September 14, 2015

A wishing tree

At the weekend we went for a walk that started in Chesham in Buckinghamshire, a terminus of the Metropolitan line to the north-east of the city and the furthest Tube station from the centre of town. Right out in Zone 9 (who even knew there was a Zone 9?!) Chesham is outside the M25 and feels very, very far from London.

From the Tube station you can climb quickly up and out of the valley to find yourself in farmland within a few minutes; there's something satisfying in freeing yourself of it so quickly, and then turning around to see the town far below you. It reminded me a little of climbing up out of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, on Dartmoor, and seeing its granite buildings and church from the moor above.

We clearly weren't the only people to enjoy the view, and an old oak in an arable field above the town had two plastic chairs under its canopy, making it a great place to sit and catch one's breath:

Yet as we drew closer we realised that there was more to the tree than just somewhere to sit and rest, or a place for schoolkids to enjoy an illicit spliff or bottle of Smirnoff Ice. In fact, the oak was hung all around with ribbons and charms. Clearly, it was a wishing tree:


There were also glass jars with folded messages in (I didn't look), and even a pentangle made of twigs; who can say whether the person who hung it there knew anything of the five-pointed star's pagan connotations?

The oak's bark was deeply incised with what I presumed were initials. Half-healed and algae-stained, it wasn't a recent carving:

Wishing trees, hung with ribbons and rags, are not uncommon in Cornwall and the south-west, where they are often associated with 'clootie' or 'cloutie' wells (healing springs); in Cumbria and Scotland I've come across wishing trees stuck all over with coins. But this oak, above Chesham, is probably the closest wishing tree to pragmatic old London that I've found.

It makes me wonder how long it's been special for, and why it came to be thought of as so. The Celts conducted marriage ceremonies under oaks, the couple dancing three times around the trunk and and afterwards incising an X in the bark; in some places, the tradition is thought to have carried on until the 19th century. The Christian church turned landmark oaks to their own purposes: the village parson reading Bible verses beneath 'Gospel' or 'Holy' oaks during the annual Rogation procession.

They are our national emblem and our most common deciduous tree; they support more forms of life than any other native species, and their place in our folklore is rich and assured. I'm not surprised that Chesham's wishing tree is an oak; but I'd love to know why it's this one in particular.