The Great British Oak

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The Great British Oak

By Archie Miles

Constable & Robinson – £35.00

This lavishly illustrated history of Britain’s iconic oak tree, really is something.

Something to be recognised and wholly, if not at least metaphorically, embraced; for as mentioned on the outside sleeve of The Great British Oak, this ”is a tribute to an enduring symbol of strength and resiliance, the first such book of its kind and one that will resonate for many years to come.”

Replete with two-hundred and fifty fantabulous photographs, along with profiles of fifty famous oaks of enormous character and unique cultural value, Archie Miles has herein assembled – of what I at least agree – is the first of it’s kind.

A cololurful, critical, yet highly informative account of what is organically and profoundly British.

To be sure, the book’s title alone underlines this issue, and were it not for the simple fact that the prime subject matter is essentially that of a tree, one could on ocasion, quite easily be misled into believing this was a geography book, or a predominantly cultural publication of fine, historical finesse. Such is the subject’s unbeknown gravitas: ”The ‘heart of oak’ is said to have built the British Empire, with oak timber having fuelled industry, architecture and shipbuilding for centuries. Since early civilization, oak trees have stimulated creative imaginations, resulting in a wide range of traditional crafts and inspiring delightful myths and legends. Here you will meet vast oaks that are estimated to be over 1,000 years old; oaks with fascinating forms and extraordinary tales to tell.”

As mentioned at the outset, the oak tree, is, for an array of deeply entrenched reasons, about as British as the writing(s) of Charles Dickens and the on-going culinary delight that is baked beans on toast. Author Miles substantiates, when in the chapter, ‘The Rise of Oak,’ he infallibly writes: ”Travel almost anywhere in Britain and the ubiquitous oak will never be far away, whether it be upland or lowland forest, hedgerow, parkland, or simply a statuesque singletree in the middle of a field. The oak has become so familiar that one could show the characteristic lobed shape of the oak to almost anyone with barely any knowledge of trees, and the overwhelming odds are that they would instantly be able to identify our National Tree.”

Is this not an aspect of Britishness that is sorely over-looked? Or taken for granted?

One need only read the following excerpt to fully comprehend the degree to which the great British oak has indeed been overlooked within the Rule Brittania induced stakes of appreciation: ”Exactly how far back through history the oak has been held sacred is uncertain, but about fifteen years ago the discovery of a woodhenge that was more than 4,000 years old on the coast of Norfolk brought the subject to life […]. The earliest recordings of spiritual associations with oak in Britain date back to the Druids of the Celtic people, as reported by the Romans when they arrived 2,000 years ago. The very name ‘Druid,’ in Welsh ‘derwydd‘, derives from derw anoak tree. The Roman author Pliny the Elder observed that the ‘the Druids’, for so they call their divines, esteem nothing more venerable than mistletoe, and the oak upon which it grows.”

The Great British Oak finds Archie Miles having reinforced the profound importance of this most magnificant of trees. As such, the book is overtly littered with interesting snippets, surprises and idiosyncratic historical relevance – of which the author really ought to have the penultimate word: ”The oak had long held an almost universal significance, revered by Greeks, Romans, Britons, and Celts alike, as had the strange semi-parasitic mistleto plant.”

Who’d have thought?

David Marx

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