13 (plus) of the most intriguing trees in Norfolk
- Credit: Rowan Mantell
Some of the most remarkable trees in Norfolk range from a prehistoric fenland bog oak to the first cricket bat willow, and are linked with people from Pocahontas to Hitler
Hethel Old Thorn is said to the be smallest nature reserve in the UK. The hawthorn bush, aka Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Hethel Old Thorn reserve, can be reached by a public footpath beside ancient Hethel church.
A sweet chestnut tree in Holt Hall woods is believed to have begun growing before the Norman Conquest, making it more than 1,000 years old. In Hockering Wood some of the lime trees of the third largest lime wood in Britain might be even older.
The holm oak trees at Holkham were grown from acorns which had been used as packaging around marble shipped from Italy to decorate the great hall between 1734 and 1764.
Round and round the mulberry bush
Pocahontas, the native north American princess who came to Norfolk in 1616 with her husband Jon Rolfe of Heacham Hall, is said to have planted the mulberry tree in the grounds of nearby Heacham Manor (now a hotel with a restaurant and spa named for the tree.) On a visit to England Pocahontas was presented to the royal family, but died as she was about to return to America. The red mulberry was an important part of Native American culture with its fruit used for food, medicine and to dye cloth. The gardens of Buckingham Palace and Narford Hall are also said to have mulberry trees from Pocahontas’ seeds.
Mulberry trees were also planted in Norfolk in the 19th century in efforts to establish a home-grown silk industry. Norwich had several silk mills using raw silk from China but attempts to introduce silkworms, which eat only the leaves of the white mulberry tree, to make the silk in Norfolk, were unsuccessful. However, a mulberry tree in St Augustine’s churchyard, Norwich, was planted as a memorial to silk weaver Thomas Clabburn.
Remembering a rebel and hero
Kett’s Oak in Hethersett is honoured as a symbol of Kett’s Rebellion of 1549 when Robert Kett from nearby Wymondham led many thousands to Norwich in protest against common land being fenced off by landowners. Another oak, named the Oak of Reformation, became the centre of the rebel camp on Mousehold Heath. The Hethersett tree has previously been shortlisted for the national Tree of the Year award and although it is not certain it dates back to 1549 it is much loved and has been supported by concrete, metal, cables and struts over the decades to help preserve it.
Ashes to ashes
The ashes of woodland around Ashwellthorpe have a sad claim to fame. They were the first place in the UK that the devastating tree disease ash dieback was confirmed in wild trees. The discovery triggered a search for disease-resistant trees led by the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Ashes are particularly prevalent in Norfolk because the springy timber was ideal for everything from cart wheels and boat oars to barrels for the herring industry and broom handles for the brush factory in nearby Wymondham.
Olympic sailor Christopher Boardman won a gold medal at the 1936 Games in Berlin – but refused to attend the medal ceremony because Adolf Hitler was presenting the awards. Gold medallists were also given an oak sapling and Chris’s was planted at his home in How Hill, Ludham. It survived being hit by shrapnel from a German bomb before dying a few years ago - and being transformed into a carving of the Olympic rings and Christopher’s winning boat. It is on show at How Hill environmental study centre.
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. Older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Egypt, it towered over the Norfolk Fens almost 5,000 years ago and lay buried in Wissington Fen near Downham Market until 2012. Now the biggest and best example of ancient sub-fossilised black oak, or bog oak, ever found is being transformed into a huge table which will eventually begin a national tour at Ely Cathedral. Experts from across the country helped unearth, preserve and cut the wood into enormous planks to create the beautiful table top. Now they are designing and fundraising for a bronze under-structure. For more information or to donate to the appeal visit thefenlandblackoakproject.co.uk
An oak tree grows through the middle of the ruins of atmospheric St Mary’s church in East Somerton, near Yarmouth. Local legend claims it sprouted from the wooden leg of a witch buried here.
Tragedy or pantomime?
Wayland Wood, near Watton, was once known as Wailing Wood and is the original setting for the Babes in the Wood story.
An orphan killed by his uncle who stood to inherit his fortune if he died became the story of two children abandoned at the behest of a traditionally wicked stepmother, and then a pantomime with a very dark heart.
The true story of a murderous uncle is believed to date back to the mid 16th century when Robert de Grey stood to inherit Griston Hall if his nephew died. Rumours that he had been murdered in the forest swirled through the neighbourhood. The story was later carved into a fireplace at Griston Hall with a frieze showing two children beneath a tree and is retold on Watton’s town sign.
Cricket bat willow
Wood for cricket bats comes from a tree first found in Norfolk more than 200 years ago and since cloned from cuttings and grown around the world. The cricket bat willow, or Salix alba ‘Caerulea’, is a type of white willow.
Trees are generally best viewed with their roots in the ground but a garden design trend sets the stumps of dead trees upsidedown. There are stumperies in the grounds of Norfolk stately homes including Houghton Hall and Raveningham Hall – and the most famous Norfolk upsidedown tree of all was at the centre of the Seahenge circle – felled in the spring of 2049BC and now on show in Lynn Museum.
The holly and the ivy and the Christmas tree
For thousands of years people have marked midwinter by decorating evergreen branches and trees and placing them at the centre of our homes and communities. This Christmas many of us will be following this ancient tradition of bringing light and joy into the darkest time of year.