Trees have featured in Cumbrian history and folklore since earliest times; the Atlantic Oakwoods of Borrowdale wouldn’t look out of place in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and the now sadly depleted Inglewood Forest (Wood of the Angles) was home to the Robin Hood of the North, Adam Bell.
Ash tree of Patrick
There stood an ash tree at Aspatria associated with St. Patrick. The saint, carried with him a walking stick made of ash. On one occasion St. Patrick preached for so long the walking stick developed roots and began to grow into a tree. The spot of this ‘miracle’ became known as Aspatria – ash tree of Patrick.
Near the village of Shap, there stood a venerable old ash tree. How old it was is not recorded, but for many a long year it harboured a sinister reputation, and acquired the name of the Janet Tree (or the Jennet Tree) for it was said to serve as a home to a witch of that name, or, more accurately, to her ghost of said witch. Janet, you see, was but one of many local miscreants who had met their end hanging from the branches of the tree. Janet was reputed to terrify passers-by as she sat above in the branches, knitting. Local children were told not to linger by the tree so that Janet might not harm them, but those brave enough to wish her a “good evening” would discover that Janet would vanish before their eyes.
“The Janet Tree” a film and folklore collaboration with Bardsea-Green Films
Perhaps a tale too recent for ‘folk lore’, however, in the grounds of Conishead Priory, Ulverston stands a large Cedar of Lebanon. It’s date of planting is unknown, but the first Cedar of Lebanon were planted in Britain around 1664. In 1976, students of Lama Thubten Yeshe founded the Manjushri Institute at Conishead Priory, and so began the myth of the Naga Tree. Nagas within Buddhist mythology are a serpent race that assume their physical form as human, partial human-serpent or the whole serpent. They are associated with bodies of waters and trees. The early Tibetan Lamas were convinced nagas lived in this tree, and offerings were placed underneath to pacify them, as their power and venom makes them potentially dangerous to humans.
Tom Fool’s Tree
Muncaster Castle features Tom Fool’s Tree, a Spanish Chestnut underneath which the last Fool of Muncaster, Thomas Skelton – thought to be the Tom Fool of legend – would sit in the 16th century and determine the fate of passers-by who asked for directions.
If he liked these folk, he sent them onwards on a safe route; if he did not, he sent them to their death on the quicksands.
For 600 years, Jack’s Yak is T’owd Yak grew in St Michael’s churchyard, near Lowther. This elderly oak tree sadly fell on 23rd January 2020. It’s branches were held up by wooden posts since, legend had it, that should a branch touch the ground, the Earls of Lonsdale will fall.
The oak at Irton Hall is said to have sheltered King Henry IV in 1464 after the local residents refused him sanctuary.
An oak tree once stood in Whinfield Park, called the Harts-horn Tree. In legend, a hart (red deer stag) was chased by a single dog, named Hercules, from the Park to Red-Kirk in Scotland and back again, a distance of some 80 miles. When they came near this tree the hart leaped the wall but the dog, worn out with fatigue, was unable to follow him, and died. The deer, equally fatigued, couldn’t proceed any further and expired – the dog dead on one side of the wall, and the deer on the other. In memory of this remarkable chase, the deer’s antlers were fixed on the tree.
In the grounds of the pub at Clifton, stands an ancient oak tree beneath which lie buried, a dozen Jacobite soldiers from the Clifton Moor Skirmish. The ‘battle’ took place on the evening of Wednesday 18th December during the Jacobite rising of 1745. Following the decision to retreat from Derby on 6th December, the fast-moving Jacobite army split into three smaller columns; on the morning of 18th, a small force of dragoons led by Cumberland and Sir Philip Honywood made contact with the Jacobite rear guard, at that point commanded by Lord George Murray. Murray ordered his baggage train to continue its retreat towards Penrith while he delayed Cumberland’s force. The action did not begin until late afternoon, in failing light and heavy rain; while technically a draw, it enabled Murray to retreat in good order and escape into Scotland.
The ghost of Elizabeth Sleddall rises from her watery grave in the River Eden and appears weeping in the branches of the oak tree as an omen of trouble for a member of the Machell family of Crackenthorpe Hall.
A memorial now stands in place of the oak tree used to hang six Jacobite rebels in 1726. Their ghosts apparently still haunt the area on the anniversary of their execution.
“On Tuesday last were executed at Brampton agreeable to their sentence Peter Taylor, Michael Dellard, Ronald Macdonald, James Innes, Peter Lindesay, and Thomas Park, who behaved as becoming men in their condition. The three first were Roman Catholics and the last three Protestants”
In tradition, newly-weds would dance three times around an oak tree and then carve a small cross on it for good luck. Such trees were called ‘marriage oaks’. One such oak stood at Brampton until it was cut down by someone unaware of its sacred nature.
The large oak on the left as you drive close to Greenodd from Lowick, in the grounds of a large private house. The monks from Furness Abbey would sit underneath it when they came to collect rent.
At least 1,000 years old, this yew was described by William Wordsworth as “the pride of Lorton Vale”. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, preached here under the yew tree, between 1752 and 1761. George Fox a founder of the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers, preached under the yew to a large crowd that included soldiers from Cromwell’s army.
In 1881, Druids, angered by the Duke of Suffolk’s plan to build a railway line through the Forest of Ipswich, informed local tree-spirits of his dastardly plan. This caused the entire 370 acres of woodland to relocate itself to Cumbria.
Court of the Forest
The hawthorn was traditionally associated with places of trial and justice. Two places (that I know of) remain in Cumbria where thorn trees mark this site: Hesket-in-the-Forest and Inglewood.
The myth of the Barnacle Tree stretches back to the 12th century, and is associated with the question as to whether the barnacle goose is flesh, fish, or neither. The notion that the geese actually grow from shells on decaying wood was widely debated in late 1500 – 1600s art and literature. “They spawn as it were in March and April; the Geese are formed in May and June, and come to fulnesse of feathers in the moneth after” – John Gerard, 1597. One place where the decaying wood from shipwrecks bred such Barnacle Trees was a small island called the Pile of Foulders. We now know it as Piel Island.
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