Ancient trees in the Midlands

Winter is a great time to discover the rich heritage of ancient trees at National Trust places in the Midlands.

With no leaves to obscure them, there’s no better time to appreciate the awesome beauty of these special symbols of historic landscapes and no better place to do so than sites such as Calke Park in Derbyshire or Croft Castle & Parkland in Herefordshire, which rank amongst the top properties for ancient trees anywhere in the National Trust.

What are ancient trees and why are they important?

An ancient tree is one which has passed beyond maturity and is old in comparison with other trees of the same species.  

Its canopy may be small, but the diameter of its trunk probably will be very wide relative to other trees of the same species and it is very likely to be hollow.  It will be decaying gently but that does not mean it is about to die – species such as oak and yew can ‘decay gently’ for hundreds of years!  

Ancient trees are likely to be ‘open grown,’ i.e. they have developed in situations where they have been free of competition from other trees growing close to them.  

The silhouette of a tree against the low morning sun at Calke
Calke park on a frost winter morning

So they are rare in the interior of woodlands, even ancient woodlands, but the boundaries of woodlands are one of the best places to look for them.  

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

They’re important for wildlife

Besides being remarkable organisms in their own right ancient trees provide habitats for a huge variety of other species, many of which are rare.  

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

Calke Abbey's Old Man oak tree
Calke Abbey's Old Man oak tree

Ancient trees also have huge cultural significance, being admired over many generations of people.  Some of them have acquired names which reflect their special history and character.  The ‘Major Oak’ of Sherwood Forest is one of the most celebrated ancient trees, but have you discovered ‘The Old Man of Calke’ or the ‘Candelabra Oak’ at Croft Castle?

Where to see ancient trees at National Trust places in the Midlands

We’ve got recorded data for over 450 ‘ancient, notable & 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 (in terms of girth).  

The Quarry Oak was probably going strong at the time that the first Croft castle was built in the 13th century. Restoration work in an area of ancient wood pasture at Croft has revealed the ‘Candelabra Oak’ in all its glory.

Find the Quarry Oak, a 1,000-year-old sessile oak tree, in the parkland of Croft Castle
The Quarry Oak, a 1,000-year-old sessile oak tree, at Croft Castle, Herefordshire

Croft’s superb collection of ancient trees is rivalled by that of Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, where 80 hectares (200 acres) of the deer park is designated as a National Nature Reserve for its large number of ancient oaks –most famously ‘The Old Man of Calke’- and the rare invertebrates associated with them.  

Other important sites for ancient trees in the region include Attingham Park, Brockhampton Estate, Croome Park, Hardwick Hall  and Kedleston Hall, but it’s a rare National Trust property which doesn’t support at least one or two ancient trees.