There are very few people who have heard of Nantree and even fewer who know where it is…

It was my Gran, who, according to my dad, was always full of stuff and nonsense, who used to take me and my sister there.  It was her favourite spot, an ancient pedunculate oak deep in the forest - its buttresses and trunk made an ideal place for her to rest her weary feet and for us to devour her hastily made egg sandwiches. Once refuelled, she’d often kick off her old wellies and deliberately extend her rest by telling us stories of the strange creatures that lived in the wood. As I got older, I realised it was not just Gran who was full of woodland tales.

Oaks are one of the most widely revered of trees and as such have a fair amount of mythology to tell. The earliest spirits of Greek mythology are the dryads. Whilst in Britain, King Arthur’s round table was said to be of oak, and Merlin’s wand made from the very top branch of an oak tree. In Nottinghamshire, Robin Hood’s Major Oak, where he is said to have held his meetings with his band of men, still stands today (though it is propped up!). In Drudaic tradition, the oak is used in many celebrations, including at the spring equinox, where it is called upon to encourage the warmth of the sun. Many cultures see the oak as the tree of the thunder gods, a tradition that holds true in Britain with the Anglo-Saxon’s associating Thor, the Thunder God, with the tree as it is said to attract lightning.  This possibly arose because lightning is said to strike the oak more than any other tree – ever wondered why that wooden light pull in the bathroom looks like an acorn? In ancient medicine, due to the oak’s deep roots and our feet being the point of contact with the earth, oak ointments were said to aid weary feet – perhaps my Gran was not so full of nonsense after all!

But it’s not just oaks that are associated with plant-lore.

In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil was a great Ash located at the center of the Universe. Within the branches of the tree was said to be four deer, whose moisture from their antlers fell as dew to the earth. In fact, if you look at an ash twig, the buds look very similar to the hooves of deer.

The holly was believed, as an evergreen, to keep the secrets of spring in its branches and carry the green of nature safely through the dark winter months.

Wild flowers also have a lot of plant-lore associated with them.  It was believed that it was unlucky to walk through a mass of bluebells, because the flower was used to call the Fairies and, with each flower full of spells, you could easily become spell bound.  Snowdrops are also, in some folklore, said to be unlucky. Often found in cemeteries, it was believed that to bring a snowdrop into the house was to invite death.  Foxgloves or Fairy Glove, with its flowers spotted with purple, are said to be evidence of where the enchanted ones have placed their fingers, though the markings are in fact to attract bees.

So was my Gran just a teller of tales or did she know something more?

To this day my family still visit the area we call Nantree. Though the surrounds have changed, dense wood is partly holiday lodges, old glades are tightly mown amenity areas and quiet fox trails surfaced footpaths. But still we come. Nieces, nephews and partners have all been and all taken something away with them, something memorable. That feeling that this is a special place, our place.  My last visit was with my 86 year old dad, who hobbled on his sticks across the trip hazard terrain (he doesn’t believe in risk assessments). Once there he took my hand and spontaneously hugged the tree – nothing was said. It didn’t have to be. It was a moment of emotional energy.

With pressures on our environment growing and the ever present threat of pests and pathogens such as the non-native processionarry moth, Acute Oak Decline and Chronic Oak Decline, I fear for places such as Nantree and wonder which will survive the longest – the tales of Nantree or the forest.  Or, one day, will both just become a myth? 

Nigel Tomkinson
Senior Countryside Warden – East Cornwall