Damned English Oak

“Damned English Oak!”

The immortal words spoken by Morgan Freeman in the 1991 film, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves as he and Kevin “Doesn’t matter if I’m American” Costner attempt to break into a room in the castle to rescue Maid Marion. And he had a point – oak is a solid, natural material, which is great – unless you’re trying to break into a tower. For those that have been to Sherwood Forest, you will also note that Robin’s tree is called the Major Oak – a huge, sprawling beast of a tree, steeped in legend and folklore.

I have many favourite trees. Some by their species, others purely based on their position, shape or climbing ease, but the Oak rarely fails to stop me in my tracks. It happens to be the first tree species I learned to identify by the shape of its leaf as a child, thanks to my mum, whose tree knowledge is still pretty much superior to mine. On walks, especially in park land or where there are fields with hedgerows, I frequently stop to admire a solitary Oak, perhaps in the middle of a field, or part of the hedgerow. Even one that is felled can be beautiful, providing life for no end of creatures.

In Britain, we have five species of Oak. Only two of these are native however (pedunculate oak and the sessile oak), the others were imported. The sessile Oak in fact is the national tree of Wales. Oak trees have been part of our landscape since the end of the last Ice Age – a whopping 12,000 years. So it’s no wonder they’ve become engrained into our folklore and culture. These icons can live for over 1,000 years and to a height of 30 metres. It was thought that a branch of Oak possessed magical powers. Mistletoe growing on an Oak was also thought to carry mystical power. If you carried an acorn in your pocket, it was believed that you were protected against disease and doing so promoted long life. If it was wealth that you seeked, planting an acorn at the time of a new moon was said to bring it, and placing an acorn in a window was said to protect the house from a lightning strike. I wonder how many people stopped reading at the wealth part.

Aside from being vital to our native ecosystem, Oak has been of important use to us humans over the centuries. The Mary Rose, King Henry VIII’s flagship, was made almost solely of English oak. Around 600 trees were cut down to build her, but didn’t save her from sinking unfortunately. Staying with royalty, King Charles II hid in an Oak at Boscobel while Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers looked for him below. May 29th was designated Royal Oak Day or Oak Apple Day to commemorate the restoration of Charles II to the throne in May 1660, although evidence suggests this already existed in pre-Christian times.

I am always amazed by tree saplings, especially Oak, as I realise that one day, when I’m long gone, it will be the giant of the woods, and hopefully future generations will also gaze in wonder at it.

Mizzly Dick

Feeling fully pumped up following last week’s statement of intent to keep my greying temples above the rising water level of middle age, I rocked up to my local Park Run on Saturday and ran an almost personal-best-equalling time, coming in one second slower. That personal best I should add was set three-and-a-half years ago. It was the sort of performance that would demand a urine test. For now middle age can do one.

Following this effort, came the satisfying glow of achievement. You know, the sort of one you get when you manage not to pee on the bathroom floor. No? Just me then. Usually on Saturday mornings after the Park Run, the time up until midday is spent loafing about the house, uploading results to Strava, making breakfast part two, having some inane crap on TV blaring away in the background. This does feel like wasted time but wasted well. By twelve though, it’s time to mobilise and do something with the afternoon, especially if it’s as mild and sunny as this Saturday just gone was.

The only thing that could be done to tick the must haves on my Saturday autumn afternoon list was to go for a country walk. Somewhere olde world, with a bit of charm and seasonally colourful to boot. As luck would have it, many of the villages surrounding the town where I live match this criteria.

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Ever since discovering books about countryside folklore a few years back, and taking an interest in the social aspect of days gone by, I have loved visiting picturesque villages, imagining the people that would have lived there, and the tales that could be told about the village characters. It’s easy to imagine that time to be easier, more carefree. I bet it wasn’t, it was just different. People had problems and worries just like us, they were just different ones. They probably had more at stake, but I guess they had more of a community around them to help out and make everything seem less of a burden whereas today, we are encouraged more to rely upon the state in tough times, being convinced we can go through life alone if we need to. What you think of this depends upon many factors, like upbringing, current situation and general demeanor. I can look at the life of a farm labourer and feel envious of his lifestyle back in 1870, but I wouldn’t have known his concerns. He would probably laugh at mine.

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Passing through villages, past old cottages, pubs, war memorials and farms, I get the sense of community and my mind starts to write stories and poems. One of my favourite pastimes.

The low autumnal sun allowed me to take some interesting pictures due to the abstract long shadows. I love the golden light bouncing off the fading summer colours in an almost sympathetic way, like it’s summer being given one last victory lap before winter takes over properly for a few months. In surreal moments I find myself imagining that it actually could be the last autumn ever and it’s time to be in the present and appreciate fully the colours, the light, the smells, the chill in the air, the ripening of the fruits. I do actually get like that in every season given enough time. In the distance, a flock of large-ish birds was spotted, most likely Fieldfares or Redwings. Maybe Mistle Thrushes. One of the nicknames for the Mistle Thrush is Mizzly Dick and its song is a sure sign that autumn is in full swing and colder weather is just around the corner. Folklore also says they speak seven languages and grow a new set of legs every ten years!

It was one of those gorgeously bright days that will live in the memory for a very long time.