The Knightwood Oak
Majestic. Royal. Epic. Grand.
These are words frequently used to describe trees. Whether that’s talking about their height, width or beauty, they are the words that fit the description of a tree perfectly – because most trees are all of those things.
I might choose these words to characterise one of the New Forest’s most iconic oaks, but they aren’t enough. They fall short and fail to stretch around the colossal trunk and struggle to match its towering heights that shade trees surrounding it. These words barely cover the length of time in which this tree has stood strong and defiant amongst a royal forest.
No words really fit the presence of a true forest queen steeped in the wild history of the crown lands. An embodiment of the New Forest. An ethereal soul, crowned in green, and untouchable by our human tongue.
The Knightwood Oak can be found just 2 miles south of Lyndhurst where her age and stature have quite rightly earnt her the title: ‘The Queen of the Forest’. This woodland royalty has reigned for around 600 years and it’s not just her age that’s impressive. In 1863 the writer John Richard de Capel measured the girth of her trunk at 5.3 metres; it’s last measurement in 2016 shows it at just under 8 metres. The Queen is very much alive and well. She has withstood storms, high winds and the saw – a fate which many of the forest’s oaks fell to as they were utilised for ship making materials.
A true forest ancient, and even though the paths leading to her today are well manicured and signposted, and the mighty oak is fenced off in order to preserve her magnificence, she still draws in both tourists and locals alike. Since Victorian times, people have visited the Knightwood Oak to witness her grand trunk that divides into thick branches. Branches big enough to be trees in their own right.
Her majestic appearance is all thanks to the art of pollarding and is possibly one of the reasons the Knightwood Oak has survived as long as she has. Pollarding is the art of lopping off the tops of the tree so wood can be harvested for charcoal production without killing it off. The process encourages limbs to grow more sizably, but gnarled and crooked, in a horizontal direction giving the workers easier access. The practice of pollarding was stopped in the New Forest when the Royal Navy commissioned the timber for shipbuilding which required much straighter pieces of wood. Perhaps it was her unusual shaped limbs, and knotted bark that saved her from the woodcutter.
Those strapping limbs twist skyward, outstretched in an open invitation to the various wildlife that inhabits her kingdom. Woodpeckers, tawny owls, and sparrowhawks all come to rest a while on her branches, as the smaller song-birds flit through her leaves and glossy feathered blackbirds pick through debris at her feet. Cardinal beetles and oak pinhole beetles reside in deep fissured bark, as squirrels scuttle over-head and wood mice bustle through her considerable roots. Everyone’s welcome in this Queen’s palace.
Standing below the regal Knightwood Oak, neck craned and eyes skyward, trying to take in the full scale from trunk to crown, my mind searches for the words that might tell her story. Majestic. Royal. Epic. Grand. They all loop through my mind and roll off my tongue but then they drop, languidly to the forest floor beneath my feet for the blackbirds to sift through. Perhaps one day the right words will come, I’ll just have to keep visiting this forest queen until they do.
Cover image: By MalcolmGould at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19987942