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Page last updated at 15:21 GMT, Friday, 7 May 2010 16:21 UK

The tree that shaped Britain

Oak tree


As the House of Commons prepares to welcome hundreds of new MPs, its oak-panelled surfaces are a reminder of the significance of one threatened tree to our national identity, says Simon Schama.

You're a new MP. At some point after the polls closed between midnight and breakfast, your life changed and so did the country's. You couldn't be happier.

All those scandals; all those bad news stories are just so much grimy water under the bridge. From now on, a it's new day for the people's House. Time for politicians - and the voters - to hold their heads high.

Not a moment too soon you think, given the state the country's in. So when you travel up to Westminster for the new Parliament you feel the heavy weight of responsibility. Before it's in session you manage to sneak a look at the Commons.

The tree is Britain, after all. The song Nelson's sailors are said to have sung at Trafalgar? 'Hearts of oak are our ships, jolly tars are our men'

You walk into the empty chamber and nothing has quite prepared you for the shiver up and down the spine, the whispers of ghosts: Cromwell, Pitt, Gladstone, Churchill.

There are the rows of green benches on one of which, in a week or so, you will excitedly plant yourself. And then while you're standing there you feel enfolded by the warmth of something else in the chamber you can't quite put your finger on. Until you do. Literally.

Standing at the back, close to where you'll end up sitting, your palms rest on the oak panelling that covers the chamber: hard, plain, solid, austere, a bit like the British democracy you're now serving.

You're a bit of a history buff so you know they're not the original panels. They went up in smoke, more than once. The walls of the old Palace of St Stephen's were first consumed in the great fire of October 1834, that burned all night. Then the bombs of May 1941: another inferno.

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You remember the Solomonic choice that had to be made by the firemen: save the Commons or save medieval Westminster Hall next door? No-one could bear to see the destruction of the great Gothic chamber with Richard II's hammerbeam vaulting, the most beautiful in Europe, the place where Charles I was tried.

The oak was said to have come from Thundersley woods in Essex until they found out it was really from County Galway. So there was no choice really. The Commons was allowed to expire in fiery ruin.

But the imperishable oak of Westminster Hall, that endured. After the war, the Commons panelling was restored and no-one could think of any wood of course except Quercus robur, good native oak.

The tree is Britain, after all.

Boscobel oak, where Charles II hid from Cromwell's army after the battle of Worcester.

And the song Nelson's sailors are said to have sung at Trafalgar? "Hearts of oak are our ships, jolly tars are our men."

The wooden walls of the island realm. Still, you remember a bit of a row when they lined the walls of MPs' rooms in the office block over the road, Portcullis House, with the wood that one builder had said out loud would cost "an arm and a leg"; a hundred thousand quids worth of arm and leg as it turned out.

Oak tree
The tree upon which wars were won

That wouldn't happen these days, you think. But then, with a sudden chill, you remember something else. A story that seemed to come and go from the papers, but terrible in what it reported: that a mysterious blight is attacking Quercus robur, up and down the length of Britain.

No-one seems to know why it is happening or how to stop it, how to save infected trees. Apparently the "die-back" period (a horrible term) from the first tell-tale signs of shrivelled foliage to complete tree death is about five years: the life of a Parliament.

It couldn't be that while a new parliament is born, Britain's tree is dying, could it? And then you think of what happened, not so long ago, to the elms, victims of a blight we naturally blamed on foreigners, the Dutch and you realise it could indeed come to pass: an oakless Britain.

And that would be even worse than the disappearance of the elms. Not just the vanishing of standing timber, but the end of an ancient landscape. In your sylvan nightmare you imagine whole forests falling to pre-emptive eradication. Another terrible word. From radex, the root of things. The British woodland world uprooted from ancient soil and the national psyche.

Blown to bits

Let's hope it won't come to that. British oaks have survived disaster before. In the early winter of 1703, the country was hit by a hurricane force storm, winds of more than 120 miles an hour, that took a week to blow itself out at the end of November.

When it was gone; the oak forests of England were on the floor. Four thousand had fallen in the New Forest alone; another 3,000 in the Forest of Dean. And John Evelyn, the Fellow of the Royal Society, whose great book Silva or a Discourse on Forest-Trees, first published in 1664, had done the most to make the connection between the oak woods and England's fortunes, stared in heartsick disbelief at the devastation.

He had spent so much of his life and effort persuading the government and great landowners not to destroy woodlands for farmland; to create protective nurseries fenced against the grazing of deer until the trees were mature enough to thrive unguarded. Not to wreck the plantation of the nation's future for quick profits in the iron forges.

Slowly Evelyn had made his case. And now he stared at the wreckage, the disheartening spectacle. It had happened at the worst time. The country was at war, fending off, as Evelyn saw it, the Catholic absolutism of Louis XIV.

The very idea of Britain - a new idea - was planted with the acorns

Without oak for the hulls of the Navy's ships of the line, what would become of fortress England? "Sure I am," Evelyn wrote a little later, with only a year of his life remaining "that I still feel the dismal groans of our forests, that late hurricane having subverted so many thousands of goodly oaks, prostrating the trees, laying them in ghastly postures like whole regiments fallen in battle by the sword of the Conqueror.."

But if John Evelyn died thinking he had lost a battle against ferocious weather, his campaign for the oak would win a longer war. During the 18th Century, driven by the hunger for naval timber, planting began in earnest. Book after book urged landowners to do the patriotic - and profitable thing.

The very idea of Britain - a new idea - was planted with the acorns. In 1763 a disciple of Evelyn's, Roger Fisher, published Heart of Oak, The British Bulwark, in which he argued empires rose or fell depending on their abundance or dearth of the sovereign hardwood.

Even now, Fisher warned, with missionary passion, the gentry were squandering the future by leaving woodlands to be destroyed by animals protected for the hunt, frittering away the birthright of future Britons so they might fund their passions for "horses and dogs, wine and women, cards and folly".

"We are preying on our vitals," Fisher warned, "yet the bulk of the nation is insensible to it." It was left to the newly formed Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts to show the way, by offering prizes to those who planted most trees - supremely the oak - but also the softwood conifers used for masts.

Oak mania

Acorn fever took hold. The great Dukes - Bedford above all - vied for planting out acre after acre with oak. Naval officers on leave, like Collingwood, went around surreptitiously scattering acorns from holes in his breeches in the parks of his unsuspecting hosts. And the all-time champion was the lord-lieutenant of Cardiganshire, Colonel Thomas Johnes, who between 1795 and 1801 planted some 922,000 sturdy oaks.

At the height of the oak mania, the tree came to stand for the survival of liberty. They were what, in Nelson's navy, stood between Britain and Bonaparte who no-one but the most slavish admirers thought was a friend of freedom. Romantic histories told their readers that liberty had been born, not with the Magna Carta, but in the ancient oak woods where the Druids had convened their sacred rites.

Certain very old trees whose huge but blasted trunks still sprouted a bit of greenery, like the Greendale Oak and the Cowthorpe Oak, were adopted as vegetable patriarchs of the British tradition and became popular sights for patriotic tourists.

The age of steam-driven ironclads ended the romance of the oak, or at least made it less a matter of indispensable national security. What was left were greenwood memories: a sense that in the endurance of a great oak was still embedded the longevity of our British culture.

Tell me you can run your hands over the rough bark and deep furrows of an oak trunk, or set the tongue-like leaves in your hand and not feel something of our history and I won't believe you.

So let's send a post-election message to our new government, shall we? Whatever else you have to cut, don't stint funds for research that will stop oak death in its tracks. To cut that would be to cut the timber of our patrimony. And you wouldn't want to do that now, would you?

Below is a selection of your comments.

When I reflect on England I remember the great Oak trees that lined the lane when I walked to school. English Oak trees have been in England for centuries, please don't stint on funds for research that will stop oak death before it's too late.
Christine Knaggs, Cleveland, Queensland, Australia

Please don't forget that each oak is also an ecosystem in itself, supporting over 350 other forms of life. If our oaks were lost it would have a devastating effect on many other native species and our biodiversity in general.
Jamie, Llanymynech, Wales

Very interesting. The Oak tree is totally synonymous with England. Love live the OAK !
Pat Spinks, Qualicum Beach, British Columbia, Canada

Too much of our native woodland, and our ancient forest has gone, or is under threat. We must move to protect it now, and even better initiate a new broadleaf planting programme across the country.
Doug Courtney, Maidenhead, England

As an expat on an extended posting in the east, nothing I have read of news from home has made me yearn for mother England more. There was, and still is, a great oak at the foot of the garden of the house I grew up in, watching over the neighbourhood.
Leonard Harris, Singapore

We in the US have suffered at least losses of two major tree species-the great american chestnut (under whose spreading limbs the village smithy stands) and more recently the american elm that lined the streets of so many mid-west towns with their vase like shapes. Both are now on the way back thanks to breeding of resistent varieties by arboreta. Such research takes decades to come to fruition so the lesson is clear-start now to perfect a new variety of Quercus Robur.
malcolm derrick, lemont Illinois USA

Well said and well written, i'm a joiner by trade and to think of our mighty oaks falling by the way whilst no-ones watching is almost painfull, these magnificent tree's ARE a huge part of not just our heritage but our national identity, lets hope it isnt allowed to pass un-noticed. Are there any action groups one can subscribe to?
Andy Dent, St Mathieu-France

Who can say that they are not uplifted by the sight of an Oak's strength? Who among us is not heartened by it's broad and open character? It is truly the King of Trees. I personally, cannot bear a landscape without trees and we cannot breathe, escape droughts, or bear the heat of the sun without them; the Oak forests are best at doing all of these things. Whoever can say that these beings do not help them to relax, touch their hearts, or affect them in any way needs to be far away from anything to do with their preservation, as such people are wholly divorced from their own nature's.
Linn of Ada, Ada, MI US

I live in the US and the majority of our land has been stripped of all species of trees. Because of this, where I live looks barren of all things naturally beautiful. I commend you for having such a deep and meaningful national identity. Do all you can to protect it, such wonder is hard to come by in this day and age.
Destiny Kruse, Hurst, USA

Wow. How's that for a passionate plea. I don't have anything further to add,(not any where so eloquent) the National Trust already have it covered according to the current Magazine. Has anyone told Kew? What can the rest of us do?
Chris Poulten, Billericay Essex

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