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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

11 September 2020

The old English oak has a mighty hold on Norfolk, Malcolm Guite finds

AS WE continued to explore the remoter corners of north Norfolk, I noticed a road sign that seemed to sum so much of it up: “Oak Road leading to Broad Fen Lane.”

The Broads and the Fens are, of course, to be expected, where every little lane seems to lead down to water, but what about the oaks? The oaks, to my surprise, are flourishing, plentiful, and, in this season, clustered and crowned with hundreds of acorns peeping through their leaves and falling in profusion on the old footpaths, so many of which are bordered with fine oaks on either side.

I had never even thought of Norfolk as wooded, let alone as a place where the old English oak had such a mighty hold, but there are oak groves, plantations, and avenues everywhere. They form particularly beautiful colonnades where they border the Weavers Way, which we have been walking with great pleasure. The recent high winds had loosened many twigs, which are scattered on the path, each bearing a couple of perfectly formed oak leaves and an acorn, as though nature were freely distributing hundreds of foliate fliers on behalf of the National Trust.

But it is as something rather more than an emblem for the NT that I revere the oak. I first got a sense of its numinous and magical aura as a child when my mother read Kipling’s Puck of Pooks Hill aloud to me, and chanted the song “Oak and Ash and Thorn”, by which Puck works his magic for the children:

Sing Oak, and Ash, and Thorn, good sirs

(All of a Midsummer morn):
England shall bide till Judgment Tide,
By Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!

Of the Oak, Kipling says: “Oak of the Clay lived many a day, Or ever Aeneas began,” and, while Norfolk cannot claim quite such heroic ancientry for its oaks, they still have heroic associations:

Heart of oak are our ships,

Heart of oak are our men:
We always are ready;
Steady, boys, steady;
We’ll fight and we’ll conquer again and again.

They were singing that song in 1759, when Nelson was still an infant, and years before he learned to sail on Barton Broad, just down the way from Oak Road. But, when Nelson came to his days of glory, his county basked in that glory, too. Indeed, his story is so deep-rooted here that he doesn’t even need to be named. When you see a pub called The Hero, or, occasionally, with even fiercer pride, The Local Hero, you have no need to ask who that hero is.

I love oak trees for many reasons: their strength, their beauty, their usefulness and longevity, but, especially, for the fact that they are themselves so hospitable: they are the host and the habitat for so much other life, not only the birds that alight on their branches, but all the complex organisms that live in their leaves and grow in their roots. They are a kind of great inn or hostelry for so many smaller creatures.

I know Christ’s parable is about a mustard seed, but when he says: “It groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it,” in my mind’s eye I always see a great English oak tree.

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