Monday, 11 November 2013

Species of the month: Norfolk’s remarkable trees

Ed Parnell, Norfolk Wildlife Trust

November is a great time to get out into the Norfolk countryside and witness spectacular displays of changing autumn leaf colours. It’s also a good time to catch up with some of the veteran trees dotted around the county, many of which have interesting associations with local legends and folklore.

NWT Hethel Old Thorn, photo by Richard Osbourne
Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s smallest nature reserve happens to consist of just one, very old ‘tree’, though perhaps bush would a better description! Hethel Old Thorn is located beside the picturesque Hethel Church, near Wymondham. The tiny reserve measures only 0.025 hectares in size, making it one of the smallest reserves in the UK.

The eponymous thorn itself is thought to be one of the most ancient in England, possibly dating from the thirteenth century. In 1755 its girth was recorded as 9 feet 1 inch, but it has now decayed to a remnant of its former self. Even so, there is still something very appealing about this venerable shrub, which continues to grow each year and remains healthy. Superstition has it that the hawthorn grew from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea – a folk tale associated with other thorns around the country including at Glastonbury – as well as being a place where rebel peasants allegedly gathered in the time of King John.

Nearby, between Wymondham and Hethersett stands another historic tree: Kett’s Oak. Propped up by sturdy wooden beams, and perched precariously on the side of the busy road, this twisted oak is the supposed spot where, in 1549, the rebel Robert Kett and his army of revolting peasants stopped on their march to Norwich against aristocratic injustice. However, there are some suggestions that the tree may have not been the stopping-off point but actually the site where a number of the rebels were hanged. Confusingly, another Kett's Oak stands near Ryston Hall, not far from Downham Market, apparently marking another meeting point of that rebellion.
Oak at NWT Thursford Wood, photo by David North
For a creepily atmospheric woodland location, visit NWT Wayland Wood near Watton, alleged site of the Babes in the Wood legend with its villainous, murdering uncle. Walking around the densely packed trees on a winter’s afternoon it’s easy to believe there’s some truth in the dark tale, though the reality is that the wood’s thickness is down to the traditional coppicing woodland management techniques used to benefit wildlife.
Less shrouded in myth and fable, but even more impressive are the numerous other veteran trees found around the county. Norfolk Wildlife Trust conducted a survey of these leviathans in 2007, asking people to submit local records. Over 200 notable trees were recorded, with the largest example being an oak found at East Wretham with a massive nine-metre circumference; other large trees included sweet chestnuts and limes. An excellent site to see many such gnarled, ancient oaks together in one location is NWT Thursford Wood, just outside Fakenham.

For information about Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s woodland nature reserves, as well as events being run throughout the winter see

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