11 of Britain’s Most Historic Trees | History Hit

11 of Britain’s Most Historic Trees

Dan Snow

04 Nov 2021
The famed Sycamore Gap, Hadrian's Wall, Northumberland.

I’m a big tree fan. I love to indulge in a weekly dose of ‘forest bathing’ and with good reason. Spending time around trees is incredibly healthy for humans: study after study shows that they boost our mental and physical well-being. They are essential habitats for a galaxy of flora and fauna. They suck carbon out of the atmosphere. They are a renewable building material and heat source. Alongside all this, their long life spans mean that they are an essential part of our historic environment.

I have a geeky historical hobby and that is visiting some of Britain’s most historic trees. Some are historic because we know that Newton or Elizabeth I enjoyed their shade, others are historic because they are just so beautiful that they have always drawn visitors. Here are a few of my favourites.

1. The Windsor Oak

The Windsor Great Park oak tree.

Image Credit: Dan Snow

This breathtaking oak in Windsor Great Park is around 1,100 years old. It could well have been a sapling when Alfred the Great pushed into southeast England to drive out the Vikings. Its parent tree could have seen Roman troops march by.

Nearly every monarch since Alfred, Edward or Athelstan would have glanced at this tree as they rode past on a hunt or royal progress. It is older than the UK, older than Great Britain and probably older than England. A national treasure.

2. The Vyne Oak

The garden at the Vyne, with the great oak on the left and summerhouse on the right.

Image Credit: The National Trust Photolibrary / Alamy Stock Photo

This prominent beauty stood next to the Vyne, a stately home outside Basingstoke built by Lord Sandys, Henry VIII’s Lord Chamberlain. It would have been unmissable when Henry came to stay.

Henry visited the Vyne just after he executed Sir Thomas More for his failure to accept that Henry was head of the church. He brought his wife, Anne Boleyn with him. She had failed to produce a male heir and within a year she would be dead, executed by her husband.

3. Half Moon Copse Beech

A close up of the carved beech tree on Salisbury Plain.

Image Credit: Dan Snow

In the heart of Salisbury Plain, there is a copse of trees in which soldiers of the Australian 3rd Division relaxed between intensive training before their deployment to the Western Front. In the winter of 1916, they were preparing for the stunning attack at Messines, rehearsing on a landscape on which German positions had been marked out.

Among the trees is one on which an Australian soldier carved his name for posterity. The ‘AIF’ stands for the Australian Imperial Forces, the ‘10’ is the brigade number, ‘Orbost’ is a place in Victoria, and historians have worked out therefore that the ‘AT’ are the initials of Alexander Todd.

He survived the attack at Messines, won the Military Medal in Sept 1918, but he was killed one month before the end of the war and he has a gravestone in France, but this is his personal memorial.

Dan Snow is shown around Salisbury Plain by MOD archaeologist Richard Osgood, to explore how British, Commonwealth and Allied troops prepared for the two great wars.
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4. The Exbury Cedar

The great cedar tree in Exbury Gardens.

Image Credit: Dan Snow

This giant Lebanese cedar tree is close to my heart. I take my kids to Exbury Gardens most weekends in the spring to look at the stunning flowering rhododendrons and azaleas planted by the socialite and banker Lionel de Rothschild a century ago. He invited a who’s who of the early-20th Century to enjoy the house and gardens and they would have seen this cedar: it was planted in 1729 and was fully mature a century ago.

This tree has lived under every Prime Minister from the first, Sir Robert Walpole, to the present, and several of them would have walked under its massive canopy.

5. Sycamore Gap

The site known as the Sycamore Gap, Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

It might not be the most historically important tree in Britain but it is probably the most photogenic and there is plenty of history in the neighbourhood. This sycamore stands in a gully which is dissected by Hadrian’s Wall.

The tree is only a few hundred years old so nothing to do with the Roman wall which it now nestles behind. Many visitors to the wall go to see it, though, particularly since Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood strolled past it on his way from Dover to Nottingham.

6. Kingley Vale Yews

An ancient yew tree in Kingley Vale, Sussex, England.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

A whole forest full of yew trees, some of which are 2,000 years old. As old as the entire recorded history of this island. They are among the oldest living things in the country. It’s amazing they survived the craze for cutting down yew forests in the medieval period when yew wood was the essential commodity in making longbows.

During World War Two, Spitfire pilots fired their machine guns on strafing runs above the copse and some trees have wartime bullets still in them.

7. Allerton Oak

The Allerton oak in Calderstones Park, England.

Image Credit: Mike Pennington / CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s the oldest oak in northwest England. Over 1,000 years old, it pre-dates the Norman invasion. It is in fine fettle, over 5 metres in girth and it still produces tens of thousands of acorns a year. It has many offspring apparently.

Troops from the Merseyside area would visit during the World Wars and gather acorns which they then carried with them overseas. Many of them would have ended up in the ground on distant battlefields.

8. Ankerwycke Yew

The ancient Ankerwycke yew tree near Wraysbury in Berkshire UK.

Image Credit: Steve Taylor ARPS / Alamy Stock Photo

An ancient yew tree close to the ruins of St Mary’s Priory, the site of a 12th-century nunnery, just across the Thames from Runnymede. A massive 8 metres in girth, it is at least 1,400 years old and could be as ancient as 2,500 years.

It may have witnessed the most famous thing to happen in Runnymede for the last 800 years: King John affixing his seal to Magna Carta. There would have been fewer trees back then, it would have been a marshier, more open landscape. The yew on its bit of raised ground would have been prominent and visible from the spot where we think the king reluctantly agreed to his barons’ demands.

9. Robin Hood’s Oak

The ‘Robbin Hood oak’ tree in Sherwood Forest, UK.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

A vast oak in the heart of Sherwood Forest. According to local myth – and with absolutely no evidence – it is said that this is where Robin Hood and his merry men slept at night and hid during the day. Robin Hood probably didn’t even exist but it is simply cruel to point that out.

It is a wonderful oak, 10 metres in girth with a canopy stretching 30 metres. It’s a relative baby, possibly as young as 800 years old.

10. Llangernyw Yew

The Llangernyw yew tree in Conwy, Wales.

Image Credit: Emgaol / CC BY-SA 3.0

I used to go and visit this one on visits with my great nain (grandma) in Snowdonia as a kid. The yew is so ancient that it is impossible to fathom.

It may be one of the oldest trees in Europe at 3,000 years old. But, hard to believe, it is impossible to be sure of the tree’s age: for some bizarre reason, someone put the adjacent church’s oil tank right in the middle of the vast tree and when the tank was removed it ripped out lots of the oldest wood.

The core has been lost so you can stand in the middle of this 10 metres wide tree and be surrounded by it.

11. Queen Mary’s Hawthorn

Queen Mary’s Hawthorn at St Andrews University, Scotland, UK.

Image Credit: Kay Roxby / Alamy Stock Photo

The ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots, seems to have planted this hawthorn in the quad of St Andrew’s University in the 1560s. It must have been before the summer of 1568 because that’s when she fled across the Solway Firth into England and threw herself at the mercy of her cousin, Elizabeth I.

After years in prison, Mary was executed on Elizabeth’s orders in 1587. She was unlucky in life, but her tree has miraculously survived and still bears fruit every year.

Dan Snow