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Ancient and notable trees

A wide shot of a few cedar of Lebanon trees bordering the lawn at Upton House, Warwickshire
Cedar of Lebanon trees bordering the lawn at Upton House, Warwickshire | © National Trust Images/Rupert Truman

We care for some of the UK's most ancient and notable trees and have been recording them for many years. But why are ancient trees so special? Find out more about historic trees, and discover some of the most notable ones in our care from tree expert and author Simon Toomer.

What are ancient and notable trees?

We care for more ancient trees than probably any other landowner in the world – this is one of our unique responsibilities in terms of global conservation. Ancient trees are typically in the final third of the maximum expected lifespan for the species, and they are highly significant in both ecological and cultural terms.

An ancient tree is one which is remarkably old for its species. The age varies from species to species, ranging from 150 years old for a birch to 800 or more for a yew.

Its canopy is usually small, but the diameter of its trunk is very wide relative to other trees of the same species. It’s very likely to be hollow with missing branches. It will be decaying but that doesn’t mean it’s about to die – species such as oak and yew can ‘decay gently’ for hundreds of years.

Historical and cultural significance

Ancient trees are extremely important historically. They can tell us how the land might have been used in the past, perhaps as a wood pasture or a royal hunting forest.

They can also have huge cultural significance, if they’ve been admired and revered over many generations. Some have even acquired names that reflect their special history and character. Examples include Newton’s Apple Tree at Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire, which triggered the great Isaac Newton to form his laws of gravity, and the original Irish Yew at Florence Court in Northern Ireland, which has produced every other Irish Yew in the world.

As well as ancient trees, we look after many other notable trees – these are trees that might not be so old, but are important for their rarity, cultural value and historic design. Many are more important culturally than ecologically, and are younger than ancient trees. Many of the trees in Simon’s book fall into this category of notable trees.

The giant trunk of an ancient yew tree in  green woodland
The giant trunk of the famous Ankerwycke yew tree near Runnymede, Surrey | © National Trust Images/John Millar

Ancient trees at the places in our care

There are plenty of ancient and notable trees at National Trust places. Below, find out about a few of the most famous ones. You can also discover some of our tree expert Simon Toomer’s favourite trees from his book, 50 Great Trees of the National Trust.

Ankerwycke Yew near Runnymede, Surrey – an ancient tree

This yew tree is around 2,500 years old and is thought to be the oldest in our care. It may have witnessed the events around the sealing of the Magna Carta in 1215 and King Henry VIII's wooing of Anne Boleyn in the 1530s.

The Cedar of Lebanon at Croome Park, Worcestershire – a notable tree

When famous landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was planning for wealthy clients such as the 6th Earl of Coventry at Croome Park, he had in mind the idealised landscapes shown in 17th-century art. Stately trees were an essential element and Brown often chose Cedar of Lebanon for its evergreen habit, distinctive layered branches and silhouette.

Some of the recently planted trees at Croome have been grown from seeds collected from wild trees on Mount Lebanon to support efforts to conserve this endangered conifer.

The Cedar of Lebanon is an essential element of the historic landscape, taking us back to the days when Capability Brown realised his Palladian dreams. I also just love it for its sheer magnificence.

A quote by Simon Toomer Author of 50 Great Trees of the National Trust

Veteran oaks at Croft Castle, Herefordshire – ancient trees

There’s recorded data for over 450 ancient, notable and veteran trees at Croft Castle and Parkland. These include the famous avenues of sweet chestnuts and the ‘Quarry Oak’, thought to be the largest sessile oak tree in Britain. The Quarry Oak was probably going strong at the time that the first Croft Castle was built in the 13th century.

The Rhododendron of Leith Hill, Surrey – notable trees

The Rhododendron Wood at Leith Hill was created in the late 1800s by Caroline Wedgwood. A keen plantswoman and botanist, Wedgwood was the eldest sister of Charles Darwin who would visit Leith Hill and walk in the woods. By planting up two fields with rhododendrons and azaleas, many of which were specimens brought back from Asia, Wedgwood helped to create a beautiful entrance to the front door of Leith Hill Place.

The Rhododendron at Leith Hill may not be the most impressive tree in 50 Great Trees, but it provides a glimpse into the domestic life of Charles Darwin and his family at a time when the story of life on Earth was being unravelled.

A quote by Simon Toomer Author of 50 Great Trees of the National Trust

‘The Old Man of Calke’ at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire – an ancient tree

This National Nature Reserve comprises over 80 hectares of the deer park and contains a large number of ancient oaks including two magnificent contorted and gnarly 1,000-year-old oaks. Both are true living sculptures. The most famous is ‘The Old Man of Calke’ and a number of rare invertebrates live in this ancient micro ecosystem.

Tree avenues at various places – ancient and notable trees

Many tree avenues are what remain from formal landscape design inspired by mainland Europe in the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries. Tree avenues have historically emphasised routes up to grand houses or other architectural features, or focussed the eye towards key vistas and highlighted the extent of land ownership. They were often planted in horse chestnut, elm, beech, oak or lime, either in single or double rows.

I had to include the lime avenue at Clumber Park as one of my favourite examples. Avenues are cathedrals of trees and the one at Clumber Park is one of the finest, with a different atmosphere for each season.

A quote by Simon Toomer Author of 50 Great Trees of the National Trust
Twisted oak tree with thick trunk in middle of field of tall grass
An ancient English oak at Petworth Park, Sussex | © National Trust Images/Laurence Perry

How to recognise an ancient tree

Like people, trees develop more character with age. They start losing branches, they develop fissures in their bark and they may get hollow trunks, fatter middles and thinner, smaller crowns. There’s an adage which says oaks grow for 300 years, rest for 300 years and slowly decline for another 300 years.

Where to find ancient trees

Ancient trees are likely to be ‘open grown’, which means they’ve developed in situations where they haven’t had competition from other trees growing close to them. This makes them rare in the interior of woodlands (even ancient ones), and more common on their boundaries.

Other good places to hunt for ancient trees include historic parklands and wood pastures (places where stock graze the open spaces between trees), ancient hedgerows (like hedges marking Parish boundaries) and the boundaries of commons.

Importance for wildlife

Besides being remarkable organisms, ancient trees provide habitats for a huge variety of other species. One ancient oak has more biodiversity than a thousand 100-year-old oaks.

Most of these species fall into three distinct groups: fungi, some of which feed on the dead wood, whilst others form special relationships with the trees’ roots; invertebrates, especially beetles and flies, which live in the decaying wood or fungal fruiting bodies; and lichens, growing on the bark of trees.

Recording ancient and notable trees

Our on-going survey, along with work being carried out by the Woodland Trust and Ancient Tree Forum, is raising their profile and encouraging more people to revere and look after them.

Hundreds of our volunteers and staff have spent years identifying these trees at places we look after, and we’ve recorded over 30,000 so far. We also contribute to a register of over 65,000 Champion Trees (the tallest or largest of their species), many of which are in the gardens and parkland in our care. If you spot a veteran or ancient tree you can log your sighting on the Woodland Trust's Ancient Tree Inventory.

A path leading into a leafy glade dappled with sunlight, a shrub with pink flowers in the middle with blue flowers below

Trees and plants

We care for 25,000 hectares (61,776 acres) of woodland, 135 wild landscape sites and more than 200 gardens, and have as many wonderful stories to tell.

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50 Great Trees of the National Trust

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