Ancient tree buried in Norfolk field to be transformed into huge table
PUBLISHED: 10:15 05 August 2019 | UPDATED: 10:25 05 August 2019
A tree which fell before Stonehenge was built and lay buried beneath a Norfolk field for millennia is being transformed into a gift to the nation.
It's older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Egypt and towered over the Norfolk Fens almost 5,000 years ago.
Stone Age tribes would have been roaming the region when an enormous oak tree crashed to the ground and was swallowed by the flooded forest floor. It lay buried near present-day Downham Market, for millennia.
Then, seven years ago, a man planting potatoes at Wissington Fen hit something beneath the rich soil. It turned out to be the biggest and best example of ancient sub-fossilised black oak, or bog oak, ever found.
The tree had died standing in water. As sea levels rose and rivers backed up, flooding ancient forests, trees died and tumbled into the wet silt. For almost 5,000 years our tree lay in its airless grave, the lack of oxygen preserving the wood, the iron in the silt reacting with tannin in the wood to turn it black.
The farm manager, realising the importance of the find, and having come across much smaller pieces of black oak before, contacted the country's leading black oak specialist, Hamish Low.
As soon as black oaks are exposed they decay, so the tree was wrapped and reburied while Hamish began putting together a team of people to work out what to do next.
The Fenland Black Oak Project was established and project leader Hamish said: "Along with the fact it is impossible to know how long Fenland black oaks will continue to rise out of the soil, and their inherent fragility, this one is worthy of preserving for the interest of the nation. They are breathtakingly beautiful and without doubt a national treasure."
When experts could not work out which end of the trunk was the root end, and which the canopy, they realised this meant that, even the 13.2 metre length unearthed in 2012 was once less than a quarter of a truly enormous tree.
A few months after it had been discovered it was once more lifted from the soil, and the saturated wood was cut into planks to ensure it dried evenly - essential for its preservation. A specialist saw mill was flown in from Canada and reassembled in the field, literally, becoming the largest saw mill in the country.
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The planks were then moved to a custom-made drying kiln where 400 gallons of water were extracted.
Black oak, Britain's only black wood, has been highly prized for centuries and used in the construction of Venetian palaces, a bedroom suite for Louis XIV, and the throne of Peter the Great. It was also turned into jewellery, tobacco pipes and, due to its unique sound, string, woodwind and percussion musical instruments.
A huge table, a gift to the nation, will be made from this Norfolk black oak.
Fenland Black Oak Project chairman, Tim Edmunds said: "This is almost certainly the last of these gigantic, ancient trees that will be preserved."
After seven years of preparation, planks more than 13metres long, and dubbed the 10 most valuable planks of wood in the world, have just been taken to London where a team of craftsmen are transforming them into a huge table.
Experts from all over the world have helped by donating time, machinery and expertise. There is also a major fundraising campaign.
Next spring the table should begin a national tour with 18 months at Ely Cathedral, which is surrounded by fields where the last sub fossilised black oaks are believed to lie. It will be used, in the main body of the cathedral, as a sculptural centrepiece and for special-occasion meals and events. It is also hoped it will raise awareness of the urgent need to preserve as much black oak as possible before it is lost forever.
The table is being made by experts and students at the Building Crafts College in Stratford, London.
To find out more, or support the project, visit www.thefenlandblackoakproject.co.uk