By Ian D. Rotherham, Emeritus Professor, Sheffield Hallam University
Regarded as ‘Wales’s national tree’, in 1881 it already had a girth of more than sixteen metres (around 53 ft).
With a huge, hollow trunk said to be spacious enough to seat six people at a table; legend noting how in the late nineteenth century, a missing bull was found inside the massive tree. The Great Oak of Pontfadog was located in the Ceiriog Valley, near Chirk and at 12.9m girth was Wales’ largest sessile oak and perhaps the biggest of that species in the world.
This stunning specimen was on Cilcochwyn Farm above the village of Pontfadog in the county borough of Wrexham. It is said that the tree was spared when English King Henry II had his men cut down the Ceiriog Woods in 1165. This followed the event in 1157 when the Welsh Prince Owain Gwynedd had rallied his army under the massive tree. He then went on to defeat King Henry ll at the nearby battle of Crogen. As often the case, history merged with myth and the modern story emerged. It was unclear exactly how old it was because like other similar specimens, it had lost its heartwood. However, Michael Lear (tree expert with the National Trust), visited Pontfadog in 1996. He wrote that ‘Using Forestry Commission techniques the tree is between 1,181 years, and 1,628 years old. I cannot find a record of an oak tree of any of the 500 species internationally which has a greater girth anywhere in the world.’
The oak was one of fifty ‘Great British Trees’ chosen by The Tree Council in 2002 in honour of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, ‘in recognition of its place in the national heritage’. Archie Miles also noted it in his wonderful book on ‘Heritage Trees Wales’ in 2012. In an absolute tragedy, this magnificent tree blew down in the early hours of 18th April 2013. The Woodland Trust and other tree campaigners felt this sad case showed how we fail to give adequate protection to our ancient trees. In the year prior to its demise a petition with over 5,000 signatures was presented to the Welsh Assembly to call for better protection for our ancient, veteran and heritage trees, and support for their owners to care for them. Furthermore, a group of experts from the ‘Ancient Tree Forum’ visited the Pontfadog Oak and produced a plan to help conserve it. The total cost was only £5,700 but nothing was done and the great tree toppled shortly afterwards; very, very sad.
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