Monarch of the Woods

Oct 19, 2023

The charming church of St Andrew at Greensted near Ongar in Essex lies in a quiet clearing surrounded by woodland. How appropriate for a building with the oldest wooden walls in England – dating from before the Conquest, as its nave was constructed around 1013 from a set of vertical Saxon oak timbers . From oak trees growing when the Romans came, each trunk was split in three – using the central planks for the roof and sills with the outer beams forming a palisade.

So a log church can survive for over a thousand years! Should we be surprised?  Oak trees may lack the enormous longevity of the ancient yews that still darken the corners of many a churchyard, but they can still rack up the centuries.

Among all our native trees, the oak seems to evoke the greatest admiration – as a strong, slow -growing and fundamental component of our woodland landscape.  Other trees may be more beautiful, yet for that solid, reassuring masculine presence, the oak has no rivals.

We have two native deciduous oaks distinguished by the attachment of their acorns: those of sessile oaks lie directly on their shoots, while the pedunculate oak allows its acorns to hang from stalks or peduncles. The biggest sessile oak is in the park of Croft Castle, Shropshire – 35 meters tall and a volume of 108 square meters. (Though one may ask how the size of such a monstrous tree can be reasonably  estimated…)

Of those British trees that enjoy an identity as individuals, the vast majority are oaks. Consider the propped up boughs of the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest; King Offa’s Oak in Windsor Great Park dating from 1300; and of course the original Royal Oak, where Prince – later King – Charles hid after the Battle of Worcester is celebrated on many a pub sign throughout the land.

The thickest trunk belongs to the Majesty Oak in Fredville Park, Kent, approaching ten feet. While the tree with the largest unsupported crown is at Shute House in Devon: at 54 meters across it is 70% wider than the dome of St Paul’s.

It is little wonder that the mighty oak can produce timber of such durability and popularity – ideal for the timber-frames of medieval buildings. Today’s fortunate owners of oak wooden floors appreciate their hard wear, the beauty of their natural grain – and the feeling that they represent a direct link to a great tradition of English building.

And unlike softer or engineered timbers, they can take a lot of restoration. If your oak floorboards are showing their age, they’ve probably still got sufficient mileage to undergo another transformation.

You know who to call in for an expert, no-obligation assessment – and a job worthy of those magnificent trees that (possibly centuries ago) provided the timber.