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Ancient Trees in Cornwall

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.

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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 this.

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 introduction.

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, Cornish climate.

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:

  1. Address and grid reference.
  2. Site description - hedge, wood, parish boundary.
  3. Species.
  4. Size - girth at breast-height and approximate height.
  5. Condition.
  6. 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 forestry@cornwall.gov.uk

For information on becoming a parish tree warden view the Cornwall parish tree warden scheme pages

Additionally records can be submitted on the Ancient Tree Forum website .

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