thunderstorms. But that doesn’t bother him. He has survived 500 years of human history!

    I’m just planning to visit him again when it gets warmer.

    Love & Peace

  5. Hetty Startup permalink
    March 29, 2023

    Wonderful photos especially of the young buck (stag) and misty, frosty views of Richmond Park. From a sister tree-hugger. Hetty

  6. Lucy neville permalink
    March 29, 2023

    The photographs of these ancient surviving oaks show they were mostly pollarded – the usual method of gathering wood from living trees in a park or wood-pasture or common or on parish boundaries. This management of a much needed resource also seems to prolong the life of a tree. In London you can still find venerable parish boundary trees where other markers of the ancient landscape have completely disappeared.

  7. David Antscherl permalink
    March 29, 2023

    Today’s photographs of Richmond Park made me smile. I had the privilege of driving through the Park daily from Richmond to Roehampton daily for a year, to and from work. Some mornings the rising mist would reveal the deer in silhouette. Every day the scene would vary.

    The Park looks very much the same in your photos as it did back in 1967-68. However, I believe that several of the ancient oaks were brought down during the great storm of October 1987.

  8. Marnie Sweet permalink
    March 29, 2023

    But only Go d can make a tree.

    Joyce Kilmer

  9. Sue permalink
    March 29, 2023

    Spent a lot of my childhood cycling round Richmond Park in the Sixties and loved the deer, the ponds and the big trees.

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