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Posted on April 6, 2008 by Ash
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.’
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.
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].
Here the article ends, signed “G. M. A. M.”
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