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The Capon Tree

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The Capon Tree in the snow

I spent a few days in Edinburgh at the weekend catching up with old uni mates. While I was studying, travelling between Edinburgh and Sheffield usually meant a long car journey. After making the trip a few times I found out about the Capon Tree, a veteran sessile oak (Quercus petraea) on the route just outside of Jedburgh in the Borders. On the journey home for Christmas 2005 I made my father and sister - who had driven up from Sheffield to collect me - stop at the tree in the dark! Since then, whenever I’ve taken this route I’ve always kept an eye out for the Capon Tree as I’ve passed. I’ve stopped a few times since – most recently on Monday when I was driving home from Edinburgh in the snow.

I’ve seen various sizes and ages attributed to the Capon Tree, but to avoid confusion I won’t repeat them here. The tree is a relic of the ancient Jed Forest which once covered much of the region. It used to consist of two upright stems but sometime during the twentieth century the tree fell in half; one of the stems remains upright and the other is supported almost horizontally by several sturdy beams keeping it off of the floor. The tree is alive and looking healthy but it’s totally hollow at the base; several people could comfortably fit into the space between the stems. I noticed a few mushrooms and icicles growing on the deadwood in there.

A fairly comprehensive web page on the Capon Tree can be found at John Peters’ photography site, complete with photos of the tree in leaf.

There’s a close-up look at some of the rotten timber inside the hollow:

In 2002, in celebration of the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, the Tree Council designated the Capon Tree as one of fifty Great British trees ‘in recognition of its place in the national heritage’.

The Capon Tree stands in a small field between the A68 and the River Jed, just south of Jedburgh. If you’re ever in the vicinity it’s well worth a visit, particularly if like me you’re a fan of impressively massive and ancient trees. I’ve heard of another giant oak nearby called the King of the Woods, but I’ve yet to seek it out. That’s a pleasure for a future journey!

Happy Christmas!

Posted in Notable trees

Giant Yorkshire oak trees (1829)

What follows is taken from John Wainwright’s Yorkshire (published in Sheffield in the year 1829), or to give the tome its full title, Yorkshire. An Historical and Topographical Introduction to a Knowledge of the Ancient State of the Wapentake of Strafford and Tickhill; with Ample Accounts of Doncaster and Conisbrough: and of the Villages, Hamlets, Churches, Antiquities, and Other Matters connected therewith.

In the Introduction (from page liv onwards), Wainwright writes of the area of Hatfield-chase, which at the time of his writing seems to have been a boggy wasteland, but upon which there once stood a forest. The author theorises that the Romans (when they occupied parts of Britain) annihilated the forest and flooded the land, in order to render it unusable by the natives, with whom the Romans were warring.

That the plot was not originally in that drowned condition, is sufficiently manifest from the large quantity of wood which everywhere lies buried under the surface of this fenny tract, and which has been deemed a strongly corroborating proof of an universal deluge; while the celebrated Dugdale supposes the fall to have arisen through the humidity of the soil. That this was not the case with these levels is, however, plainly evident to the most superficial observer; for the trees did not decay by parts, as would have been the case, had they fallen by a gradually operating cause; but fell in the full vigour of vegetable life, as would appear from the circumstance of acorns, nuts, fir-cones, &c. being frequently found attached to the parent tree. Marks of the axe are also borne on the face of some, while others manifest their fall to have been through the agency of fire.

Wainwright writes further of stupendous trees, relics of the ancient forest, which had been dug up from the ‘fenny tract’ (notes within square brackets are my own):

The trees which covered this valley in the British era, had in several instances attained to a gigantic stature; so large, indeed, that the revolution of several centuries alone could produce them. Oaks have been found, twenty, thirty, and even thirty-five yards [32 metres] long, all of which had lost much of their top. Pryme informs us, that about one hundred and eighty years ago, was found, under a very large tree in the parish of Hatfield, an old-fashioned knife, with a haft of a very hard black sort of wood, which had a cap of copper or brass on one end, and a hoop of the same metal on the other, where the blade went into it. There was also found an oak tree in Mr. Candby’s parcel of moors, “forty yards [36.6 metres] long, four yards [3.7 metres] diametrically thick at the great end, three yards and a foot [3 metres] in the middle, and two yards [1.8 metres] over the small end; so that, on a moderate calculation, the tree must have been nearly twice as long [about 70 metres! – the current tallest tree in Britain is a 61 metre grand fir (Abies grandis) in Argyll].” On another occasion, was found, a fir-tree. “thirty-six yards [32.9 metres] long, exclusively of what it had lost from the small end, which might probably have been fifteen yards [13.7 metres] more [so about 46 metres].” We also have seen trees of more ordinary magnitude taken from the sombre bowels of this waste, but never had an opportunity of measuring them.

In a letter to which we have before alluded, Mr. Bigland gives the dimensions of a tree which he measured, in the following words: “In the beginning of the year 1819, James Brailsford or Belford, a person whom you well know, dug up, about two hundred yards from the west bank of the Torne, and nearly opposite to the bridge, between Akum and Gate-wood, an oak-tree, of which the trunk measured forty yards [36.6 metres] in length, and was twelve feet [3.7 metres] in circumference [1.2 metres in diameter] in the middle. Making a reasonable allowance, for the top, this giant of the forest can scarcely have been less than seventy yards [64 metres!] in height. Had it been now sound and standing, it would have contained by the usual (although somewhat erroneous) mode of measuring, about 1,080 feet, and at the present price of good oak timber, would have been worth about £162.; besides the branches, which might have been worth £15. or £20. more; making the whole value £177. at the least.”

To a tract of land capable of producing trees of so uncommon a size, a moderate degree of dryness in the soil, and a lapse of nearly ten centuries are requisite.

I personally find it hard to believe that oak trees of the dimensions stated by Wainwright have ever grown in Britain (yet I want to believe). The tallest oak in Britain today is a sessile oak (Quercus petraea) at Whitfield, Hereford. It is a whopping 43 metres - a mere shrimp, relatively speaking, compared with the 64 and 70 metre tall beasts described in Yorkshire.

This to-scale diagram displays the relative heights of different trees (and a man): the Mother Beech on the shore of Loch Tay; the Capon Tree at Jedburgh; the tallest oak in Britain at Whitfield, Hereford; and the two gigantic oaks described in Wainwright’s Yorkshire.

Posted in Notable trees

The Capon Tree (May 2007)

Last Saturday I travelled back home from Edinburgh. The Capon Tree at Jedburgh is en route, so it was no trouble to stop and check it out again. The old veteran has made it though another winter and is now in full leaf. These photos just don't do justice to the Capon Tree's impressive size.

the Capon Tree

the 'front'

the 'back'

the lower bough

the upper bough

the Capon Tree

Posted in Notable trees

The Capon Tree

The Capon Tree is situated on the bank of the River Jed about two miles south of the Scottish Border town Jedburgh. It is one of the last remnants of the ancient Jed Forest, most oaks of which were cut down during the Napoleonic Wars. Estimates of its age vary, although it must have reached a decent size by the mid-eighteenth century for in 1746 six of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s men were hung from its branches. Some time during the twentieth century its massive trunk split in two, and its branches are now supported by wooden struts. However, the Capon Tree is still alive and apparently doing well. I have visited it a few times, as it is on the way to Edinburgh from my home in Yorkshire.

In 2002, in celebration of the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, the Capon Tree was designated one of fifty Great British Trees by the Tree Council in ‘recognition of its place in the natural heritage’

The Capon Tree in December 2010.

Posted in Notable trees

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