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Ancient Oak


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The oldest tree in Exmoor bears the title, Timberscombe Oak. Once a year, the village school does a sponsored walk so the local children can visit the tree. I’ve been keen to see this tree and today the weather looked perfect for a long, tree-bound walk with my dog, Tess.

The Timberscombe Oak is not on a road; you can only get there on foot or horseback. I pulled out my Ordinance Survey map for Exmoor, but sadly, trees aren’t marked. Not even the oldest tree, officially termed Ancient.

So what is an Ancient Tree? According to the Wildlife Trust, an Ancient tree is in the third and final stage of its life (like me). It’s much older than a Veteran Tree, the classification most Really Old trees fall into.

There’s a scientific method for identifying an Ancient tree without counting its rings. This tree-friendly method is called the Hug Method. (No kidding, scientists go around the UK hugging trees.) Here’s what they had to say on the Woodland Trust website:

“How do you recognise an ancient tree?

The ‘hug’ method for measuring trees:A hug is based on the finger tip to finger tip measurement of an adult, which we take to be about 1.5m (approx. 5 feet).

The trees below might be ancient if they measured the following:

Oak – 3 adult hugs
Beech – 2 adult hugs
Scots Pine– 1 adult hug
Rowan – 1 adult hug
Birch – 1 wrist hug  (I have no idea what constitutes wrist and elbow hugs, but the name provides some amusing visuals)
Hawthorn – 1 elbow hug
Cedar of Lebanon – 4 adult hugs
Field Maple – 1 adult hug
Sweet Chestnut – 4 adult hugs
Ash – 2 adult hugs

Other more technical methods of recognising ancient trees include measuring the girth:

Example for an oak tree:

Trees with a girth of more than 4.5m (3 hugs) are potentially interesting

Trees with girth of more than 5m (3.5 hugs) are valuable in terms of conservation

Trees with a girth of more than 6m (4 hugs) are likely to be truly ancient “

So now that I understood what qualified an oak for the title Ancient, I began asking villagers if they knew where the Timberscombe Oak was.

Each person I asked was happy to give me their version of directions.

The first volunteer delivered his instructions in a rich voice with the local Zummerzet (Somerset) accent.

“It’s awff the owld Luxborough rowd, up the ‘ill a ways, then down the ‘ill a bit – abowt ‘alf way to ‘er bottom.”

Most local residents actually come from somewhere else in the UK. These folks delivered their directions in a variety of accents from educated Londoner to Essex country farmer. Here’s the directions they offered:

“From Timberscombe Common take the bridle path to Dunster and walk towards Nutcombe Bottom. It’s in that valley; you’ll see it below you before you get there, and if you walk too far, you’ll see it above you.”

“Follow the sheep trail across John Prideau’s field; go past Totterdown bridleway, keep walking down that hill, through the gate, and just keep walking. You can’t miss it.”

“It’s under Whits Wood; they’ve recently felled some trees near there – you’ll see it – there’s a steep trail, sort of rocky, that you can approach from the Dunster side, or you can get there from the Timberscombe side, or from the south, across Croydon Hill.”

Armed with a wealth of ancient names, and the vague agreement that the tree in question was half way down a hill (and there are hills in every direction you look around here) Tess and I, after a hearty breakfast, headed out the door, me in my purple Wellies (boots) and she in her best gold fur.

We climbed the bridlepath above our house, made our way through several pasture gates, making sure to secure them behind us, walked along the sides of Prideau’s fields, said hello to some friendly sheep, waved at some curious horses in the next field, passed by two rough, weathered signposts that pointed to Totterdown bridleway, then at a crossways of paths, we chose the one pointing to Dunster. We walked eastward and found the leaf-carpeted “rowd” to Luxborough, went a little ways “down the ‘ill a bit” and saw a clearing on our left where trees had been felled, though not recently. Raven flew over us and called “Brruck, brruck, brrruucckkk! Was he leading us? I called out “Hi Raven,” and began to follow our feathered friend who went back in another direction. Being a winged creature, he did not stick to the path.

We scrambled through a break in the hedge, climbed over some rocks, walked under rows of beech, whitebeam, oak, and ash trees, and there, raven began to circle over a small, rather steep patch of hillside that sloped below us and that had recently been felled and cleared. On his third circle, he flew away and disappeared into the distance, a wooded valley below the hill. But what was that half way to the bottom? Were those treetop branches oak? It was hard to tell. We were standing on the north side of the slope and the morning sun at this time of year rises on the other side. Those long-reaching branches were deep in the shadows, but they looked mighty big, so we climbed further down the steep, rocky clearing to investigate.

The closer we got, the more excited we were. There stood the giant. A few feet to the west of him were two large, gnarled old trees. Veterans themselves, they probably sprouted from acorns, dropped by the Ancient Tree many hundreds of years ago.

The giant oak took more than four of my hugs.  I stretched my arms as far as I could, and hugging six times, I still hadn’t returned to the spot where I began. I gave up hugging. Measurement seemed too trite for such a noble tree.

Truly humbled by the girth and grandeur of this great grandfather of oaks, I aligned my back against the north side of the trunk. Silently gazing across the valley, I soaked in 800 years of the most awesome view – a view of hills and fields and forest and moor and sky – a view this tree had always known.

A sensation of peace and acceptance washed over and through me, and I learned that wisdom is all about peace and acceptance. It’s about beauty, breath, and life.

I turned to face the tree and admire the deeply grooved rivulets and cracks of ancient trunk bark, and it felt good to see fresh new stems sprouting from the scar left by a 2-foot diameter branch that had fallen centuries ago. These stems carried a visible promise of next Spring’s growth, safely armored in strong, long buds, and the last of this year’s bronzed leaves still hung on.

As I introduced myself to the ancient one, something fell from one of the multiple trunk-size branches above. A chunk of bark about the size of a goose egg landed in my palm and lay against my skin – skin of oak meeting skin of me.

I carried it all the way home. Not in my pocket, but embraced by warm palm and soft fingers. It sits beside me as I write – this piece of Ancient, this gift of tree that knows me. Molecules of bodies crossed paths this morning, never to be the same again. My energy merged into the oak; the Ancient one’s peace now lives in me.
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