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13th February 2018

The Tree Detective: The Twisted Oak of Cowick Barton

The twisted oak of Cowick Barton Fields

We’ve all got different ways of looking at the world, and everything around us changes character depending on who’s looking at it. The natural environment, and more specifically trees, are no different. St Thomas, in spite of how densely populated it is, has a wonderful variety of trees – varied both in age and species. But how long will you look at a tree for? Have you ever examined a tree and truly thought about how it came to grow there, what has happened to it over the years and who might have interacted with it? If you have, this series of articles is for you! If you haven’t, then this is a chance for you to understand the trees of St Thomas in ways you never imagined you would.

The twisted oak of Cowick Barton Fields

The twisted oak of Cowick Barton Fields


As you come into Cowick Barton Playing Fields from Barton Road, your eyes are drawn to a grand oak tree. Its tall, umbrella-like canopy makes it the most visible of the old trees here. To the right of this, you can just see another ancient oak protruding from a line of trees. What you can’t see so well is that behind the row of linden trees in front of you, next to the tennis courts, is a vast oak. It’s not its height that is remarkable, but the enormous reach of its boughs that twist and tangle. I’ve long been fascinated by this tree, and while it is less visible, it is more distinctive. Being distinctive is enough to justify it being the first case for the Tree Detective!

So where do you start when you’re trying to learn more about a tree? If you’ve got an old tree, the most useful and obvious piece of information you have is its location. Trees act as a triangulation point from which you can identify other features. As such, the first thing I did was look for old maps of St Thomas, of which the most detailed are the Ordnance Survey Maps. The oldest one available is 1890, when St Thomas was already starting to eat into the countryside behind it as it grew away from the river. Ordnance Survey Maps often mark the location of individual trees. Consequently, by overlaying a modern satellite image and the 1890 Ordnance Survey Map (using Cowick Lane as a helpful guide), I could match the trees today with the trees identified in 1890. If you look at the map and the section I’ve highlighted, you can clearly see the positioning of the three old oaks in a line. The positioning on the map is slightly off, but it’s almost certain that the tree circled is the twisted oak tree.

The twisted oak tree's likely location in 1890 on the Ordnance Survey Map of that time - reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland. http://maps.nls.uk/

The twisted oak tree’s likely location in 1890 on the Ordnance Survey Map of that time – reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland. http://maps.nls.uk/

Thanks to the Ordnance Survey Map, 1890 is the oldest date I’ve been able to definitively say that the tree was there, however we can make some assumptions from the tree’s dimensions. The tricky part is that the tree isn’t a regular shape. The twisted branches and bulbous growths that make it so magnificent also mean that the conventional age markers don’t apply as much. Nonetheless, on a cold Sunday morning I attempted to measure the oak and use these measurements to give a rough guide to its age. The girth of the trunk is about 4.8m when measured at 1.5 metres above the base. Based on John White’s assessments of tree age in relation to girth, which the Woodland Trust publish as a guide, this would make the tree somewhere close to 280 years old. Now of course it could be older or younger than this, but given its stature it would seem unlikely that it’s anything less than 200 years old.

Cowick Barton - not a pub then - as painted by John Swete with a large swathe of elms to its north. Gray, Todd (Ed.), Travels in Georgian Devon: The Illustrated Journals of the Reverend John Swete, 1789–1800, 4 Vols., Vol.1, 1998, Tiverton, p.54

Cowick Barton in 1801 – not a pub then – as painted by John Swete with a large swathe of elms to its north. Gray, Todd (Ed.), Travels in Georgian Devon: The Illustrated Journals of the Reverend John Swete, 1789–1800, 4 Vols., Vol.1, 1998, Tiverton, p.54

If it really was planted some time in the early-mid 18th Century, then it would have been in a drastically different environment to the one we see today. While this mostly has to be left to the imagination, we sometimes discover sources that help us imagine that environment. John Swete, on his travels through Devon, painted watercolours of Cowick and described it in his 1801 diary. Using the diary entries, and the views he depicts, we can get an idea of where he might have been in relation to the tree. In the watercolour below, you really get a sense of how the fields are right in the flood plain, with the Cathedral elevated high in the distance. For comparison I’ve put my own photograph of the Cathedral through the tree’s branches next to it.

The Cowick Barton (now a pub, but then a manor house and before that a priory) is elevated from this however, and before the housing developments in the first half of the 20th Century, would have had a clear view across the fields towards the city. Swete tells us “on the northern side of this house is a grove of uncommonly large elms and indeed throughout the grounds and in every hedge between them and Exeter this charming tree is seen in the highest luxuriance and plenty”. It would seem, then, that there weren’t any noteworthy oak trees at that time. In any case, since at this point in time, the tree was perhaps a mere 50-80 years old, it is virtually impossible that we’d have any written or pictorial record from Swete’s day, but his watercolours provide an atmospheric picture of the Exe Valley it grew from.

A view of the Cathedral from Cowick, 1801. Gray, Todd (Ed.), Travels in Georgian Devon: The Illustrated Journals of the Reverend John Swete, 1789–1800, 4 Vols., Vol.1, 1998, Tiverton, p.54-5

A view of the Cathedral from Cowick, 1801. Gray, Todd (Ed.), Travels in Georgian Devon: The Illustrated Journals of the Reverend John Swete, 1789–1800, 4 Vols., Vol.1, 1998, Tiverton, p.54-5

Same view, similar location?

Same view, similar location?

Once I’d reached this point in my research I realised that I’d gone as far back as I could within the tree’s lifetime, but that there was still a great wealth of history to the tree that I’d not yet unearthed. In particular, the clearest records of the oak’s lifetime are from people’s memories. I’ve lost count of the number of people who told me they used to climb the tree and when you look at it closely, it’s easy to see why; a low hanging branch extends sturdily for over 6 metres before dividing into small branches. These days gravity has pulled the branches low enough that they have to be propped up, so perhaps it might not be as sturdy as it once was. Other than very modern photos, I haven’t been able to find much photographic evidence of the twisted oak tree. Quite often it seems that the taller, more prominent oak towards the centre of the fields has made a better photo subject.

These photos have their own merit though. I was sent a marvellous photo from 1945 by Nesta, a member of the Facebook group supporting the site Exeter Memories. It shows a group of local residents from around Coleridge Road, including Nesta’s mother, standing in front of the taller oak tree. What becomes clear, however, based on the position of the photographer and the Cathedral in the distance, is that they must have been looking almost directly towards the twisted oak, or perhaps slightly to the right of their gaze. While it doesn’t help us to see the tree, it’s strangely pleasing to know that all the people in the photo would have had the magnificent tree in front of them.

A photo from approximately 1945, showing residents of Coleridge Rd and surrounding roads. They would have been facing the twisted oak tree when this photo was taken. Many thanks to Nesta Carpenter for sending it to me.

A photo from approximately 1945, showing residents of Coleridge Rd and surrounding roads. They would have been facing the twisted oak tree when this photo was taken. Many thanks to Nesta Carpenter for sending it to me.

The tree continues to be a gathering point for residents and community groups. What’s more, it has achieved minor celebrity status (as much as can be achieved in the tree world) thanks to my own photography efforts. Long before I decided to don the guise of the Tree Detective, Bloom’In St Thomas entered a picture of the tree into a caption competition and subsequently we won enough money to plant lots of wild flowers all over St Thomas.

Thanks to the efforts of local residents and community groups, Cowick Barton flourishes with its community orchard, activity trail and the many fitness and sport groups that use the fields. It has been surrounded by St Thomas and Cowick, and has become a suburban playing field, yet somehow stands far above any other playing field I’ve come across (metaphorically only –  it’s actually very flat). It retains a rural character and wonderful feeling of openness, punctuated by marvellous trees. There is no doubt that it would not be the same without the great twisted oak in the corner of Cowick Barton Fields. Next time you’re there take a close look at it. Why not take a picture of yourself with the tree and send it to us? Maybe then I’ll stop getting weird looks every time I’m peering at it…

What are your memories of the tree?

What are your memories of the tree?

 

ABOUT THE TREE DETECTIVE

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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 a new edition of the Tree Detective every month!

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