Our landscape would be utterly bleak if they didn’t exist, but we often fail even to notice them. “People don’t look at trees unless they’re pointed out,” 
says Tony Kirkham, head of the arboretum at Kew Gardens. But at least in Britain you don’t have to step far to see an iconic tree. “Wherever you go, if there’s 
a big old tree, it’s there for 
a reason,” he says. “And 
usually it has an interesting history.” Such as...

ancient yew trees

See at the churchyard in Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire

Most people assume that yew trees were planted in churchyards but, in fact, it was the other way round. When Christianity arrived, Saint Augustine was ordered to build churches next to pagan places of worship—yew trees—as a way of drawing those naughty heathens in.

Later on, yews were crucial to the arms industry (it was the best wood for longbows), so in Britain they were carefully tended. In fact, cheekily, we nipped over to France and plundered their yews, too. 

There are magnificent examples of yews all over the UK, many in churchyards, which are always good places to look out for old trees generally. But not many are like these ancient pillars, hugging the door and eating the bootscraper. 

The Shoe Tree

See from the A40 between High Wycombe and Stokenchurch, Bucks

No one knows why umpteen shoes dangle from this roadside ash tree, but there are plenty of theories—ranging from fertility ritual to local prank. In fact, the Heritage Lottery Fund gave more than £750,000 to find an answer. It didn’t. 

The Original Bramley Apple Tree

See at Southwell, Nottinghamshire

A UK market of £50 million per year started life as a single minuscule pip in a back garden in Nottinghamshire. When the local butcher bought the house, he sold cuttings, provided the seedlings bore his name—Bramley. Despite the tree being blown over in a violent storm in 1900, it survived and for the last 50 years has been tended by Nancy Harrison, who now owns the garden. 

By Appointment Only: Contact The Tree Council

The Ultimate Statement Tree

See at Childray, Oxfordshire

When they were first brought to the UK, cedars of Lebanon were the equivalent of having a Porsche parked in the drive—a way of letting the world know of your impressive wealth. Wildly fashionable, they were also rare and exotic—they have more mentions in the Bible than any other tree. 

This enormous specimen, Childray, was planted in 1646 by Dr Edward Pococke, a scholar of Arabic at Oxford who was known to have taken several trips to Syria. It’s now the oldest surviving cedar in the UK. 

By Appointment Only: Contact The Tree Council

The Loneliest Tree

See from the A82 heading towards Glencoe and Orchy, Perthshire

By clinging on to a lichen-covered boulder for dear life, this rowan tree has survived the cold, wind, sheep and deer. Rowans are native to Scotland and, like the locals, this tree is hardy. Set in the otherwise tree-free expanse of Rannoch Moor, the secret of its survival is that it’s too high on its boulder to have been nibbled by the wildlife.

A local landmark—and you don’t even have to get out of your car to see it. 

The Poem Tree

See at the south-west end of Castle Clump, Wittingham Clumps, Oxfordshire

In 1844, one Joseph Tubbs took two weeks to carve a 21-line poem into a young beech tree. Nothing else seems to be known about this Victorian vandal.

The tree died in 1990 (beeches have notoriously shallow roots), but the trunk remains. Just. The poem, stretched and distorted, is legible only in places, but contains the last lines: “Such is the course of time, the wreck which fate/ And awful doom award the earthly great.” A nearby plaque contains the entire, wistful verse. 

The Hippy Tree

See on Wearyall Hill, Glastonbury, Somerset

Legend says that this thorn tree grew from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea. It has, though, had significance for pilgrims and hippies alike. The former have made pilgrimages over the centuries to Wearyall Hill, Glastonbury, where the tree overlooks the Tor.

For the latter, it’s the symbol of the nearby legendary summer festival, and a place to festoon with talismans and charms. 

In fact, this particular tree is not the original Glastonbury or Holy Thorn, but one of a number of cuttings from the original—others are dotted around the town.

Last December the tree was vandalised and its branches were hacked off. It’s been savagely chopped down before though, by Cromwell’s army, but canny locals had taken a cutting. Signs are—so far—the surviving trunk is continuing to grow, so it may witness the thrill of Kanye West's headline set at this year's festival yet. 

The Longest Avenue of Trees

See the Lime Tree Avenue at Elkesley, Nottinghamshire

The Victorians loved an avenue of lime trees. This one at Clumber Park wins the title of the longest in the UK—almost two miles and consisting of over a thousand lime trees. You can cycle through it to get to Sherwood Forest. 

The Exotic Old Oak Tree

See from the A346 between Marlborough and Salisbury in Wiltshire

It’s over a thousand years old, 36 feet around the trunk, and part of the royal hunting forest of Savernake, so it’s quite likely Henry VIII once leant against its trunk.

In fact, this magnificent oak is so old and stout (hence the name, Big Belly Oak) it needs a girdle to stop it falling over. But, according to legend, dance naked 12 times around it at midnight and you’ll see the devil.

Nowadays you may be more likely to see a police patrol as it’s on a main road, but it’s an interesting idea. 

The Trees That Inspired a Forest

See at Golden Square, London, W1 

Felix Dennis, poet, entrepreneur and owner of the Forest of Dennis:

“Many years ago, late on a bitter Sunday night in January, I wandered aimlessly through the back streets of Soho. Not a soul was abroad. Eventually I found myself entering Golden Square and lifted my eyes idly. Then caught my breath...Enormous, brooding and magnificent as snow-laden silhouettes under the chrome-yellow street lamps, stood four sentinel trees.

"I had passed them a hundred times before, scarcely glancing at them. But on that night, in that light, they were one of the most beautiful sights I had ever witnessed.  

“I know now that they were—and still are!—pyramid hornbeams. From then on, I became obsessed by trees. I bought books. I walked and bicycled to seek trees out. They became my passion.

“Eventually, I set about acquiring thousands of acres of land in south Warwickshire. My plan was simple: to plant a new native English broadleaf forest. So far, we have planted 1,900 acres (about five times the area of Hyde Park). The dream is to plant a total of 20,000 acres, open to the public, owned and managed by a registered charity.

“To those four hornbeams, standing yet in Golden Square, the Heart of England Forest Project owes its existence.”

The Hanging Tree

See from a public footpath: the tree stands in the second field to the north-east of Silton Church, Dorset

A reminder that some trees have a grisly history: this is one of the few remaining “hanging” or “gibbet” trees. (In Scotland they are known as “dool” trees: often found near the laird’s house, with bodies left hanging on them to warn the peasants not to step out of line.)

Frequently they were at crossroads, or sometimes they were just large trees with a natural slant that lent itself to the ignominious task. This one, the Wyndham Oak, is named after one of Cromwell’s judges who owned the land it stands on.

It has a very bloody history, being used to hang supporters of the Duke of Monmouth after an uprising against James II. They were convicted by the infamous Judge Jeffreys. 

The Fabulous Flowering Tree

See at Batsford Arboretum, Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire

There are flowering trees all over the UK (including a temperamental 70-year-old magnolia in south Devon that flowers once every five years), but highly recommended is the Handkerchief or Dove Tree at Batsford Arboretum.

Brought originally from China, it flowers in May. Imagine draping a huge, white Pavarotti-style handkerchief over every square foot of the tree and you’ll have some idea of how magnificent it looks in full bloom. 

The UK's Most Expensive Tree

See at Berkeley Square, Mayfair, London W1

The London plane in Berkeley Square is not the largest nor the most elegant plane (it’s had a branch lopped off) but is certainly distinctive, having been given a value of £750,000. 

Introduced in 1988, CAVAT (Capital Asset Value for Amenity Trees) assesses how much an urban tree is worth, according to size, health, historical significance and how many people enjoy it. The higher the value—and this one is in London’s prime property location—the more proof insurers (quick to blame trees for subsidence) need before a tree can be massacred.

As for this particular plane tree, it’s larger than the 30 or so others in Berkeley Square, and there is a reason—because it was planted bang on the site of the ancient plague pit, which provided the fertiliser... 

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