Inspired by recent investigations into the antiquities of Glastonbury, I have fallen quite willingly into the intriguing history of one of our most prominent oaks. Stood upon the eastern banks of the isle, it was one of the first trees I was drawn to upon my arrival in Glastonbury – attracted by its conspicuous location, picturesque backdrop, and characterful lean that makes it appear to point the way to Glastonbury Tor.
Not only its physicality, but something else more mysterious enticed me into its realm and kept me returning in a way that can’t quite be put into words. It’s not an excessively large oak – only about 200 years old and approx 3m in girth, but it sports a demeanour that suggests, “I have a story to tell”.
My blossoming interest in the tree prompted me to name it, unimaginatively, “The Leaning Oak”, oblivious to the fact that others might in the past have also named this prominent tree. Since then, the tree’s story has been slowly revealed to me and I have come to learn that many know this oak as ‘The Avalon Oak’ or ‘Evidence oak’ – so they say – a tree that has marked the bounds at this location for ages.
In fact, the tree that now exists here is not the Avalon Oak, it’s a descendant or replacement for the original which was of such significance that when it fell in a storm in the mid 1800s, it was soon replaced with another oak. The only depiction of the tree I can source is the accompanying sketch taken from a map of Abbey estates owned by George Cox, a previous partial owner, in 1799.4.
The image confirmed a hunch that the tree sat upon the existing terrace two or three metres above where the new Avalon oak is planted – the lay of the land and the fact that the embankment remains so pronounced is clearly due to the presence of the tree. A cow nibbled branch from the current tree reaches out of the underside of the canopy and points to the exact spot where its predecessor stood.
Also of note is the name given to the tree in the sketch, “Aveland oak”, I have also seen it labelled Evelan and the Avalon’s oak. These could either be misinterpretations of the word Avalon or else there are more questions to be asked about its true name, and the further hidden histories of this tree.
The Avalon oak was gone by the time the OS maps of the late 1800’s were created, and so is not included as a significant tree. An old orchard boundary and public footpath which runs past the tree are marked. I have also indicated on the accompanying map the locations of both oaks. Red is the old tree and blue the new tree.
Today, the Avalon Oak marks no bounds, only the remnants of previous enclosures of unknown date are hinted at by ridges and terraces in the hill’s slope. The Oak’s hill descends down east of Glastonbury, towards Lower Wick, its location seems to be upon the route with the most incremental rise off the moors and onto the hill of Stone down, perhaps a route from Norwood Park taken by the monks of Glastonbury abbey in the 15th century, and maybe even one of the inroads via Ponters Bal back before the moors were drained.
In the 1820s the tree was noted by The Rev. John Skinner, a parish vicar, amateur antiquarian and archaeologist. In his journals depicting a visit to Glastonbury he notes the Avalon Oak as a tree larger than two others he visited, presumably Gog and Magog, though their names were probably not in use at that time.
“The man moreover mentioned a (tree) larger than either of these on the side of the hill above Wick which went by the name of Avalons, or the Evidence Oak, having been a boundary point for ages, and mentioned as such in the ancient deeds. …When this was blown down, which happened within his recollection a younger tree was planted on its spot to supply its place. ”1 Rev’d John Skinner – Diaries
Interestingly, when Skinner visited the Old Oaks he suggested that they perhaps had weathered not less than 300 Winters, measuring the largest at 13ft, 6 inches or 4.1 metres in girth. This is a modest measurement in ancient oak terms, and would estimate their age at the time at no more than 250-300 years old, making them less than ancient oaks and far undercutting the estimate of 2000 years old which has been claimed in other places. Of further note is the lack of reference to a “Druidic avenue of ancient oaks” which if local stories are to be believed, stood near to this location and was more notable than any of the trees mentioned by Skinner and his guide.
The accompanying sketch pictures the trees mentioned in his diary, they don’t appear to have the same characteristics as Gog and Magog, though their proximity and the surrounding fencing seems in keeping.
“…our guide pointed out the aged trucks of two oaks, which have weathered many winters: probably not less than 300, the largest measures 13 ft 6 inches in girth.”. 1 Rev’d John Skinner – Diaries
In support of Gog and Magog’s claims to longevity this photo from 1903, 80 years later, shows both trees as much larger than Skinner’s measurements and with veteran features that would suggest a far greater age. Perhaps his measurements were guessed, or maybe he was referring to two different trees in the locality of Wick that no longer exist.
To add further intrigue or complication to the story, the oak has also become embroiled in the myth of Joseph of Arimathea. The tree’s second name is “The Evidence Oak”, referring to its planting at the site of Joseph’s arrival onto the Isle. It stands as supposed evidence of his visit. The tree was noted by Charles Eyston in 1712. 5.
”…Eyston’s innkeeper was able to tell him of another arboreal anomaly, the Oak of Avalon, planted not far from the town at the place where Joseph disembarked, having presumably sailed across the Levels in flood.” 1712 .5
The fact that the Avalon Oak sits 60ft above sea level may have quelled further development of this part of the story. It seems superfluous and opportunistic considering the focus of the tale is a Thorn. Whats more, this area of Glastonbury is not known to have been a landing place by boat, but on foot, via West Pennard. Given that the Thorn saga plays out upon Wearyall hill then The Beckery, via the River Brue, is a more likely location for his arrival by boat. Perhaps we are at risk of being pulled too far down the rabbit hole.
To attempt some dendrochronological context, if the Oak of Avalon was planted when St Joseph arrived in the 1st century, then it would have been 1800+ years old at the time of its demise, which is within the range of English oak’s longevity, but only in very rare cases. More realistically it might have been planted in the Abbeys heyday in the 14th century, making it an oak of 500+ when it fell. The accompanying drawing although lacking real detail shows an oak of maybe 5-6m girth, an oak of 300-600 years old.
As always, wading through Glastonbury’s milieux of myth and legend leads to the frustrating outcome of never really knowing. Truths are distorted, the way is disoriented by Avalon’s mists and the eagerness of the Church, especially post reformation, to adopt local landmarks and attribute Christian relevance to them.
The original oak’s true age, stature and heritage may be the subject of inaccurate elaboration and opportunistic association aimed at firming the Abbeys claim to the origins of Christianity in Britain, as one might say it has done with its claim on the Glastonbury Thorn and Chalice Well. Indeed, the name Avalon may also have been applied in this way to evoke the myth of Arthur.
At least, we can be pretty sure that a large oak tree existed upon the banks of Stone Down; along with the sketched map mentioned previously, a map from 1609 held at a Somerset museum also shows the tree marked. Certainly the oak’s reputation and the fact that it served a purpose, saved it from clearances over the centuries and made it a focal point amongst the changing landscape of tracks, paths and enclosures.
Thanks to the diaries of Rev. John Skinner, and these maps, we can be sure of the existence of the tree and its role in the history of the place as a boundary and way marker, we know it was a tree of such importance that when it fell it was soon replaced, and we know that the New Avalon Oak still stands today, leaning into the hill so as to reveal a route back through the history and mystery of this Isle.
The Avalon Oak in present times, marks the way of a footpath running north around from the lynches and joining Stone Down Lane about halfway down. It provides a stopping point for a few locals and dog walkers, a place of rest and shade on a hot day, a point of significant interest in the landscape and home to many creatures.
To me personally, it has become a point of pilgrimage, a place to visit at significant times of the year, namely at the Winter Solstice. It’s a teacher, a friend, a source of inspiration, a place to give thanks and to appreciate the wonders of nature.
Mature trees can serve to connect us to our past, this oak provides a doorway into our local history, not only through the natural and arboreal but the cultural and religious. I dream about past times when the oak and its predecessor might have greeted many people on foot and on horse, guiding them up onto the island, just before the point at which the Tor Hill starts to rise over the ridge.
UPCOMING TREE WALKS