In Search of the Cowthorpe Oak
Dr Hunter was talking about the Cowthorpe Oak, which used to grow in the small North Yorkshire village of Cowthorpe, three miles from Wetherby, and was once the greatest and most famous oak tree in Britain. By the time it died, in around 1950, it was estimated to be between 1200-1800 years old and it holds the record of being the largest girthed English Oak ever recorded in Britain: over 14.3 metres (46.9ft,) in 1804.
To give a living comparison, from an article in The Guardian dated 9th April 2011: “The mighty Bowthorpe Oak, near Bourne in Lincolnshire is Europe’s greatest girth English Oak at a massive 42 feet”
The Revd Thomas Jessop, visiting the mighty oak in 1829, observed:
“It is said by the inhabitants of the village, that seventy persons at one time got within the hollow of the trunk, but on enquiry, I found many of these were children; and, as the tree is hollow throughout to the top, I suppose they sat on each other’s shoulders; yet, without exaggeration, I believe the hollow capable of containing forty men.”
The picture at the top of the page is an engraving of the Cowthorpe Oak first published in 1872, (artist unknown,) and gives a very good impression of the tree’s popularity, and the vast crowds that it attracted.
Considered to be in full vigour around the 1700s, it was said to have occupied a site of nearly half an acre. No tour to the North of England was complete without a visit to this champion of oaks, and it was a favourite of writers and artists from the mid-eighteenth century onwards, although it had obviously been well known for many years before:
‘An oak whose boughs were mossed with age, and high top bald with dry antiquity’– William Shakespeare on the Cowthorpe Oak in ‘As you Like It,’ c.1600
It is believed that this venerable old tree succumbed at last in the 1950s. The photograph below, taken in about 1906 during a newspaper competition focused on the ‘Villages of Yorkshire,’ shows the tree still in good shape, with a lot of strong branches and folliage, although many of the branches are now propped up. The accompanying text claims the girth at this time is over fifty-four feet, and “was considerably more before earth was raised around it many years ago.” It also affirms that the tree is still very much alive at this point: “the oak still puts forth leaves and periodically sports a few acorns.”
It was only relatively recently that I even heard about this tree, and realised with amazement that, not only had this behemoth of trees lived In Yorkshire, but also very close to me. I had to go and see if any trace remained…..
Thus, on a bitterly cold January day, we set out for glorious Cowthorpe.
Our first indication that we were in the right place, was the Cowthorpe sign as we entered the village, which sported a small picture of an oak tree. Feeling vindicated, and excited, we looked for the church, as we knew the oak had been close to this, expecting to find some sort of sign, or memorial. Parking close to St Michael’s, which is now no longer used, we were pleased to find it was open. Inside was a laminated illustration of Cowthorpe’s claim to fame, and accompanying text taken from the Sylvia Brittannica 1830 edition. Nothing more.
We went back outside into the bitter wind, which was cold enough to freeze a mammoth, and started to wander, attempting to find some clue as to where the majestic oak had stood.
A footpath crossed the edge of the field behind the church and, from memory, this looked to be the field in which the oak had stood. We had fully expected some kind of signage or memorial, at the least, a rotting stump at most. Nothing….
To be honest, though, we didn’t linger to examine the ground microscopically, as frostbite was an issue. Taking one last look over the field that I believe hosted the giant, and the many many crowds who flocked to look on in awe, or to picnic beneath the mighty boughs, or to perch precariously on each others’ shoulders within the hollow, I was reminded of the lines from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that the sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains;round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Now I know that we didn’t find any remains of the Cowthorpe Oak, but the sentiment expressed in the words above did seem to resonate. Such an important and known place at one time, and now mostly forgotten. It is a feeling I often have when visiting ancient sites and looking out over an empty windswept place that I know once teemed with people in another time. It does most certainly give me a sense of mortality, a sense of perspective and a view of the ephemeral nature of both our individual lives, and the importance we place on our own time and preoccupations.
An acorn from the Cowthorpe Oak was reputedly taken by Captain James Runciman to New Zealand in 1870 and planted on his farm at Drury, South Auckland. Known as the Runciman Oak, it has grown remarkably quickly due to the climate.
I’m sure that there will be other survivors of the mighty Cowthorpe Oak, such as other offspring and items made from its wood, but I have not found any mention during my research.
Although we found nothing of note on our trip, the research itself has been really interesting and led to me finding other trees and places of interest to visit. I’m sure that the Cowthorpe Oak must have been a wonder to behold, and I would love to have been there when all the people squashed inside, and to experience such a giant.
Thanks for reading!
It is with many thanks that we where allowed to use this article from the Justbod team.
He made unique items ~ inspired by a love of the history & nature of these ancient lands