The Cowthorpe Oak

the Cowthorpe Oak – a cut from ‘a sketch, made in September, 1833, by Mr. W. Norrie’

The Cowthorpe Oak was once the largest oak in Britain, but today, sadly, it is dead, and little remains but rotten wood. It seems to have been an English or pedunculate oak (Quercus robur), as, according to Rhind’s A History of the Vegetable Kingdom (published in 1857), the Rev. Jessop described its leaves as having short stalks and its acorns as having long ones (Britain’s other native oak, the sessile or durmast oak - Quercus petraea - has its stalks the other way around). Below is an excerpt from Rhind’s book (here at Google Books), itself quoted from Stutt’s Sylva Britannica, published in 1930 (notes in square brackets are my own):

In 1829 it is again described thus by the Rev. Thomas Jessop: “The Cowthorpe oak is still in existence, though very much decayed. At present it abounds with foliage and acorns; the latter have long stalks, the leaves short ones. The dimensions are as follow: Height forty-five feet [about 13 ¾ metres]; circumference, close to the ground, not including the angles, sixty feet [about 18 ¼ metres], at one yard high forty-five feet [about 13 ¾ metres]; extent of principal branch fifty feet [about 18 ¼ metres], being an increase of two feet [about ½ a metre] in about half a century. I am inclined to think that the original dimensions were those given in the Sylva. The oldest persons in the neighbourhood speak of the tree as having been once much higher; and were the angles included in the measurement, which project from the lower trunk, the circumference might be made out twenty-six yards [about 23 ¾ metres]. It is said by the inhabitants of the village, that seventy persons at one time got within the hollow of the trunk; but on inquiring, I found many of these were children; and as the tree is hollow throughout to the top, I suppose they sat on each others’ shoulders; yet, without exaggeration, I believe the hollow capable of containing forty men.”

An article in the Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction (Vol. 25), published in London, 1835, gives a contemporary account of Cowthorpe. It can be read here at Google Books. What follows is an excerpt from the Mirror:

Cowthorpe is a small and insignificant village; the greatest portion of the houses are low, ill-built, and thatched with straw, but seemingly very ancient, being almost entirely of wood, excepting the interstices, which are filled up with mud-mortar, - a mode of building that was very prevalent a few centuries ago when wood was very plentiful. Cowthorpe is distant from the market town of Wetherby, three miles; about nine miles from York, and the same distance from Harrowgate. It is situated on the banks of the beautiful river Nidd; the country around is exceedingly well wooded, and partakes alike of the hilly and woody and flat character.

The Time’s Telescope for 1829 published in London contains on article on the Cowthorpe Oak. I reproduce it below (or you can find it here at Google Books):

This gigantic and venerable king of the forest stands on the extremity of the village of Cowthorpe, near Wetherby, in Yorkshire, in a retired field, sheltered on one side by the ancient church belonging to the place, and on another by a farm-house, the rural occupations of which exactly accord with the character of the oak, whose aged arms are extended towards it with a peculiar air of rustic vigour, retained even in decay; like some aged peasant, whose toil-worn limbs still give evidence of the strength which enabled him to acquit himself of the labours of his youth. It is mentioned by the late Dr. Hunter, in his edition of Evelyn’s Sylva, in the following note on a passage respecting the extraordinary size of an oak in Sheffield Park: ‘Neither this, nor any of the oaks mentioned by Mr. Evelyn, bears any proportion to one now growing at Cowthorpe. The dimensions are almost incredible. Within three feet of the ground it measures sixteen yards [about 14 ½ metres], and close by the ground twenty-six yards [about 23 ¾ metres]. Its height, in its present ruinous state (1776), is almost eighty-five feet [about 26 metres], and its principal limb extends sixteen yards [about 14 ½ metres] from the bole. Throughout the whole tree the foliage is extremely thin, so that the anatomy of the ancient branches may be distinctly seen in the height of summer. When compared to this, all other trees are but children of the forest.’
This description so nearly answers to the present state of the tree, that it does not appear to have suffered any considerable deprivation since the above period. In girth, indeed, it is inferior to the magnificent remains of the oak in Salcey Forest; but, altogether, it is a noble and imposing ruin […]

The Cowthorpe Oak is also mentioned in J. C. Loudon’s Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum (Vol. 3), published in London, 1838, which includes the following image of the Oak.

the Cowthorpe Oak – image from Loudon’s ‘Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum’ (1838)

Here follows an excerpt from a letter printed in Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum, “sent to us by a correspondent in Yorkshire, in October, 1829” (which can be read here at Google Books):

This stupendous oak stands in a paddock near the village church, and is the property of the Hon. E. Petre of Stapleton Park, near Ferybridge. On a stranger’s first observing the tree, he is struck with the majestic appearance of its ruined and riven-looking dead branches, which in all directions appear above the luxuriant foliage of the lateral and lower arms of the trees. In 1722, one of the side branches was blown down in a violent gale of wind; and, on being accurately measured, was found to contain upwards of five tons of wood. The largest of the living branches at present extends about 48 ft. [about 14 ½ metres] from the trunk; and its circumference, at about one yard from the giant bole, is 8 ft. 6 in. [about 2 ½ metres] Three of the living branches are propped up by substantial poles, resting upon stone pedestals. The diameter in the hollow part, at the bottom, is 9 ft. 10 in. [about 3 metres]: the greatest height of the dead branches is about 56 ft. [about 17 metres] It is evidently of very great antiquity, as all tradition represents it as a very old tree.

Loudon’s Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum also quotes Professor Burnett on the Cowthorpe Oak (here on Google Books):

”The circle occupied by the Cowthorpe Oak,” says Professor Burnet, “where the bottom of its trunk meets the earth, exceeds the ground plot of that majestic column of which an oak is confessed to have been the prototype, viz. Smeaton’s Eddystone Lighthouse [see Wikipedia’s article on the Eddystone Lighthouses]. Sections of the trunk of the one would, at several heights, nearly agree with sections of the curved and cylindrical portions of the shaft of the other. […]

More from the article in the Mirror:

At a short distance from the church, in the churchyard, stands the enormous oak tree, known as “the Cowthorpe Oak,” of which the accompanying cut is a correct representation, from a sketch, made in September, 1833, by Mr. W. Norrie, of Wetherby [the image at the beginning of this post].
For many generations, tradition speaks of this oak being in decay; which may serve to confute the common assertion that an oak is once century in growing, another in perfection, and a third in decline. By a monument erected at the expense of Lord De La Warr in the New Forest, Hants, in 1745, we learn, that some remains of the oak, whence the arrow glanced that slew William II., were existing in the remembrance of persons then living; that event happening 698 years previously; and we may naturally suppose the oak a full grown one when the accident happened. Hence, we may reasonably compute that the existence of the Cowthorpe oak may attain to one thousand years. [Am I missing something here? What does this have to do with the Cowthorpe Oak? And William II was killed in 1100.]
It is certain, that of all the claims to long life, in the vegetable world, the oak and the yew, from their slow advances and solid texture, seem to stand foremost in the scale of duration. It is said of the celebrated oaks of Winfield [?] Chase in Cumberland, and those at Welbeck in Notts, that a coach may easily drive within their boles; but, concerning the oak now in question, it is evident from the measure, that supposing it hollowed for the purpose, two coaches might almost pass together through its bole. The trunk, or bole of the tree is completely hollow; the greatest portion of the higher part of the tree has fallen down through decay, and some of it appears laid on the ground, (vide Cut,) near the figures of the two men. All that remains of the higher tree, is, as it is represented in the Engraving, which, from is appearance, would lead on to suppose it to have been very lofty. Its immense arms – full grown trees, in appearance, themselves – are supported by a number of strong, forked props of timber. But, I am of the opinion that these arms have grown out from the tree after the trunk began to decay, from their solid appearance and seemingly undecayed state. It is but lately, since it is remembered that the bole of this tree was a considerable height to what it now is; so that I think it will be acknowledged, that when in its prime it must have been one of the noblest and most splendid trees that England could boast of. The leading branch fell by a storm in 1718; which, being measured with accuracy, was found to contain five tons and two feet of timber. Before this accidental mutilation, its branches are said to have extended their shade over half an acre of ground; thus constituting, in a single tree, almost a wood itself! – which reminds one of the ancient sycamore that arrested Xerxes to admire it, when on his military march, and under whose spreading branches he and his court reposed.
The present circumference of this oak, close by the ground, I have measured, and found it to be twenty-two yards [about 20 metres]; and its principal limb extends forty-eight feet [about 14 ½ metres] from the bole. “When compared with this, (says Dr. Hunter,) all other trees are mere children of the forest.” Cowthorpe being so short a distance from the celebrated watering-place – Harrowgate, it is often visited by the company for the purpose of inspecting this “Giant of the Forests;” and, I think I can safely say, a visitor never returns, after seeing this noble and ancient tree, without being highly gratified.

Here the article ends, signed “G. M. A. M.”


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