Ancient trees at Calke Abbey

This tree, called Old Man, is 1200 years old and resides at Calke in Derbyshire. © National Trust

This tree, called Old Man, is 1200 years old and resides at Calke in Derbyshire.


Taking a walk around Calke Abbey Park in Derbyshire can lead to some surprising sights, including some ancient trees - some of the oldest in the UK.

Calke lies a few miles south of Derby in a seemingly heavily industrialised part of the country. Despite this it has some trees that take your breath away, and which become even more remarkable with a little understanding.

The current woods at Calke, along with those at Chatsworth, Charnwood, Sherwood and Kedleston, were all once linked and known around the world as Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood’s stomping ground. Today all these woods are separate fragments, but a view of any map shows how large the original wood must have been. 

Calke is the smallest fragment of this wood, but has some particularly fine trees which some incredible wildlife has made home.

The oldest tree
Calke’s oldest tree is called The Old Man of Calke and is thought to be between 1000 and 1200 years old (200 is about the age of the average large oak seen in Britain today). Put into context this means this tree could have been 200 years old when William the Conqueror arrived in Britain.
When most people look at an old tree, what amazes them most is its size and then they think about its age and the changes it has seen through time. Size indicates age, but after the flush of youth a tree grows progressively slower as other aging mechanisms start to have an impact.

Healthy trees
A branch broken off in a storm, or cut with an axe by a man wanting wood allows diseases and insects to get a hold on the tree. Gradually these increase their hold and become a significant part of the tree, but they can actually increase the longevity of the tree.

As the wood decays or is eaten by insects, and old branches are shed in a process called retrenching, the tree gets smaller. This makes it less vulnerable to severe weather conditions and therefore means that it can survive for longer.

At one with nature
Nature doesn’t like waste so everything has a use. The slowly decaying wood is an especially valuable home to a wide range of species. Fungal decomposition of the wood (and leaves) also recycles the nutrients in the tree, making them available to insects, plants and even the trees themselves.

Bats will use the hollows both as breeding roosts and as shelter, while birds do the same in the branches. Both can also be dependent on trees as a food source, comprising of the wide range of insects living in the trees. Oaks, for instance, are known to harbour up to 400 species of insect – dependent on locality.

What we're doing to protect these trees
We recognise that veteran (very old) trees have a special place in nature and therefore we undertake a range of simple routines to perpetuate these trees and the species dependent on them. This includes looking at nearby trees that have the potential to become veterans, and ensuring that modern management around them does not compromise their future longevity. 

Why not take a stroll around your local National Trust property and see how many veteran trees you can spot, or ask the local wardens to point you in the right direction?