Britain’s oldest trees are in danger yet they have witnessed some of the most significant events in our history says PETER FROST.
THE TOLPUDDLE MARTYRS SYCAMORE
Thousands of Britain’s precious ancient trees could be at risk from pests and diseases such as ash dieback and acute oak decline. Yet Cameron and Clegg who promised to give us our greenest ever government are cutting Defra forestry budgets.
All over Britain ancient and historic trees are facing the threat of various diseases. These trees are as important and valuable as our historic buildings. They have stood for hundreds of years, some playing their part in monumental events.
One such tree is the famous Tolpuddle Martyrs Sycamore (above), which will be centre-stage in this week’s Tolpuddle Festival.
National Trust tree experts have aged the tree at over 320 years meaning it was quite a big tree when the first British Trades Unionists met under it nearly two centuries ago.
Dorset farm labourer George Loveless, his brother James, James Hammett, James Brine, Thomas Standfield and Thomas’s son John should be named among our countries greatest inventors. They gave us, and the world, Trades Unions.
Their invention cost them dear. They were charged with having taken an illegal oath. Found guilty they were imprisoned and then transported.
In the 1830s life in English villages like Tolpuddle was very hard and getting worse. Then as now austerity was the name of the game. Working people were seeing their standard of living fall.
In 1834, those brave farm workers in west Dorset formed a trade union.
For that heinous crime the six leaders of the union were arrested and
sentenced to seven years’ transportation. The charge was for taking an oath of secrecy.
The men’s real crime in the eyes of the establishment was to have formed a trade union. Their demand was about yet another pay cut the third in as many years.
News from across the Channel from the French Revolution had the ruling class trembling. Add to that the home grown rebellion of Captain Swing fresh in the minds of the British establishment.
Just as today the rich and powerful fought back viscously. Landowners were determined to stamp out any form of organised protests.
In Tolpuddle local squire and landowner, James Frampton, heard about the meetings under the sycamore on the village green. He tried to stamp them out.
From his prison cell, George Loveless scribbled some words: “We raise the watchword, liberty. We will, we will, we will be free!”
It is a message that still echoes around the world and still inspires generations of people to fight against injustice and oppression.
Transportation to Australia was a brutal punishment. Many didn’t even survive the harsh voyage. If they did the rigours of slavery often took their fatal toll.
The working classes took up the cause of the men of Tolpuddle. A massive demonstration marched through London and an 800,000-strong petition was delivered to Parliament protesting about their sentence.
Eventually after three years the hard battle was won. The Tolpuddle Martyrs returned home in triumph. Once again they were free to meet and talk beneath the shade of that sycamore tree in the quiet Dorset village.
THE WELLESBOURNE CHESTNUT
In the Warwickshire village of Wellesbourne it was a chestnut tree that played its part in the rich trade union history of our Nation.
The original chestnut tree has been replaced but every year workers, union activists gather under the chestnut to remember Joseph Arch and the founding of the Agricultural Workers Union here in 1872.
Joseph Arch was a well-respected and experienced agricultural worker, he was also a Primitive Methodist preacher and a firebrand when it came to defending the rights of his fellow agricultural workers.
A brave band of agricultural workers at Weston under Wetherley wrote to the local newspaper complaining about their miserly wages. They suggested that farm labourers should be paid pay at least two shillings and sixpence a day.
To further their demand they proposed a meeting to form a union and asked Joseph Arch to be the speaker.
An initial meeting was held and they planned a further meeting for the following week on 14 February 1872.
They hoped for about thirty people to attend and booked a suitable room in the Stag’s Head public house in Wellesbourne.
Despite the dark, wet, winter night when Joseph arrived he found over two thousand agricultural labourers had arrived to hear him speak.
They moved the meeting to under a nearby chestnut tree with the farm workers holding flickering lanterns on poles to see what was happening.
On Good Friday, 29 March 1872, farm workers from all parts of South Warwickshire met in Leamington to form the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers Union.
By 29 May 1872 in Leamington the National Agricultural Labourers Union was established. Joseph Arch became its president.
Members of the new union would meet under the chestnut tree at Wellesbourne and sing in praise of the union leader and founder Joseph Arch.
Joe Arch he raised his voice
’twas for the working men
Then let us all rejoice and say
We’ll all be union men.
They still meet and sing the praises of Joseph Arch today.
THE CROWHURST YEW
At Crowhurst there is a yew tree reckoned to be as much as 4,000 years.
The tree is as famous for its age as it is for the wooden door that has been cut into its trunk.
Inside the tree was discovered a cannonball fired during the English Civil War – The English Revolution.
The farm opposite the church was a Royalist position. Cromwell’s New Model Army fired on the farmhouse, missed, and the iron ball was embedded in the already ancient yew.
THE ANKERWYCKE YEW
Across the River Thames from Runnymede grows another ancient yew with a place in history. This is the Ankerwycke Yew. The huge and ancient tree has a girth of 26ft. (8 metres).
Best estimates put its age at between 2,000 and 2,500 years. The yew is close to the ruins of St Mary’s Priory, the site of a Benedictine nunnery built in the 12th century.
On the opposite bank of the River Thames are the meadows of Runnymede and this tree is said to have been witness to the signing of Magna Carta.
Some experts even believe that the famous charter was actually signed on this bank of the Thames beneath the shade of what, even then, was an ancient tree.
NEWTON’S APPLE TREE
In the age of enlightenment few names burn as brightly as that of Isaac Newton.
Visitors to the 17th century Woolsthorpe Manor, near Grantham, Lincolnshire can sit under or near the apple tree which is said to have given him the inspiration for one of his greatest revelations, the force of gravity.
Newton was said to have been under the tree in 1665 when a falling apple bought the notion of gravitation to mind.
The four hundred year old apple tree re-rooted itself in 1820 after being blown down in a storm and grew back in an inverted S-shape
The tree is of the rare Flower of Kent variety, a green cooking apple. It stands in the front garden under the window of what was Newton’s bedroom.
Newton, in fact, never said he had been inspired by a falling apple. The story first appeared in a book by Voltaire in 1727, the year Newton died at the age of 84.
THE WYNDHAM OAK
The Wyndham Oak, in the village of Silton, just North of Gillingham, Dorset, is named after Sir Hugh Wyndham, who bought the Manor in 1641.
In 1654 Sir Hugh became a judge of the Court of Common Pleas having been appointed by the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell.
Old stories tell that the tree was used for hangings after the Monmouth rebellion in 1685. The nearby village of Trister was a hotbed of opposition to James II.
THE MAJOR OAK
Was Robin Hood real? I hope so, we need inspiration to rob from the rich and give to the poor more than ever today.
Certainly Robin’s favourite tree The Major Oak is real and still attracting visitors to the village of Edwinstowe deep in the heart of Sherwood Forest.
The Major Oak is a Quercus Robur, the English or pendunculate oak.
This forest veteran is thought to be around 800 years old.
In a 2002 survey, it was voted “Britain’s favourite tree”.
The earliest recorded name for this remarkable oak, dating back to the mid 18th century, was the Cockpen Tree.
The huge hollow interior is said to have been used to pen cockerels ready to be used in the now illegal sport of cock fighting.
Even if they have no recorded connection with historic events all ancient trees provide an important habitat for a host of different species, bats, birds, animals, insects and fungi.
Trees die naturally, that is part of nature’s natural cycle but to lose so many of our precious ancient trees would be a terrible disaster for the countryside.
These huge natural monuments have taken centuries to grow and their loss would be devastating, not only for the landscape, but for the environment.
Thousands of ancient trees are at risk, including thousands of ash trees (below) threatened by Chalara ash die-back, a fungus which kills ash trees and has arrived in the UK from the continent, where it has caused immense damage in some areas.
Ash dieback arrived in Britain because of short sighted penny pinching policies by Defra and the profit hungry forestry industry buying cheap imports rather that healthy home grown ash trees.
But it is not just ash trees which are under threat from disease, with ancient oaks at risk of acute oak decline and oak processionary moths, and Scots pine threatened by needle blight
Juniper, oak, beech and sweet chestnut are all affected by Phytopthora fungi while invasive non-native pests are also a threat, including the Asian longhorn beetle, which attacks most broad-leaved tree species.
Grey squirrels and increasing wild deer populations also wreck havoc on ancient forests and woodland.
The Government need to act and ban imported sweet chestnut trees to stop the spread of sweet chestnut blight, which wiped out trees throughout the eastern USA and is now infecting trees in France.
Sweet chestnuts at Croft Castle, Herefordshire for instance are believed to have grown from nuts rescued from the wrecked ships from the Spanish Armada.
Some other ancient trees that may be facing the threat of disease include the Bowthorpe oak, Lincolnshire, whose hollow trunk has been used for parties and celebrations.
Other trees with good stories and legends which could be at risk include the hurricane ash, Northumberland, which was hit by a Hurricane fighter plane in the Second World War. The tree is now a memorial to the pilot who died in the crash.
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said tree and plant health were a priority.
A spokeswoman said: “Plant health experts are currently reviewing how best to act on the recommendations of the independent tree and plant health taskforce.
“We are determined to do everything we can to tackle the threats facing our trees.”
Meanwhile Osborne, Cameron and Clegg have just slashed the Defra budget by another ten per cent. Defra now has exactly half the money it had when the coalition came to power.
Come back you Tolpuddle Martyrs. We, and Britain’s trees, need you more than ever today.
This article appeared in the Morning Star’s Tolpuddle Festival in 2013