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April 2013



The fall of the Pontfadog Oak: Britain has lost one of its greatest trees

Thursday last week I heard from my father that a great oak had blown down overnight near Wrexham. From the internet I learned it was the Pontfadog Oak that had fallen – Britain’s second-biggest-girthed sessile oak (Quercus petraea). After doing a bit of research and discovering two other named oaks nearby (a story for another day), I decided to pay my respects and get some photographs of the fallen champion. So on Saturday morning I jumped in the car and drove the 100 miles to Wales – hey, if Yorkshire’s greatest lapsed treeblogger can’t do that, then who can?

Arriving in the tiny village of Pontfadog in Wrexham County Borough about midday, I called in to the post office, bought a Tango, and nonchalantly asked the man behind the counter where exactly could one find ‘the old oak’? He was hesitant. I assured him I would seek permission from the landowner before approaching the tree. Still doubtful, he nevertheless spilled the beans: “up the hill by the pub, left at the chapel, then right along the private drive”. After passing the chapel without realising it, I wandered up and down various lanes until my eagley eyes picked out the prostrate behemoth from a distance.

Once I homed in on Cilcochwyn Farm it became apparent I wasn’t the only one who had made the pilgrimage. A small group were gathered in the farmyard with cups of tea discussing the fate of the unfortunate Pontfadog Oak, which lay sprawled before them, its extremities pressing on the farmhouse. A few other people were standing around the oak, some with their cameras out. I addressed a bloke in the farmyard group.
“Is this your farm?”
“It is.”
“Can I take some photographs of the tree please?”
“Of course you can!” The man in the post office needn’t have been so reticent; there was almost a party atmosphere here!

I had only taken a few pictures when an old man asked if I was looking for the other ramblers. “No, I’m here to see the tree,” I replied. “Really?” He seemed pleasantly surprised. “Where have you come from?” “Sheffield,” I said. “Really?” Surprised again (maybe even astounded). “What’s your interest in trees?” he asked. I told him that I’d studied forestry and ecology at university, that I’m an arborist, and that I have a general interest in trees, really old ones in particular. He produced a small notebook and with the aid of a quick sketch explained the theory put to him as to why the tree had fallen over. The tree was splitting in half so an iron band was installed around the trunk to keep the two halves together; but when one half was ready to fall it had no choice but to bring the other half with it. I didn’t think this plausible. More likely, I explained, was that the oak had little left in the way of structural integrity - the inevitable consequence of an exceptionally long life and the work of wood-decay fungi. Yet it still maintained a respectable crown which unfortunately acted as a sail in the wind. Enough wind that night and over it went. Perhaps if the tree had been propped up, like many grand old trees are, then the Pontfadog Oak could have survived last week’s gales and remained standing for many years to come.

A snapped root; the tissue appears to be living albeit with fungal rot present.

Still, I was in for a shock when I saw both the underside of the tree and the soil on which had it stood for centuries. Where were all the roots? For all intents and purposes, there was nothing at all to anchor it to the ground. The biggest roots there, which were really nothing, were completely rotten. There were a couple of small straggly roots that were live wood, but had they really managed to sustain the whole tree? Like I said, the crown was quite respectable, so I was completely baffled by the apparent absence of anything to pull water out of the ground. The only reason the tree remained upright prior to Wednesday night was the sheer bulk of its enormous trunk: simple gravity! When too much wind dragged in its sail (which was still leafless, so not even that effective a sail) the whole tree just rolled over without a fight, exposing a bare patch of undisturbed soil. The Pontfadog Oak really ought to have been artificially supported!

A completely dead and rotten snapped root. This could no longer anchor the tree in the ground.

So what can I tell you about the Pontfadog Oak prior to this catastrophe? Its demise has made the news, where unfortunately certain myths regarding this famed tree have been promulgated as facts. I’ll summarise here under the heading ‘Facts’ a few things that I think are safe to call the truth, followed under the heading ‘Non-facts’ by a few things I believe are doubtful or implausible. ‘Tis a valuable public service I perform…

I spotted this graffiti on a piece of old deadwood: ‘T.L. 1939’

Facts
- In 2007 the director of the Tree Register, David Alderman, measured the girth of the Pontfadog Oak at 1.5 m from the ground as 12.9 m. 1
- In 2006 the tree was around 11 m tall. 1
- In 2012 “a group of experts from the Ancient Tree Forum visited the Pontfadog Oak and put together a list of actions that they believed could help conserve it. Although the total cost was only £5,700, these actions were never taken as no funding source was available.” 2
- The tree is referred to by George Borrow in his book Wild Wales, first published in 1862. 3
- It was perhaps the third ‘fattest’ of our two native oaks, Quercus petraea and Quercus robur. 3 The Tree Register considers the Marton Oak in Cheshire to be the fattest, with a diameter of 446 cm, even though it is in a state of collapse with the trunk made up of three separated sections. The Tree Register’s Handbook records the diameter of the Pontfadog Oak as being 409 cm in 1999 “around collapsing parts”. The only other fatter oak listed is one at Great Witley, Worcestershire, which had a diameter of 411 cm at 1 m height in 2007 “under division of three parts”. 4
- Rob McBride, tree hunter: “…until about 200 years ago [it] was a tree that was pollarded – with branches and leaves regularly cut to feed animals and build fencing.” This guy was a local and I trust he knows his stuff. 5
- The Pontfadog Oak was designated one of fifty Great British Trees in celebration of the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in 2002 “in recognition of its place in the national heritage”. 6

Old deadwood colonised by colourful lichens.

Non-facts
- “The 1,200 year old Pontfadog Oak... is said to have grown near Chirk in Wrexham since 802 [AD]…” 2 It is next to impossible to date a tree of this size and condition with any accuracy. You can’t count the annual rings – the tree is hollow and very rotten, so the oldest wood no longer exists. You can’t make an estimation based on known growth rates of oak – way too many variables, especially on that time scale and with the likely variations in crown size over time. Arriving at one specific year – 802 – is frankly ridiculous and almost certainly wrong.
- “It is known that the Welsh Prince Owain Gwynedd rallied his army under the tree in 1157, before taking on, and defeating the English King Henry II at the battle of Crogen nearby.” 2 How is this ‘known’? Are there contemporary records pinpointing this exact tree? Could this information have been reliably passed down for nearly 900 years? (See the number of lost battle sites in this country.) Would the Pontfadog Oak really have been a large enough tree almost nine centuries ago for a Welsh prince to choose it as his rally point?
- “It was the oldest oak tree in Wales, probably the oldest in Britain and one of the oldest in the world. Although it has been said since it came down the tree was about 1,200 years old I believe it may be even older. I remember there was a millennium project done on it in 2000 and at that time experts suggested it may be even about 1,700 years.” 7 1,700 years old? I really can’t see it.

A burr (or burl) halfway up the trunk.

I wonder what will happen next to this enormous and extraordinarily long-lived tree. I hope at least that the trunk can be preserved in some way; it would be a shame to leave it to rot away in the corner of a field somewhere, or to have it carved up for firewood.

Last week this would have been a bird’s-eye view.

Sources
1 Sessile oak close to Pontfadog in Gyntraian. Monumental Trees.
2 Wales loses its oldest oak tree, the Pontfadog Oak. Woodland Trust.
3 Condolences for Wales’ National Tree. Woodland Matters.
4 Johnson, Owen (2011). Champion Trees of Britain and Ireland (The Tree Register Handbook).
5 Pontfadog Oak: 1,200-year-old tree toppled by winds. BBC.
6 List of Great British Trees. Wikipedia.
7 Expert says 1,200-year-old oak tree near Oswestry cannot be saved. Shropshire Star.

The massive, hollow, burred bole of the fallen Pontfadog Oak.


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Next post: A visit to the nearby Oak at the Gate of the Dead & the Duelling Oak.


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