A project to record the North’s oldest trees – among them the 400-year-old Bishop’s Oak – will help naturalists to protect them for future generations

HISTORY relies on observation, always has, always will. The observations of eyewitnesses shape our perceptions of the past, but what historians really need is an observer who was there when great events happened and is alive today.

Ah, if only trees could speak.

They have seen history unfold, they are the silent sentinels who have watched for hundreds of years as the world has changed around them. They have stories to tell.

In acknowledgment of their remarkable longevity, some of the oldest trees in the North East were recorded in a recently-completed two-year project that will be used to protect them for generations to come.

The survey was conducted by naturalists working for the Heritage Lottery-funded Durham Veteran Trees Project run by the Durham Biodiversity Partnership (DBAP) and supported by Durham Wildlife Trust.

More than 500 volunteers walked countless miles to record the locations of 1,200 old (veteran) and “notable”

trees across County Durham, Darlington, Wearside and the Gateshead area.

The result was a Guide to Veteran Trees, which featured 52 of the most outstanding specimens. In addition, a database was compiled so that planners and local authority conservation teams can ensure that they are protected from development and associated activities. Volunteers are continuing to submit new records, all of which add to the national Ancient Tree Hunt database.

The survival of many of the trees is remarkable given the demand for timber down the ages as industries such as shipbuilding developed rapidly on the banks of the region’s rivers and foresters struggled to keep pace with the growth of house building as villages turned into towns and towns turned into cities.

One of the most venerable examples in the guide, and one which can count itself among the luckiest, is the 400-year-old Bishop’s Oak, in Baal Hill Wood, in ancient woodland that is now a site of special scientific interest and which originally extended several kilometres north to Tunstall Reservoir, not far from Wolsingham, in Weardale.

Standing near the northern end of the site, the Bishop’s Oak is believed to have been planted, or planted itself, in the 1600s and survived even though many of its fellows were cut down for timber.

It is believed that the name for the tree comes from the fact that the site was owned in the 14th Century by the powerful Bishops of Durham, who knew a commercial opportunity when they saw one. The area once formed part of Wolsingham Park, which was owned by the Prince Bishops from the late 13th Century and was protected both for its deer and for its precious supply of timber.

The woodland, which was originally mainly oak and birch, was managed by coppicing for timber used in construction and also charcoal, the latter supplying the smelting kilns of the local lead industry which developed in the mid-18th Century (the smelting process involved separating lead from ore using heat and reducing or purifying agents such as charcoal).

By 1750, lead mining had become big business and the North Pennine lead field comprising Teesdale, Weardale, South Tynedale and the Derwent Valley formed the most important producing area in the country.


The spectacular sycamore in the grounds of Redworth Hall

The Prince Bishops of Durham had long exploited lead and silver deposits in Durham’s dales and in the 17th Century, they leased land in Weardale to the Blacketts, a Tyneside coal owning family who appear to have started mining lead in the Allendales near Hexham in 1684.

Growing towns and the industrial revolution stimulated the industry, increasing the demand for lead for use in roofing, piping, casting, building materials, lead shot, paintbases and glazing.

However, by the 1850s, the best lead ore had been removed in Britain, cheaper ore was available from the US, Germany and Spain, and the industry faded away in the Pennines.

Baal Hill went back to relative obscurity and the Bishop’s Oak had survived one of the most frenetic periods of industrial activity in the dale’s history. It was a return to the site’s roots, as it were. Historical records confirm that it has been woodland since at least the early 16th Century and today, part of it is run by Durham Wildlife Trust and managed as the Baal Hill Wood nature reserve.

Various suggestions have been made to explain the origin of the site’s name. One suggests that it relates to the ancient lead-smelting industry, in which a “baal” (or bail) was a local term for a pit in which lead ore was boiled to remove impurities. There are references in old manuscripts to “les Bolehill” at Wolsingham and to payments being made to “bolers”.

Another explanation is that “baal” derives from an old spelling of bailiff and that the nearby Baal Hill House, referred to in a manuscript of 1558 as Baylehilhous, was, at one time, the residence of the Bishop of Durham’s local bailiff.

Another theory is that the name is a corruption of Northern dialect bale, a signal fire or beacon, based on an association with the Baal, the Old Testament deity mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah.

OTHER TREES IN THE GUIDE

Three Sisters – a beech in Harperley Woods, Tanfield Lea, so-named because of its three leaning stems. Ancient trees like the Three Sisters are home to some of the rarest animals in Britain, including species of insects, beetles and bats

South Park Wellingtonia


One of South Park’s Wellingtonia

the two Wellingtonia in South Park, Darlington, are the largest trees in the world. They can live for up to 3,400 years in their native California, although these particular examples are significantly younger, having been planted in 1863 to commemorate the wedding of the future King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. The only other known multi-stemmed Wellingtonia is at Stratfield Saye House, Hampshire, leading The Tree Council to place these two specimens in the top ten trees in Britain

Redworth Hall Sycamore – Redworth Hall is a 17th Century country house and listed building near Shildon, County Durham. The Surtees family lived at Redworth until 1955 when the house was converted into a school and later a hotel. There are a number of remarkable trees in the grounds, most of which are more than 100 years old, but the large, low hanging sycamore tree is the most spectacular. Believed to be 250 years old, the stems of the tree spread out to create a vast canopy dominating the left-hand side of the lawn.

Gibside English Oak


The ancient oak at Gibside

Gibside, in the Gateshead area, is a grade I-listed landscape garden, a woodland laid out by George Bowes, ancestor of the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, between 1720 and 1760. A lot of the earlier trees have been replaced, although some of the original ones remain. This particular oak tree is one of a pair thought to pre-date the formal garden

Cromwell Sycamore


The so-called Cromwell oak at High Houghall, near Durham City

This ancient sycamore at High Houghall, near Durham City, is believed to be one of the 30 largest in the country and thought to be at least 280 years old. The source of the nickname Cromwell Sycamore is believed to come from a connection with Cromwell’s chief of staff who had troops billeted at Houghall in an old manor house on the site of the animal care unit in the Civil War.

  • Durham Wildlife Trust has a number of tree guides remaining, which can be collected from its Rainton Meadows offices in Houghton-le-Spring (0191-584- 3112). There is also information on the Durham BAP website and parts of the guide to download at durhambiodiversity.org.uk/ durham-veteran-trees-project