A Hidden Oak

In 1980 I purchased part of 15 Fox Hill. Much has been written about its history but perhaps nothing about a major focal point in its garden: an oak tree. But not any old oak tree. In the Pissarro painting of Fox Hill now in the National Gallery, it is the same height as the 4-storey house, tho much lower in gradient. Now one cannot see its tip from the uppermost window.

There is a poplar tree on the corner of Tudor Road (which takes its name from the brick and chimneys of this house) I imagine cursed by both drivers and pedestrians. There was so much conflicting advice given us joint owners regarding its thirsty roots that we agreed to employ an expert tree surveyor whose advice we would follow. That is the boring part. As the other owners were on Diplomatic Service in Africa, I made the appointment and was unavoidably delayed. “Please don’t apologize”, said the surveyor, “I should be paying you. I have just discovered where that magnificent oak actually is. Maps never make it clear”. The outcome was that he offered, for a reasonable sum, to do a professional survey on the tree.

When it arrived, many pages long, the opening words were not encouraging. “The tree is dying, but it probably has 90 or so years left.” True, each spring I anxiously await the first tinge of green and it is the last of the 29 mature trees (and as many shrubs) in the third of an acre garden to come into life, a little later each year. But then each autumn it is also the last to shed its copious leaves. It has several preservation orders on it from different authorities, and no work can be done on it without contacting the relevant authority.

During the 1987 hurricane I received more enquiries about the state of the tree than either the house or myself! Its giant base stood rock solid, dead wood snapped in a private lopping, but it took six strong men to lift branches the size of tree trunks from the next terrace, and one branch left a gaping hole in their roof. They told me “If you want to know where your tree is, most is in my garden.”

Over two decades the sloping lawn, scene of so many clerical and musical garden parties in the late 19th century (and a few in the mid-80s) is less green and smaller, so abundant is the shade. Sadly, the large flower bed grows less productive, the soil poorer, perhaps a small price to pay. The ‘canopy’ seems to grow larger annually. It is home to nesting squirrels and jays, collared doves, blue tits, greenfinches, blackbirds, with foxes at its base who can be hand fed. It is like living in a tree house with a moving nature film in front of ones eyes. In winter it is a swaying blackened Japanese painting. I visited the oak at Hatfield House, under which Princess Elizabeth in 1558 was told she would be Queen. It is in a much poorer state, but what of this oak’s history?

The area abounds in oaks. Honor Oak district and station on our line. Vicar’s Oak at Upper Norwood, Crescent Wood Road, Wood Vale, Dulwich Wood, Sydenham Hill Woods, Hatcham Wood owned by a Pepys, Grange Wood, Convent Wood. The famous ‘Elder Oak’ was a boundary tree marking the Croydon/Penge border ‘wantonly cut down’. What’s new with illicit tree felling? Thank God for local authority Tree Preservation Orders.

The best known was the Great North Wood, giving its name obviously to Upper, South and West Norwood. Its woods were used for ship building for centuries, a surveyor personally selecting the oaks. My surveyor suggested this oak was too young for the building of Henry 8th’s ‘Mary Rose’. This great ship sank in 1545 with the loss of 500 lives before it even left Portsmouth harbour. Shades sadly of the ‘Herald of Free Enterprise’ as its gun ports were left open and it veered sharply to the wind. The Great North Wood certainly gave up its oak for this doomed vessel. Drake’s ‘Golden Hind’ is thought to have been built from similar oak.

Now comes the Armada of 1588 and every wood in England was hastily scoured for building the fleet. Again this oak was unsuitable. We are told that ‘only certain timber trees were suitable for removal, leaving only young growth free from shade ready to succeed. Careful early husbandry. How many of us recall – ‘Plant a tree in ’73, plant some more in ‘74’?

This oak was thus left, drawn in maps which do not make clear when buildings take over. This house was built in 1850 and the huge, sloping lawn is clay with abundant water underneath, so it was spared earlier building. To a tree enthusiast, trying to trace it must have been like the proverbial needle in a haystack.

The trunk at its widest circumference is 17 feet. It has seven massive secondary trunks, not branches, rising from it, each the width of an average tree. It is impossible to photograph in its entirety. My next-door neighbour remarked last year: ‘Have you noticed how suddenly the Great North Wood appears to be taking over?’. The huge horse chestnuts, ash, limes, hornbeams, elms, beeches, laburnum, bay the height of the 3rd storey, a rare Vietnamese crab apple, holly (including an unusual Victorian bleached one), a glorious wild cherry, now appear threatening. They continue to grow in height and volume as if with a new lease of life. They cut out the sun, and one is more secluded than ever. None has ever died. The soil and today’s climate obviously suit them all, and they have come into their own for the next millennium.

A dear neighbour looked at the tree fondly one day and remarked: ‘I always think of it as being too young for the Mary Rose and too old for the Armada’.

An apt epitaph.

Ruth Fletcher

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