Ancient trees in Cornwall

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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 cultural and religious activities.

Even today, people still touch wood to ward off misfortune. This is a relic of the days when 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" (meaning grove), is still to 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 or Pencoose can be useful indicators.

Sacred trees often grew over sacred springs. Remnants of this belief are apparent at a number of wells such as St Keyne's. Here four different trees (oak, willow, ash and elder) grew magically out of the same root. The trees were often decorated with offerings, and this can still be seen at some of Cornwall's healing wells. 

Few large and ancient trees still exist today. The Trebursey Oak is 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 (thought to be over 1000 years old) still flourishes, however it loses a branch from time to time and the tea-house inside is no more. However it is still revered by its owners and passers-by alike. Encouragingly this tree has now achieved acknowledgement and is now 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.  Oliver 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.

However it is important to locate and report trees that are known to be older than these. In particular natives such as oak or elm, or the old introductions, such as sweet chestnut.

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.

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

If you wish to learn more about the Cornwall Ancient Tree Forum please contact forestry@cornwall.gov.uk

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

This content is based on a chapter written by Sue Pring in "Glorious Gardens of Cornwall" published by the Cornwall Gardens Trust.

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