A Tale of Two Trees

Wharncliffe Lodge

Or is it just one tree, or two trees in one? Robin Hood's Oak Tree / The Letter Box Tree 

Letter box tree.jpg
Wharncliffe Lodge 6.jpg

I came across an unusal photograph called "The Letter Box Tree," which has prompted this article.

Wharncliffe Lodge stands at the southern edge of Wharncliffe Crags and was built as a hunting lodge in 1510 by Sir Thomas Wortley.  The present building is largely 18th century, and it was remodelled in the 19th century.  Lady Mary Wortley Montagu lived there occasionally in the early 18th century.  The level land behind the crags is known as Wharncliffe Chase, and in the Middle Ages it formed part of a royal hunting park.  The lodge was built at around the time that Sir Thomas extended the Chase, he being very fond of hunting.  He demolished two small hamlets so that he could incorporate the land into the Chase.

Writing in 1837, John Holland [1] mentioned two specific oak trees near the Lodge, but later writers only refer to one.  

The first tree Holland mentioned he called the "OAK-BORNE BIRCH."

He wrote that this tree was within the enclosure in front of the Lodge.  It was an old oak, of considerable girth, and greatly decayed.  Its trunk was very hollow, but its most remarkable feature was that a large and flourishing birch tree seemed to be perfectly grafted onto one of its boughs.  This he deemed impossible, and he also did not think a birch tree seed had germinated in the decayed branch.  The birch tree could have grown by chance or been deliberately planted within the oak, but whatever the explanation, the birch then relied on the oak for support if not for nourishment, it having a stout healthy tap root or sucker descending to the ground inside the hollow tree.  He concluded that, "the whole is a curious illustration of what writers on vegetable phenomena have said of the manner in which plants sometimes adapt themselves to peculiar situations."

The second, quite separate tree he wrote about he captioned "ANOTHER NOTABLE TREE."

This tree stood just outside the enclosed plot in which the oak-borne birch stood.  This tree was also an ancient oak, and was also quite hollow, and, he said, "apparently in the last stage of sylvan decrepitude."  He wrote that six people could not span its trunk, and more than six could stand inside its trunk:

----we have admired that antique oak

Of size immense; not six, with outstretched arms,

Can span its mighty round, and more than six

Might stand within its huge and hollow trunk.”

He put the circumference of this tree as being at least seven yards.  The tree was popular with visitors, and young people were fond of squeezing themselves into its "time-hollowed trunk."  

Twenty seven years later, Theophilus Smith [2] provided the photographs for a book called "Wharncliffe, Wortley and the Valley of the Don."  I am told that this was written by John Holland, although the edition I have seen only mentions Smith.  The text about the tree is taken almost word for word from Holland's 1837 book.  This time he mentiones just one tree, the oak/birch tree.  The only difference in the text is that by now this ancient, hollow tree's decaying boughs were being supported by props.  A photograph of the tree shows it surrounded by a fence and held up with the props.  The other oak tree is not mentioned, so perhaps it had totally collapsed by this time.

Fast forward to 1935, and the Sheffield Independent [3] ran an article about the oak/birch tree, which it called "Robin Hood's Oak,"  which stood opposite Earl Wharncliffe’s Lodge, perched on the top of the crags over 900 feet above sea level.  The paper wrote that there was a tradition that Robin Hood had hidden in it.  The article continued:  "As Wharncliffe is part of Ivanhoe land [4] there is no reason why a little of the romance and tradition of the hero of one of England’s most fascinating stories should not be associated with it.  And have we not a tradition that Robin Hood and Little John made their home in Loxley Chase? In far off days the great oak forest spread itself from Sherwood, across Sheffield and the Don Valley, right into the Pennines; and another tradition tells us that the “wooden walls of England” which smashed the Spanish Armada were built from the magnificent oak of the Don Valley – over which Wharncliffe Crags stand sentinel at one of the most romantic spots."

This article went on to say that this oak was "one of nature's marvels," not only for its antiquity but also because it was a combination of a birch tree and an oak tree.  A photograph was printed, and it was pointed out that birch tree was on the right (its girth being almost two feet), and the oak on the left.  Their explanation was one that Holland had refuted; that the birch seed had got into the base of the inside of the oak's trunk, presumably as it began to crack and decay internally, and the young tree germinated and forced its way up the middle of the trunk and out to the sunshine as if it were an integral part of the oak. For years, up to the Spring of 1934, the trunk of the dead birch tree was to be seen in position in the great gap in the oak’s trunk, and even now a smaller limb of the beech, six or eight inches in girth, stood in position like a snake up the centre of the gap.  Robin Hood’s Oak, they said, was one of the few remaining “monarchs” of this once famous forest.  The tree had by then collapsed from sheer old age, in spite of many "proppings and patchings."

Another Independent article [5] said that a piece was published in the People’s Magazine of 1837, which it said was "a high-class monthly of the time," which reprinted extracts from an old "Miscellany" of a visit to Wharncliffe Lodge.  Referring to it as "the famous oak of tradition," the writer had written that: "at one time [the tree] stood up proudly before heaven; but, alas, a great storm and lightning rove it from the head.  The giant was not dismayed by this shock, but grew on and on in two big arms like a windmill: and out of its depths – and we fain would know how – came forth two trees of different kinds.  It is a wonder tree to all who behold it." 

 

Over the years, newspapers of the time reported on trees on the estate being hit by lightning or decimated by hailstones.  In 1872 [6] a huge storm passed over, the lightning "extremely vivid," and the thunder "appallingly loud."  At a short distance from Wharncliffe Lodge a magnificent oak tree was "rent in twain," while huge masses of rocks at “The Crags” were hurled to the ground beneath, “carrying everything before them.”  One of these blocks was estimated to weigh about four tons, and another considerably over this figure.  Stocksbridge experienced a whirlwind.  Then in June 1895 a huge storm hit the country, causing several deaths.  The storm was remarkable for the heavy fall of rain and the brilliancy of the lightning, the latter continuing without cease for nearly two hours.  The Sheffield Daily Telegraph [7] reported that whilst the storm was at its height, an oak tree at Wharncliffe Crags – one of the oldest and finest on the estate – was stuck by lightening, and furrowed from top to bottom.

 

It does seem as if it was the oak/birch tree which was known as the "Letter Box Tree," with the letter box being the gap in the hollow trunk filled by the birch. 

 

[1] Tour of the Don by John Holland 1837, Volume 1: From the Moors to Sheffield.  Edited, annotated and indexed by Adrian Middleton 2018. Pp157-8

[2] Wharncliffe, Wortley, and the Valley of the Don. Photographically Illustrated by Theophilus Smith.  London: A. W, Bennet, 1864, pp14-15

[3] Sheffield Independent Tuesday 3 September 1935

[4] The opening paragraph from Sir Walter Scott's novel "Ivanhoe," published in 1819:  "In that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don, there extended in ancient times a large forest, covering the greater part of the beautiful hills and valleys which lie between Sheffield and the pleasant town of Doncaster. The remains of this extensive wood are still to be seen at the noble seats of Wentworth, of Warncliffe Park, and around Rotherham. Here haunted of yore the fabulous Dragon of Wantley; here were fought many of the most desperate battles during the Civil Wars of the Roses; and here also flourished in ancient times those bands of gallant outlaws, whose deeds have been rendered so popular in English song."

[5] Sheffield Independent 5 September 1935

[6] Sheffield Daily Telegraph 23 July 1872, reporting on the storm the day before

[7] Sheffield Daily Telegraph 27 June 1895, reporting on the storm the day before

Below are some photographs - click on a photograph to enlarge it and see more text.