In which I visit the Knightwood and Eagle Oaks in the New Forest
He [the Knightwood Oak] is approached with due pomp;…Though pollarded in his youth the giant is an impressive sight, with his great girth of over twenty-one feet and his huge branches thrusting fiercely up like a young forest.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
Autumn – my favourite season – is fast upon us in the New Forest, and my thoughts are turning to the changing colours of the woods. When the sun is behind clouds on a dull, grey day, still the golden-brown hues enliven the heaths and trees; on an early morning of low sun and rising mist, the land sparkles with vitality. Even bracken, that invader of footpaths and hiding place of ticks, turns a lovely russet as it dies back, edged with rime in the first frosts of the season.
Oaks, to me, look particularly beautiful in autumn, whether young or old.
The Forest is home to many an aged and venerable oak. On a walk that included following tracks through Knightwood Inclosure in the New Forest, Joan Begbie and her two dogs (Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, a diminutive griffon) visited two ancient oaks, and Joan mentions them briefly in her 1934 book Walking in the New Forest. I decided to visit them, too.
The Knightwood Oak
Joan was impressed by the Knightwood Oak. The tree is now estimated to be over 500 years of age, so Joan met it when it was celebrating 400 years of Forest life. Its girth is almost eight metres. Also known as Queen of the Forest, the Knightwood Oak was pollarded in its youth, which explains its shape, with limbs branching from above head height, even though it has not been pollarded for almost 300 years. Joan’s description – of a tree with “huge branches thrusting fiercely up like a young forest” – suggests that she saw it before some of its lower limbs dropped in more recent decades.
I felt a little sad for the Knightwood Oak. As an old oak, it is reaching the end stage of its life (which will still last quite some time). It deserves some dignity, not to be a tourist attraction. It is fenced in, to protect it from ponies – not something that will bother a tree, but I felt it symbolic of a dying, hemmed-in grandeur. Nonetheless, it remains an impressive tree, carrying its head high. And, of course, it will not share my scruples. It is still doing what an oak of that great age will do – sustaining whole ecosystems rich with life, reaching out to neighbouring trees along underground mycorrhizal networks, taking up water and nutrients, photosynthesising and breathing out oxygen.
The Eagle Oak
Near the gate into the road this drive is joined by another in which, no distance up, is the ‘Eagle Oak’, a rather bedraggled old fellow suggesting that the moulting season was upon its noble namesake, and half smothered by a motherly yew who spreads her skirts to cover his nakedness.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
I said farewell to the Knightwood Oak, and headed westwards to find another old oak hidden within Knightwood Inclosure. Whereas the Knightwood Oak is noted on the OS map with a blue star, the Eagle Oak, though its name is given, has no blue star to mark its exact location. I therefore had to wander about a bit along various rides and paths as I tried to find it.
Then, ahead of me I spotted a yew tree. As I approached, I was puzzled: this seemed to be a yew tree with an oak’s bark. Finally, standing beneath it, I looked up through the yew’s evergreen leaves – which, in fact, belonged to a yew tree growing right by the oak (maybe the same that Joan noted) – and saw the oak leaves of the Eagle Oak green against the sky, high above.
I stood under the Eagle Oak for almost half an hour, appreciating its quiet strength. Noone else passed by. This oak is not a tourist attraction. Less showy than the Knightwood Oak, it inhabits a peaceful corner. I’m not sure how old it is reputed to be, but it would have started its life long before the Knightwood Plantation was established around about it. It will almost certainly outlive the plantation’s tall, thin, straight pines.
The Eagle Oak is so named because it is said a White-tailed Eagle (or Sea Eagle, as it is also known) resting in the tree was shot and killed by a forest keeper early in the nineteenth century, not so long before the species became extinct in the south of England. How appropriate, therefore, that after the recent reintroduction of White-tailed Eagles on the Isle of Wight, the Eagle Oak has lived to see these magnificent birds once more soaring over the Forest.
To see the Knightwood Oak, first park in the Knightwood Oak Forestry Commission Car Park, which is at the south end of the Bolderwood Arboretum Ornamental Drive, just before the junction with the A35. Crossing the road from the car park, the Knightwood Oak is well signposted. To then find the Eagle Oak, return to the car park and walk westwards. I’ve marked its location on the sketch map below.