Hidden East Anglia:
Landscape Legends of Eastern England
Oaks & other notable trees:
In the days when parish boundaries were not so well fixed by maps, it was the custom at certain times of the year for the clergyman and his parishioners to walk the limits of their village, which were often marked by local landmarks such as stones, ditches, fords and ancient trees.
Under particularly notable trees - usually old oaks - the parson would stop to pray and read passages from the Gospels. Thus many parishes had their own 'Gospel Oak', the most well-known in East Anglia being that at Polstead in Suffolk. All the others of which I could find a record were also in that county:
Barking: In a field to the east of the churchyard driveway there used to be a Gospel Oak (TM078537) that locals claimed to be over 2000 years old. Certainly of a respectable age, it was dead when I saw it in the 1970s, but there was no sign of it when I visited in September 2020.
Source: Arthur Mee: 'The King's England - Suffolk' (Hodder and Stoughton, 1941), p.29.
Chevington: "In a lease of the 1st year of Queen Elizabeth from Sir Clement Heigham, of lands in Chevington (near Bury), occur one meadow called the New Mede, and one other piece of ground, being leye, next a bush called the Gospel Bush".
Source: 'The East Anglian, or Notes & Queries', Vol.2, p.370.
Combs: Even the dead trunk of the Holy Oak has now gone, which used to stand at TM05055655, on the farm named after it. In former times, it's said that a large metal-bound Bible was chained to the tree, and the village people used to gather there at night to hear the Gospels read.1 However, the tree was recorded as 'Hollow Oake' in 1667, and 'Holleoke' in 1598 - which suggests that the tale may have arisen after a misreading of the name.2
1. 'The East Anglian, or Notes & Queries', Vol.7 (1897-8), pp.5-6.
Source: H. R. Barker: 'West Suffolk Illustrated' (Pawsey & Co, 1907.)
Lavenham: The Gospel Oak (TL896490) stood by the side of the Lavenham to Bridge Street road until it was struck by lightning in 1944 and burned to the ground. It was marked as such on an 1820 map of Long Melford by Isaac Johnson. This spot is where the parishes of Lavenham, Long Melford and Acton meet, and is mentioned in a late Anglo Saxon estate boundary charter as 'Heregeresheafod' - a sharp bend in the Acton bounds where the ploughs would turn, meaning 'Heregere's headland'. But there's no mention of the oak.
Other notable trees:
Aldborough, Norfolk: A well-known local landmark is the 'Watch Oak' on Hall Lane, supposedly used by smugglers as a look-out point from which they could watch for signals from Cromer that the contraband had been brought to shore.
Source: Federation of Essex Women’s Institutes: ‘The Norfolk Village Book’ (Countryside Books, 1990), p.12.
Bale, Norfolk: The Bale Oak was a giant until it was cut down in 1860. It stood very near to All Saints church, on a triangular plot of wooded land that today is owned and administered by the National Trust (TG010367), and harbours a grove of holm oaks planted to replace it. So large was it that 20 men could well stand inside it without touching each other, and the phrase 'as big as Bale Oak' was a common one when talking of something extremely large.
The 'Illustrated London News' of May 17th 1845 said that "the trunk alone remains as a memorial to its former magnificence...... Some years ago it was used as the place of abode of a cobbler who carried on his trade in it for an entire summer, having for the convenience of his occupation cut a doorway in the shell". The 18th century antiquary John Frere disagreed on its size, noting a "Hollow so large that 10 or 12 men may stand within it. A cobler had his Shop and lodge there of late, and is or was used for a swinesty". It was severely pollarded in 1795 and never recovered. Estimates of its age have ranged from 500 to 1000 years.
Benacre, Suffolk: Presumably the Money Tree at Benacre gained its name after, not before, the discovery of a coin hoard in its roots. Moneytree Clump (TM498841) still stands on the edge of the Benacre Park estate, beside the road from Kessingland to Wrentham, which was straightened and made into a turnpike in 1786. During this work a stone bottle was unearthed at the spot, containing over 900 Roman silver coins, "mostly in good preservation, and none older than the time of Vespasian. Sir Thomas Gooch bought 700 of them, and the remainder were sold to a Jew, who retailed them at a low rate in the neighbourhood". A few yards further south, another cache of coins was found in 1740.
Source: 'The East Anglian Miscellany', 1917/19, Note 4838.
Bungay, Suffolk: On Manor Farm near Bungay used to be two ancient and knotted elms known as the Siamese Twins. Because they were joined naturally by a short branch at a height of about 3 feet, they were sometimes called the 'Letter H Trees' (TM342878). They fell in the winter gales of 1977.
Earl’s Colne, Essex: There was a Robin Hood’s Oak recorded here in 1574, presumably having some connection in people’s minds with the outlaw’s exploits. It stood on Colneford Hill, where the A1124 climbs up from the Colne valley to enter White Colne.
Epping Upland, Essex: The manorial court leet of Priestbury was held beneath a maple tree beside what is now the B181, just north of Cobbin's Bridge. This is shown as 'Cut-maple' on the Chapman and Andre Essex map of 1777 (TL445040).
Source: B. Homer Dixon: 'Protestant Episcopal Layman's Handbook' (Hart & Co, Toronto, 1890), p.210-211.
Gaywood, Norfolk: In 1561, the Court for the Freebridge-Lynn Hundred was held under an oak tree here. Formerly having been held at the mound of Flitcham Burgh (see under Moot mounds), it was afterward held at the Fitton Oak at Wiggenhall (see below).
Great Horkesley, Essex: Another Robin Hood’s Oak is recorded in 1691, and mentioned in a perambulation of the boundaries of the Liberty of Colchester. This one stood on Horkesley Heath, on a hill next to a bridge over St. Botolph’s Brook.
Joseph Strutt: ‘The history and description of Colchester’, (W. Keymer, 1803), p.151.
Also in this parish, in Horkesley Park, was King John's Oak, until it was blown down in 1928. The area was once a medieval deer park, and the tale is that King John himself planted the oak between 1204 and 1215. In 2005, children of Littlegarth School planted a new oak sapling beside their sports field, close to the original site of the tree.
'East Anglian Daily Times' (online edition), November 5th, 2014.
Hatfield Broad Oak, Essex: Once known as Hatfield Regis, this parish was called by its present name as early as 1136, but the first written record of a specific tree as its origin doesn’t appear until 1295. Some people think it was a different specimen, but most believe the Doodle Oak was that specific tree, which stood at approx. TL535209, in Hatfield Forest. Felled in 1859, the rings of its stump were examined in the 1940s, and found to be 850 years old. In 1850 it was recorded as ‘Dieul Oak’ – possibly a reference to the Devil, but no story survives. Its site is marked now by a ring of stakes, and a central pillar bearing the name and age of the tree.
Matlaske, Norfolk: The name of Matlaske comes from the Old English mæđl-æsc, meaning 'ash tree where speeches/meetings are held', suggesting that somewhere here might have been a moot-place for the North Erpingham Hundred, or some other assembly.
Nacton, Suffolk: The lost parish of Hallowtree, which contained Alnesbourne Priory, is now contained within that of Nacton, and was named after a 'holy tree' that once existed here. The name Hallowtree now survives only as a Scouting campsite at TM194408.
Silver End, Essex: King Stephen’s Oak stood on a former parish boundary at approx. TL814197, at the edge of a field north of Bower Hall. It was said to have either been planted during the reign of that monarch (1135-54), or had been a hiding place for him.
Lt-Col. W. J. Lucas: 'Notes on Roman & Other Antiquities...' in 'Essex Naturalist' (1890), Vol. 4, p.156.
J. C. Shenstone: ‘The Oak Tree in Essex’, in ‘Essex Naturalist’ (1894), Vol.8, p.108.
Tittleshall, Norfolk: Near Tittleshall Common, where the road to Wellingham crosses the Roman Road, stands the so-called 'Murder Tree' (TF878212). It is said to mark the scene of a murder, which is supposed to tie in with the letters TB and the outline of an axe cut into the wood. However, the tree is on the Tittleshall parish boundary, so the letters might have something to do with that, and it's been suggested that the axe is a symbol that faggots were allowed to be cut on the common. The tree is now so covered in ivy that no marks can be seen.
Tivetshall St. Margaret, Norfolk: More than 500 years old at the time, Thwaite's Oak or the 'Big Oak' that stood at TM165878 was cut down in 1901. This is said locally to have been an act of revenge by a man who had been driven out of the village, after making a fortune in the gold fields of America, and who then bought up large tracts of the parish. In 2006 a replacement was planted in the same field.
Wiggenhall St. Germans, Norfolk: Near Fitton Hall once stood the Fitton Oak, where the Court for the Freebridge-Lynn Hundred was held from 1562 until about 1710, having previously been at Flitcham Burgh and Gaywood.
Worlingham, Suffolk: The carved and painted Worlingham village sign (TM444898) shows, against a backdrop of flowing river, swans and rippling fields, a certain Martin Sutton, village cobbler, a plump and jolly man sitting in the opening of a hollow oak with a shoe-last between his knees, and the tools of his trade set out neatly on shelves inside the tree. A tradition says that a blacksmith also once shod a horse within the long-gone tree. The sign has clearly been re-painted since I last photographed it, and whoever did it, they have done a beautiful job.