Colin Speakman tells of the sad end of one of the Craven district’s oldest and best-known inhabitants
During a sudden gale in early January, the Laund Oak, one of the most iconic great oak trees in Craven, and indeed in all England, crashed to the ground. For many walkers, cyclists and indeed drivers, the great, shattered tree keeping its few branches and leaves alive in its extreme old age, was a familiar sight on the back lane between Barden and Storiths, just below Launds House above Strid Wood.
If you go there today, you will see a very sad sight – a prostrated hulk of gnarled trunk and branches, still iron-hard on the outside, but soft and rotting within.
Estimates of its age vary, but expert opinion based on measuring the outside circumference suggests it was at least 700, and by some estimates, 800 years old, one of the oldest trees not only of the Yorkshire Dales, but of England.
When that tree was a sapling in the ancient Hunting Forest of Barden, Edward I was probably on the throne. It was already a stout tree during the Wars of the Roses. What is now Laund House was a hunting lodge for the accommodation of gamekeepers to protect red deer to be hunted by the Cliffords, Lords of Skipton Castle. This was a protected landscape centuries before the idea of a National Park. Great trees such as the Laund Oak were safeguarded from felling for timber or fuel because of the shelter they provided for the deer and probably wild boar in the forest. The Canons and Lay Brothers of Bolton Priory would have seen the trees on their daily travels. The Shepherd Lord would have often wandered by here under its shade, as did his later descendants the Earls of Cumberland. The redoubtable Lady Ann Clifford would have known the tree when she had Barden Tower rebuilt. In the 19th and 20th centuries successive generations of Dukes of Devonshire came here not to shoot deer, but grouse on the extensive heather acres of Barden Moor and Fell. But the 19th century Dukes also created the many wonderful paths through the riverside woods, to attract poets such as Wordsworth and painters such as Turner and Landseer. As years passed, the estate was democratised, to allow visitors coming by train, bus and car to pay a 6p toll to walk in these woods – the toll now replaced by (slightly more expensive) car park charges.
The Laund Oak survived. It was not felled for its timber precisely because it was a focal point of one of England’s great leisure landscapes, venerated and cared for by successive generations of landowners and managers.
And it provided an amazing time-line against which to measure our short human existence – as other ancient oaks still do on the Estate. 700 years reflects no less than 28 human generations, a time scale difficult to imagine.
The collapse of a great English oak might, for some people, seem a symbol for the times we live through. A bit of ancient England has vanished. For some this might seem to presage difficult, perhaps cataclysmic times ahead, when the whole notion of England might seem under threat, not from the risk of nuclear war which seemed so real two generations ago, but from a combination of rapid technological change, global warming and political upheaval, with extremist politicians questioning the fundamental principles of the tolerant, democratic societies.
One reason for conserving the great cultural landscapes of the past is that they provide the emotional framework and continuity we all need. As living creatures, we depend on the natural ecosystems that sustain us, and that we ultimately relate to. We are creatures of our history and our past, and can only come to terms with the future by knowing who we are, and where we came from. The great Laund Oak represented both continuity and certainty.
Its passing is a natural process. Even in its death it will paradoxically create life. Its rotting hulk will provide home to thousands of invertebrates who will in turn feed the smaller mammals and birds that form the precious wildlife heritage of the Dales, for us and future generations to cherish. But in perhaps a decade rain, wind, frost and sun will dissolve the rotting stumps and branches, leaving only soft, dark earth and perhaps new saplings. It is a stark reminder of our own mortality and cycle of birth, youth, maturity and extinction. Future generations may never guess or imagine such a great, majestic tree once dominated this space, over such a vast expanse of time.
More reason to record such natural and human monuments, on paper and digital form. Projects like the Yorkshire Dales National Park’s Out of Oblivion website, the Millennium Trust’s Stories in Stone project and Yorkshire Dales Society’s Capturing the Past in different ways are securing a record of a vanishing, rapidly changing world to benefit generations to come, long after our living bodies and minds, like the Laund Oak, are no more.
It’s about helping us to understand and know our own roots, who we are as individuals and a people, our sense of identity, not in a narrow chauvinistic sense, but as something deeply human to share with others.
People of different backgrounds and cultural heritage from all over the world will, if we muddle through the next few dangerous decades, come to places like Wharfedale, to share its peace, beauty and sense of continuity.