Great Heritage Trees: Big Belly Oak

Savernake Forest, Marlborough, England

By Ian D. Rotherham

Wiltshire’s Savernake Forest is in Marlborough and the great grandfather of a tree in this Forest is a venerable sessile oak (Quercus petraea) with a girth measured at somewhere between about ten metres and eleven metres (dbh). 

The Big Belly Oak is believed to be the oldest tree in Savernake Forest. In 2011, Henk van Boeschoten estimated its age to be a little over 1,000 years old and the Pewsey Vale website suggests about 1,100 years. But of course such dating is fraught with problems and the best we can probably say is that it is very old indeed.

Having survived so long the tree does look to have problems, and, correct me if I am wrong but recent pictures show the road cutting ridiculously close to the tree’s base and roots. It can be seen from the Marlborough to Burbage A346 road but is best appreciated via a walk through Savernake Forest. A local history website notes the first written record being from a charter of King Athelstan in AD 934 and which refers to ‘Safernoc’ which might be derived from something like the ‘oaks amongst the sweet ferns’. The Saxons did have a few areas as Royal Forests and some deer parks, but mostly these were Norman impositions. However, the web article goes on to state that whilst Savernake Forest over a 1,000 years old and ‘several centuries older than the New Forest, planted by the Normans’. It is worth noting that few trees were indeed planted until around the 1700s and so the Normans did not plant the New Forest except as a legal entity. Savernake is Britain’s only privately-owned Forest but is managed by the Forestry Commission and they apparently close the forest to the public for one day each year to maintain its legal status. Radiohead’s 2011 album ‘The King of Limbs’ was so-called after Savernake’s ‘King of Limbs Oak’, another massively collapsing veteran.

The Big Belly is clearly a lapsed pollard minus most of its big limbs but a more obvious specimen is the nearby ‘Cathedral Oak’ which seems to be an ancient pollard still in good heart. In 2014, the Big Belly missed out on the tree of the year award to Sherwood’s Major Oak. Big Belly was one of ‘Fifty Great British Trees’ named and honoured as part of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations, though in 2001, it was fitted with a metal corset because it was in danger of splitting into two. The postcard shows the great tree in the early 1900s and you need to look closely to see the people in the branches. Note the unmetalled trackway, the open nature of the Forest, and the other significant trees close by. For any hope of maintaining the tree’s vigour, something would need to be done to protect its roots. Maybe the road needs to bend around it!    

Professor Ian D. Rotherham

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Big Belly Oak, Savernake Forest, Marlborough, pictured in early 1900s

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The brace around the tree is clear to see here – pic: Britain Express

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Pictures show the road cutting close to the tree’s base and roots – pic: Henk van Boeschoten

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