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  • The Oak of Fairlop August 25, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    One of little Miss B’s favourite films – a Japanese fable – includes a line about the time when ‘men and trees were friends’. Beach has his doubts that there ever was, in fact, friendship between the human race and the arboreal ones. But there are occasional instances when special trees and nearby human community’s have lived in appreciative interaction. Here is another notable oak to add to those collected in June. This text comes from the early nineteenth century.

    In a glade of Hainhault-forest in Essex, about a mile from Barkinside, stands an oak, which has been known through many centuries, by the name of Fairlop. The tradition of the country traces it half way up the Christian era. It is still a noble tree, though it has now suffered greatly from the depredations of time. About a yard from the ground, where its rough fluted stem is thirty-six feet in circumference, it divides into eleven vast arms; yet not, in the horizontal manner of an oak, but rather in that of a beech. Beneath its shade, which overspreads an area of three hundred feet in circuit, an annual fair has long been held, on the 2nd of July; and no booth is suffered to be erected beyond the extent, of its boughs. But as their extremities are now become sapless, and age is yearly curtailing their length, the liberties of the fair seem to be in a desponding condition.

    The origins of this fair are to be found in the munificence of one of those good souls that live blameless, anonymous lives: a Mr Daniel Day.

    Mr Day, after being in business some years, having a small estate near Fairlop Oak, was in the habit of going there every year about a fortnight after Midsummer, to receive his rents; and being of a convivial turn, it was his constant custom to invite a few of his neighbours to accompany him from town, and treat them with a repast of beans, bacon, etc. under the canopy of the oak; the accommodations being provided from the May-pole, a small public-house. At length Mr Day’s friends were so well pleased with the rural novelty, that they pledged themselves, one and all, to accompany him on the same occasion every year, the first Friday in July, during their lives. This meeting being noticed by the neighbouring gentry, farmers, arid yeomanry, they could not resist visiting the place annually, on Mr. Day’s jubilee; and as suttling booths, were soon found necessary, various others sprung up in succession around this huge oak; so that about the year 1725, this pleasant spot began to wear every kind of resemblance to a regular fair; and puppet-shows, wild beasts, fruits, gingerbread, ribbands, and toys of all sorts succeeding, this new generation of Mr Day’s creating, became his principal hobby-horse; and as he thought some return due to the lads and lasses who had paid him so much attention, he provided several sacks of beans and a sufficient quantity of dressed bacon, which were distributed from the trunk of the tree to the multitude in pans full and this custom he continued till his death in 1767.

    The tree won fame for the fair, but its health suffered.

    The honour [of this fair], however, is great: but honours are often accompanied with inconveniences; and Fairlop has suffered from its honourable distinctions. In the feasting that attends a fair, fires are often necessary; and no places seemed so proper to make them in, as the hollow cavities formed by the heaving roots of the tree. This practice has brought a speedier decay on Fairlop, than it might otherwise have suffered.

    As to Mr Day himself his fate was intertwined like ivy around the tree he so loved.

    His favourite oak receiving a shock by a storm a few years before Mr Day’s death, it operated upon him like the warning of an old friend, and he set about that task with alacrity, the very conception of which would have made some men shudder. Under favour of the Lord of the Manor of Fairlop, he procured a limb of his favourite tree, and employed Mr Clear, a carpenter, to convert it without delay into a coffin. This being brought home, neatly panelled and highly polished with bees’  wax, Mr Day, looking with the greatest calmness upon his future habitation, and punning upon the carpenter’s name, observed, ‘Mr Clear, it is not very clear to me that you have made this coffin long enough.’ Then laying himself down in it, ‘Never mind, (says he) if it be so, you must remind my executors to have my head cut off after my decease, and place it between my legs.’… In fine, he lived- as he would say, merry and wise; and dying in the eighty-fourth year of his age, was buried in his own oak coffin: and at Barking churchyard in Essex.

    A source whose reliability Beach cannot test claim that Mr Day’s oak was blown down, full of years in 1820. A new oak was planted on the same spot in 1909. Beachcombing is increasingly convinced that a small and glossy book should be written on famous oaks: any other historical oaks or other trees to add to the already growing list – drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com. He recently came across a Hitler oak in the US (signalled in the new BH news section bottom left) that might be worth a look.


    26 Aug 2011: KMH has this vague memory of tree traditions – a dangerous tradition to say the least – ‘Have you ever heard of the notion of planting a tree for a child and so long as the tree lives the child will live also? If the child actually dies first then the tree will die soon thereafter. I believe this was prevalent in Western Europe especially with oak trees but my foggy brain will disclose no further  details, and apparently neither will Google.’ Any ideas? Thanks KMH!

    27 Aug 2011: Invisible writes in answer to KMH: ‘On the tradition of planting a tree for a child. I am familiar with that tradition and have known people who have done it. I have no idea where it comes from. Most of the people I might have heard it from are Northern European/British Isles stock. I have seen references (from now-defunct pages) that it is a Jewish custom. There is also a suggestion that the placenta is planted with the tree. Apparently placenta/tree planting can also be a Polynesian and African birth ritual. Here is another story about a tree/death link. Zoar was a community of German Separatists. They were noted for the symbolic garden in the center of their settlement and for their gardening prowess. Here is a picture and short explanation of the garden.  And a more detailed explanation ‘Morhart’s great-grandmother Roth lived in the house with them. She loved the garden and, especially, a beautiful evergreen tree. A neighbor remarked to Morhart’s grandmother, ‘Ani [great-grandmother] loves that tree so much that I am afraid to think what will happen to that tree when she cannot see it anymore.’ Grandmother Dischinger thought this was a strange thing to say. But Ani died and several weeks later, the neighbors noticed that some of the beautiful evergreen’s branches were turning yellow. They were lopped off, but one after another the branches turned yellow and within a few months the tree was dead. The neighbor next door told Grandmother Dischinger, ‘I was afraid of that. She took it with her. That has been done before’.’ Source: The Zoar Story, Hilda Morhart Dischinger p. 43-4 Vaguely similar sentiments can be found in ‘The Last Leaf’ by O. Henry: and a heart-warming story about planting trees when children are born.’ Thanks Invisible!