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‘A symphony of ancient trees’

I’m at a music festival. I’m lying on the ground and letting the sound wash over me. A well-known band has drained the crowds away to the main stage and a remaining scatter of people has sought the shade of a stand of trees above this smaller venue, absorbing the mellow music of what is clearly a late night band. Yet it’s noon at the height of our hottest summer. The exhausted skies are drained of their blueness after weeks of heat. Beneath us, the grass is as colourless and crisp as wind-blown sand. A few yards away, an Italian couple is practising elegant acrobatic lifts. As she balances delicately, her foot on his hand, she reaches up. My gaze follows. Massed green leaves that I don’t recognise reach out smooth fingers, drawing blue from above. They lack the bold handprints of the chestnut, and the small fruits are green globes rather than spiky-sputnik burrs. I sit up and squint, and then notice a copper label at the foot of one of dusty grey trunk indicating that these are walnuts. Whoever lends their land to this long weekend of hedonism is clearly proud of their trees.

The exhausted skies are drained of their blueness after weeks of heat.

The festival is Wilderness. Held every August on the Cornbury Estate in Oxfordshire, its promotional material claims it is an escape to ‘a soul-nourishing paradise among a symphony of ancient trees.’ Amid the eclectic music and ‘feasting and dining’ experiences, festival-goers can swim in the lakes (after removing their glitter to avoid harming the fish) or do a circuit of the grounds with a morning running group. Tapping more deeply into atavism are the exclusive guided groups that depart into the Wychwood Forest to forage for mushrooms, or learn how to butcher a ready-culled roe deer. Late at night, revellers queue up to descend into a secluded glade known as the Valley, where bacchanalian excess is promised. Costumes include scales, feathers and fur.

The festival landscape is pegged with trees, and they make generous hosts. On arrival, we are greeted by upstanding hornbeams that mark the entrance to the elegant twin lakes. Smoke from wood burners heating six hot tubs lifts and mingles through their upper branches. Above, on the far bank, a Douglas Fir beckons us on into classic English parkland. Here, the rolling pastureland is held down by mature trees in full summer leaf-garb. Stages, stands and stalls are picked out by colourful vertical flags. Festival-going tribes wander.

The trees have active role in the proceedings. They mark the way, cradle coloured lights and offer respite from the overpinning heat. Sweet chestnuts twist their spiralled trunks to the background beats. On a rise, a sweeping beech forms a junction between the craft stalls and the food alley and gathers families to picnic in its shade. Offering a cool breeze by day, at night its microclimate turns mysteriously chill, causing us to wrap our arms around ourselves and move briskly on when we pass under its branches.

Sweet chestnuts twist their spiralled trunks to the background beats.

My favourite is a majestically gnarled oak. One morning I spot it offering a handy niche to a teenage boy. Sitting six foot up amid its knobbly bole, dressed in white from baseball cap to trainers, he rests one foot on the stump of a branch and casually examines his phone. He is at ease, and so is the tree. Judging by its girth, its hollows and carbuncles, this oak would be classified as veteran (aged between 150-300 years) if not ancient (over 400 years old). It’s possible that it has hosted many similarly casual young men during its long lifetime.

Later that day I see a couple reverently running their hands over its bark, as though expecting a be-leaved green man to emerge from its fissured surface.

Back home, showered and clean, the music gradually fades from my ears. But the trees, and the oaks in particular, have left a lasting imprint, and I resolve to find out more.

The Cornbury parkland was carved out from the forest of the Wychwood, a royal hunting ground since Saxon times and mentioned in the Domesday book of 1086. Named either after its ‘wic’ springs, or an Anglo-Saxon Hwicce tribe – sources vary – the medieval Wychwood covered some 50,000 acres from Woodstock to Taynton, about 16 miles from west to east. Not all of it would have been dense woodland. The hunters liked to have clear areas so they could get an open view of their prey. The deer were protected by Forest Law, and anyone found poaching risked having their limbs lopped off by the forester’s axe. Gradually, the land near the surrounding settlements of Charlbury and Finstock was cleared or ‘assarted’ for cultivation. Villagers coppiced the underwood and let their swine and cattle gobble up the beech mast and acorns.

The hunting lodge remained royal property until 1642 when Charles I gave the house in perpetuity to Henry Danvers, Lord Danby. A keen horticulturalist, Henry donated five acres of land to the University of Oxford for the creation of a physic garden, and then built a wall around his bit of park. His successor, Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, added to the house and planted nearly 2,000 trees in a single year.

It is entirely possible that the oak providing a perch for the lad with the phone was one of those trees – if it were not already a vigorous middle-aged tree by then. Oaks reputedly grow for three hundred years, mature for three hundred, then decay for three hundred more. The age of the Cornbury trees is not publicly recorded, unlike those at nearby Blenheim Palace, once also part of the Wychwood. Its grounds contain nearly a thousand ancient and veteran oaks – the biggest collection in Europe. Nearly 60 of them can be dated back to the Middle Ages, and the oldest, the King Oak, is reckoned to be over 1,045 years old.

The Cornbury/Wilderness oaks of today must have survived the heavy culling of the late eighteenth century. The Royal Navy made the first big blows, procuring at least 500 trees from the Wychwood to help create the ‘wooden walls’ of Nelson’s fleet. The effort to build 300 gunships – each requiring about 4,000 oak trees, equivalent to 40 hectares of woodland – meant that many more of Britain’s forests were plundered. Most of the vessels sailed for just 12 years. Then came enclosures, and a second round of clearances. In the two years that followed the Parliamentary Act for the Disafforestation of the Wychwood in 1857, around 2,000 acres of the forest were cleared and planted for crops.

The trees that remained had recently witnessed revelries wild enough to rival any modern music festival. The notorious festivities were instigated, ironically, by the teetotal Methodists. Wishing to preserve their families from the riotous local town fairs, the upright citizens of Witney – including Edward Early, manufacturer of the town’s famous blankets – decided to create their own. The first Forest Fair was held on the Newell Plain – site of the present-day Wilderness – in 1819, and was intended to be a genteel carnival of picnicking and games. Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 17 September that year reported it a success: ‘The unclouded and brilliant and sunny morning attracted a vast concourse of persons,’ it trumpeted. Within a few years, enterprising vendors had begun setting up refreshment stalls. The event soon spiralled into a curiously familiar scene, captured vividly in the present tense by local headmaster Jesse Clifford in his 1892 Reminiscences:

“There cannot be less than 15-20,000 in the tumultuous sea of human beings. The Plain is literally thronged, the shouting, the calling, the gongs, the music, is bewildering…Everybody seems bent on enjoyment.”

500 splendid coloured lamps lit up the night

Although the menageries of beasts, and freak-show monstrosities such as a pig-faced lady and a calf with two heads are thankfully long gone, other features that Clifford describes are recognisable. There are ‘booths for refreshments of both kinds, drinks predominating’ along with theatrical entertainments and a dancing salon. On the brow of the hill overlooking the lake where Lord Churchill’s pleasure boat Fanny was anchored, was a ‘well-planned street of stalls for sale of sweets and confectionery, and others for clothes and flannels.’ Could our breezy beech tree have been present at that junction even then, when ‘500 splendid coloured lamps lit up the night’?

Clifford’s account touches on the darker side of a fair which attracted ‘every kind of evil genius.’ A pickpocket caught red-handed was hustled down to the lake and ducked three times. A woman was found hiding seven stolen watches in her long hair.

Eventually, having been limited to just one day in an attempt to limit its drunkenness and debauchery, the Wychwood Forest Fair was banned in 1853. It had run for over three decades.

I wonder whether at any point during those years a boy in white had surveyed the scene from a certain oak tree. And if music lovers had lain in the shade of a walnut grove, or had their hair ruffled by the cooling breeze beneath a beech tree.

© Laura Parker

This piece was published by The Clearing in May 2023.

Festivals, Wychwood

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