Our beloved knock-kneed ancient oaks

With fat, gnarled and crooked frames ancient oak trees are unexpected beauties. Their broad hollow trunks support more than branches, they are sanctuaries of biodiversity.

Our national history and folklore is entwined with the oak. It was an old oak which inspired John Smeaton’s design of a lighthouse, King Arthur’s round table was allegedly made from oak and it was in an oak tree that Robin Hood is said to have hidden from his enemies.

The Major oak

Robin Hood’s reputed hiding place is the Major oak in Sherwood Forest. It’s not the largest or oldest oak in the UK, but it may be the most famous. The trunk is enormous at over 10 and a half metres in girth and its huge limbs are supported by a system of wires and poles.

The Major is not its first name, it was first known as the Cockpen Tree. This was due to the cockfighting which took place beneath it and the chickens which were kept in it. It’s also been known as the Queen oak and Robin Hood’s oak. Its current name is taken from Major Hayman Rooke who drew the oak in 1790.

The trunk of the Major Oak is 10.66m in girth. (Photo: WTML / P. Lockwood)

How old is the Major?

It’s said that oak trees grow for 300 years, rest for 300 years and then spends 300 years gracefully declining. But things aren’t quite that straight forward.

Aging trees is a tricky task with counting rings out of the question. Experts have disagreed about the process for aging a tree. But it is agreed that the growing conditions and management of the tree can have a large effect on girth size.

It’s now believed that oaks rarely survive past 1,200 years. The Major oak is thought to be 500 to 700 years old; if correct it wouldn’t quite be old enough to have been around in the time of Robin Hood. However, with a life which began when King Henry VIII was on the throne, perhaps before, it’s still a fascinating history.

Royal Oak day

In 1664 a new public holiday on 29th May was created. Known as Royal Oak day or Oak Apple day it was a celebration of the restoration of the English monarchy and remembrance of the day when Charles II hid in an oak tree from Parliamentarian troops.

The holiday was ended in 1859, but some towns still celebrate it by wearing sprigs of oak with oak apple galls.

Where to see ancient oaks

England boasts the highest number of ancient oaks in Europe, here are some of the ancient oak highlights from around the UK.

  • Queen Elizabeth’s oak in West Sussex is said to have sheltered the queen from a storm in 1591.
  • Gog and Magog in Somerset are the last standing oaks of an avenue reputedly planted by Druids 2,000 years ago.
  • The Old Man of Calke, Derbyshire has a massive girth of over 10 metres.
  • The Belvoir oak in Belvoir Forest Park in Belfast is perhaps the oldest oak in Northern Ireland.
  • The Birnham oak, Perthshire is a survivor of Birnam Wood, of Macbeth fame.
  • Pontfadog oak in Denbigshire is the largest sessile oak in the UK at almost 13 metres in girth.
  • Neil Gow’s oak, Perthshire, provided shade for the famous fiddler as he composed beneath this tree.

Explore more ancient trees using the Ancient Tree Inventory, plus add your records to help us complete the map of special trees.