The death of one of the UK’s oldest trees – thought to have lived between 900 and 1200 years – was marked by a ceremony yesterday by its custodians, the Sidney family of Penshurst Place and Gardens in Kent.
The Sidney Oak as it is known, was thought to already be several hundreds years old by the time the house and estate was given to Sir William Sidney in 1552 and would have been growing on the estate while Henry VIII used it as a hunting lodge during his romance with Anne Boleyn, who lived at nearby Hever Castle.
It was written about by Ben Jonson in his poem To Penshurst, while the tree was also honoured by Edmund Waller (1572 – 1637) in his work, At Penshurst.
As long ago as the May 1794 edition of Country Gentleman’s Magazine, it is described as having a girth of 85 foot six inches and 73 foot tall but apparently "hastening into decay" "Within the hollow of it there is a seat and it is capable of containing five or six persons with ease" it read.
The current Viscount de L’Isle recalls seeing initials carved into the inside of the trunk, with two, PS and RS, perhaps being the graffiti of Sir Philip Sidney, who was born at Penshurst Place and served Queen Elizabeth I, and his younger brother Sir Robert Sidney who later became the Earl of Leicester. Jonson mentions names cut into the bark. Vandals set fire to the inside of the tree in the 1950s so sadly the initials can no longer be seen.
The Sidney Oak finally died this year, but not before self-seeding a new Sidney Oak, now a sapling.
Viscount De L’Isle and his son the Rtn Hon Philip Sidney unveiled a plaque commemorating the tree and celebrating the next generation Sidney Oak.
"Sadly the Sidney Oak has now finally perished. We hope that this new oak will flourish at least as long and is as loved as its parent tree," said Lord De L’Isle.
His son said that it was humbling and instructive to have such a venerable tree associated with his family history, adding that Sidneys have brought its acorns around the world and there are Sidney Oaks in Penshurst Australia and Penshurst, US among other places.
"I find it rather touching that in its last days this old oak laid the ground for its successor. These trees are a reminder that this is a place with a great history. We hope to be great stewards of it and it is great to be here to mark this passing of the baton," he said.
Director general of The Tree Council Pauline Buchanan Black also spoke. The council chose the oak as one of only 50 ‘Great British Trees’ for the Queen’s jubilee in 2002, recognising its importance to the nation.
She said the Sidney Oak was a standout for two reasons – for its cultural importance and its representation of nature’s circle of life.
"It is part of our heritage. It’s got so much to offer to the people passing here about who was here before and the culture of that time. It is a wonderful monolith. Trees tell us so much about where we came from. This tree tells us about where we are going."
The event was also the launch for refreshed Penshurst Parkland walks, after hundreds of pounds were invested in new signage to better promote the 4.5km Parkland Walk and the 6.5km Riverside Walk.
In the garden, which Penshurst has records of dating back to 1346, head gardener Cory Furness has a programme of adding Scilla Peruvian to the Blue and Yellow Border this year, replacing Aliums, which are too purple for a colour scheme designed to reflect the family colours, and will be moved to different parts of the garden. In the Heraldic Garden gardeners are planting Betty’s Blue lavender, a dwarf variety which will make the box-edged beds "look like a carpet or tapestry" Furness said, and starting work on a refresh of the Lenning Roper Border. This will involve cutting back the current plants and planting field beans, forage pea and Calienti mustard. Later the team will plant marigold and Calindula in the border.
A cut flower mix is replacing the red, white and blue roses in the Union Flag Garden for temporary colour while Penshurst decides on what will replace in over the next few years. Furnes said it will be "something new and exciting".