Ancient Trees in Cornwall
Last updated: 06/05/2011
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Trees have always had a special place in the hearts of the
Celtic people, particularly oaks and oak groves, which formed part
of their religious activities and philosophy. Even today,
throughout Britain, people still touch wood to ward off misfortune;
a relic of the days where guardian spirits were supposed to live in
trees. Touching the tree was both a mark of respect and plea
for good fortune. The Cornish place name "Kelli" or grove, is
still be found throughout the country, even though most of the
tree-cover has now disappeared. Other place-names, such as
"Coos" (wood) as in Coosebean, Pencoose and other tree names "elaw"
(elm) as in Treloan can be useful indicators.
Sacred trees often grew over sacred springs, water being equally
important, and remnants of this belief are apparent at a number of
wells such as St Keyne's, where four different trees (oak, willow,
ash and elder) grew magically out of the same root; and others
where gnarled and ancient thorns grow about the well. The
trees were often decorated with offerings, still to be seen in some
countries where Christian saints have taken over the guardianship
of healing wells.
Few large and ancient trees still exist today, the Trebursey Oak
being a shadow of its former self and the Great Elm of Rosuic
(originally with a girth of 26 feet) having succumbed to Elm
Disease (although the latter is, encouragingly, putting forth new
shoots). The Darley Oak at Linkinhorne still flourishes,
however, thought to be over 1,000 years old, it loses a branch from
time to time and the tea-house inside is no more, but is still
revered by its owners and passers-by alike. Encouragingly, this
tree has now achieved modern acknowledgement, having been included
in the Tree Council's book 'Great British Trees'.
An extremely large fig tree can be found growing out of the
church wall at Manaccan and is considered to be over 200 years
old. Another site of interest, also on the Lizard, is the
"Dry Tree" on Goonhilly Downs. It is not known what sort of
tree this was, or even the reason for its fame. It may,
however, have been important due to its location at the
meeting-point of five parishes, or because of the prehistoric
menhir (standing stone) nearby. (Interestingly, the Lizard was
once referred to as "terra arida" or "dry land", referring to its
treeless nature. Perhaps Dry Tree is a derivative of
The treeless Lizard formally contained another tree of
note. The Cury Great Tree, a large ash - which was on the
site of a factional fight between the men of neighbouring parishes,
quarrelling over the share of booty from smuggling. Other
trees of legend are The Hunt Trees at North Petherwin which were
used to hang meat for the hounds to feed from. Further
references to old trees can be found in Thurston; ancient woodlands
are identified in the Nature Conservancy Council's Report (1986)
and place-names referring to trees can be found in O.J. Padel -
Cornish Place-Name Elements. O. Rackham's books on woodlands
and the English countryside are also a good general
Most large trees of note today, however, date from the 18th and
19th centuries, having been planted as a result of the intense
interest generated by land-owners keen to "landscape" their gardens
and surrounding park-lands. Many of these are, of course,
"exotic" species which have reached exceptional size in the mild,
As you may have guessed, it is not these more recent trees we
are particularly interested in - it is those older trees: natives
such as oak or elm, or the old introductions, such as sweet
chestnut, that think it is important to locate and record before it
is too late.
To make a record of an ancient tree, you will require
information such as:
- Address and grid reference.
- Site description - hedge, wood, parish boundary.
- Size - girth at breast-height and approximate height.
- Historical references - folklore etc.
(Based on a chapter written by Sue Pring in "Glorious Gardens of
Cornwall" published by the Cornwall Gardens Trust).
If you wish to become involved in the Great Trees of Cornwall
Project please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
For information on becoming a parish tree warden view the
Cornwall parish tree warden
Additionally records can be submitted on the Ancient Tree Forum website