I think all trees are important in some way, but there are trees that can have a profound impact on our lives. The Lucombe Oak, while not a tree I’ve known about or loved my whole life, has changed my life in more ways than most. When I moved to St Thomas in 2015, I knew very few people and was fresh out of university. A few weeks after moving, I attended a meeting of the Friends of St Thomas Station. My only offering to the meeting was that I had a fancy camera (I still do – it’s survived sea, sand, snow and falling down an Iron Age Hillfort). I was then asked to photograph some mighty trees growing at Killerton House; for they were Lucombe oaks, a tree first cultivated in St Thomas. Yes it was the camera that allowed me to see the trees, but it was photographing those trees that introduced me to so many people in St Thomas, thus ensuring that the community became my home. But enough of my story, what about the Lucombe Oak itself?
William Lucombe is both the reason the Lucombe Oak exists, and also the reason that St Thomas doesn’t have the original specimens he planted. So proud of the tree was he, that he decided his coffin would be made from one of them. A coffin was constructed when he believed was a reasonable time, except that he lived for so long (102 years) that the original coffin rotted by the time of his death. Thus, another Lucombe had to be felled to make his new coffin. There is one mature Lucombe Oak that I could find in St Thomas (please let me know if you know of any more), in the Church Yard, but other than that, we’re rather depleted on that front. As such, it was wonderful when we had three young specimens planted in St Thomas a couple of years ago: one in Cowick Barton Fields and the other two in Pinces Gardens.
The University has a number of fine examples of the tree, as does Killerton House. More intriguingly however, Kew Gardens has the largest and oldest Lucombe Oaks. This is because the Lucombe Oak, a hybrid of the Turkey Oak and the Cork Oak is a botanically remarkable tree, both in how it looks and how it behaves, and if anywhere were to obtain a botanically remarkable tree, it would be Kew. It has distinctive bark like cork, but can grow incredibly quickly and to an incredibly large stature. What’s more, a true Lucombe Oak has to be a clone of the original, as acorns of the Lucombe produce hybrids of the original. It was first grown at Lucombe’s plant nursery in St Thomas in 1762, when he noticed that a Turkey Oak sapling retained its leaves in winter, and noticed the same pattern with every sapling whose parent trees were the Turkey Oak and the Cork Oak.
The nursery had been established in 1720 and at this time St Thomas was almost entirely rural, with the settlement itself only including Cowick Street and a few outlying hamlets and farms. Nonetheless, the nursery was far from isolated, drawing attention from Kew Gardens towards the end of the 18th Century, who now hold the oldest specimen at 240 years old. I remember seeing the enormous tree next to the Syon Vista behind the Palm House when I was growing up in London, but I never imagined I would one day live only a few hundred metres from where it was first cultivated. Similarly, while my Granny never identified them as Lucombe Oaks specifically, when she was evacuated to Killerton House from Battle School in Kent during the Second World War she noticed a number of large oaks around the property. It seems then that the Lucombe Oak has been a presence in my life for longer than I realised!
I recently revisited the Lucombe Oak at Kew, and it has an interesting history in its own right. Bearing in mind that in 1846 the tree would have been more than 70 years old, that year it was uprooted and moved to a site 20 metres away to make way for the proposed Syon Vista. If you can think of a 70 year old tree and then imagine moving it, then you can get an idea of the scale of the operation. As you can see from the picture I took recently, it hasn’t been adversely affected by this move and stands as an imposing figure in the gardens. However it is not the largest Lucombe Oak: until 2009, the largest was at Phear Park in Devon, however this blew down in a storm. This means that the title of Champion Lucombe Oak now belongs to one in the grounds of Powis Castle in Wales.
I hope that in 200 years’ time people will marvel at the three huge Lucombe Oaks in Pinces Gardens and Cowick Barton Playing Fields, as well as the (by this time) ancient specimen in the Church Yard. What’s particularly special about the newest three is that they were planted by the local community, and in particularly I hope that the children that helped plant it (and me too, I’m quite young still!) will see them grow into mature trees and tell their children and grandchildren about how they came to be there.
Let me know if you spot any Lucombe Oaks around the city, or if you have another St Thomas tree you’d like me to investigate!
Joe Levy (AKA the Tree Detective) is a resident of St Thomas who can be found wandering through parks and green spaces photographing trees or standing in the Precinct in all weathers handing out free food. Joe has been involved with Bloom’In St Thomas for more than 2 years and also sits on St Thomas Community Association as Youth Coordinator. Look out for new editions of the Tree Detective!