Under the spell of Suffolk’s magical oaks

Ancient man of the forest, self-contained ecosystem, cultural icon and boundary landmark – the oak tree touches us like no other tree species.

High on the roll call of Suffolk’s most precious landscapes is a magical area of ancient oak trees found in Rendlesham Forest not far from Woodbridge. Known locally as Staverton Thicks, the location was once a deer park, much of which remains on a private estate but there is a public footpath that runs through part of the wood.

This enchanting place is home to hundreds of gnarly oaks, many over 400 years old, which captivate all those who visit here, including the late, revered historical ecologist Oliver Rackham.

In his opus, The History of the Countryside, published in 1986, Rackham described Staverton as an “awesome place of Tolkienesque wonder” where “the mighty and bizarre shapes of oaks of unknown age rise out of a sea of tall bracken, or else are mysteriously surrounded by rings of yet mightier hollies”.

Today, the oaks and hollies of Staverton continue to elicit awe. Laden with knobs and burls and resembling old men of the forest, some of the trees are hollowed out with age although still alive. Other trees that have fallen litter the leafy floor like beached whales, their decaying innards providing sustenance to fungi and insects.

Heart of Oak

The oak seems to enthral us British like no other tree. We have a special relationship with Quercus robur, the scientific name for the English Oak – one of around 500 species of oak tree found in the Northern Hemisphere.  

The distinctive lobed leaf of the oak is the emblem of the Woodland Trust while ‘Heart of Oak’ is the official marching tune of the Royal Navy – a reference to the wood which made British warships and helped Britannia Rule the Waves.  Remarkably, more than 5,000 oaks were used to build HMS Victory, Lord Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

The oak’s sturdiness for maritime pursuits is one reason why we have so many of the trees in England – they were planted in great numbers to provide building material for our ships. The legacy is that today the UK is home to more ancient oaks than all the EU countries combined.

And it is not just ships that were made of oak. Any house in Suffolk over a hundred years old is likely to have oak timbers – this respected tree providing shelter centuries after it has been felled.

Maybe it is this sheer durability of oaks that provokes our veneration. It is said that an oak tree takes 300 years to grow, 300 years to mature, and 300 years to die. They are long-standing members of the community; marked on maps as important boundary trees; living cartographical and cultural landmarks that define the landscape of East Anglia and beyond.

A split ancient oak in Captain’s Wood Photo: Steve Aylward


For Steve Aylward, head of property and projects at Suffolk Wildlife Trust (SWT), it is the high numbers of associated wildlife that oaks support – more than any other native tree species – that makes them particularly special.

“Oaks host hundreds of insects, which in turn provide a food source for birds,” he says.

“At different stages of an oak’s lifecycle there are specialist communities of invertebrates that move in – even when an oak is dying, it provides habitat for wood-boring beetles, which only live in the soft and decaying heartwood in oaks. Barbastelle bats and barn owls also live and nest in oak trees.”

A good place to get close to veteran oak trees is Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s wonderful Captain’s Wood reserve at Sudbourne, near Snape.  I visited in early winter and spent a blissful few hours walking and taking in the atmosphere. At one point a stag fallow deer and two hinds made a break for it through the bracken; a hare scuttled for cover; goldcrests flew in and out of the gorse. I saw fantastically twisted and distorted oaks, including one which had split in half, making space for a rowan tree to grow through the middle.

Lord Phillips with the Texan oak given to him by Michael Heseltine Photo: Ross Bentley

Domesday Book

In my hometown of Sudbury I regularly pass through a boulevard of oaks, originally planted in 1902 to celebrate the coronation of Edward VII. I find myself drawn to one majestic specimen in particular – its huge lower branches stretch out more than 20 feet in several directions. Such is the weight of these gigantic limbs, metal supports have been attached across the span of the tree to prevent it from rupturing, in the same way that tie bars are used to bear the load of walls on old buildings.

Just across the green from this tree lives Andrew Phillips – a self- confessed oak enthusiast who has owned eight acres of ancient woodland at nearby Assington for more than 30 years.

Now retired, Mr Phillips ran a busy law firm in London for much of this time and also sat in the House of Lords as a Liberal Democrat life peer. He describes the wood as his ‘sanctuary’ – a place he would escape to at weekends to balance his hectic life in the city.

Mr Phillips says if he passes an oak tree he likes on his travels, he will stop and pick up a few acorns, which he plants in his garden, to bring on and then transplant to his wood.

“Over the years, I have planted around 35 oaks in open spaces in the wood – most of them seem happy to be there. The biggest of them are now standing 25 to 35ft high.”

Notable oaks growing in his wood include a Texan oak, grown from a sapling given to him by Michael Heseltine that he carried home on the Tube. He also has two evergreen oaks grown from acorns brought back from a trip to California, and a tree that was originally a sapling from an oak located on the Welsh borders that, incredibly, is listed in the Domesday Book.

“I like the shape they grow, the birds they harbour, the space they give underneath their branches for other plant life,” says Mr Phillips, explaining his love of oaks.

“I have a natural affinity with them. As I get older and dafter, I find myself identifying with our primeval ancestors who felt oaks possessed a being beyond their physical limits – I sense that oaks congregate like people do and converse.”

Potent symbol

Mr Phillips confesses that he even hugs one particular oak from time to time. He is, therefore, a tree hugger, a moniker that was once used to mock environmentalists but, as the green agenda has moved into the mainstream, so tree hugging has become less of a taboo.

It is a term that a decade ago would have been aimed at the community in the west Suffolk village of Thurston, who last summer (August 2020) came out in force to protest against the scheduled destruction of four old oaks to make way for a new housing development and cycle path.

The village sign for Thurston features an oak tree

One tree was felled but the remaining three have been given a stay of execution while other options are explored.

According to Wendy Turner, Green Party Mid Suffolk councillor for Thurston, which ironically boasts an oak tree as its village sign, the protests were started by local Extinction Rebellion activists before the villagers were galvanised.

She says the oaks became potent symbols of the climate change and biodiversity crisis, and stood in stark contrast to the lifeless “spirally fir trees” that were erected at the entrance to the new development.

“The crisis is now so acute that the environment and biodiversity have to take priority over everything else,” says councillor Turner.

“The development should have been designed around the trees.  The whole sorry affair reflects how little we value nature and why we are in such an environmental mess.”

This article first appeared in the March 2021 issue of the Suffolk Magazine.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: