If trees could only speak. If they had some semblance of sentience and memory, and a means of communication, what would they tell us? Ancient trees – or at least those we suspect to be very old – are usually described in terms of human history. Perhaps as humans it is hubris that requires us to define them in this way but the fact is that by and large they tend to outlive us: many lofty oaks that stand today were already reaching for the sky when the Industrial Revolution changed the face of the land over two centuries ago. This linkage of history and old trees has resulted in some colourful local history. The story of the future King Charles II hiding from parliamentarian troops up a pollarded oak tree in Boscobel, Shropshire carried sufficient potency for the original tree to have been eventually killed by souvenir hunters excessively lopping of its branches as keepsakes. Undoubtedly the stuff of legend, Royal Oak ended up becoming the third commonest pub name in England. A long-established folk belief also tells of the Glastonbury Thorn, the tree which is said to have grown from the staff of Joseph of Arithmathea whom legend has it once visited Glastonbury with the Holy Grail. What was considered to be the original tree perished during the English Civil War, chopped down and burned by Cromwell’s troops who clearly held a grudge against any tree that came with spiritual associations or historical attitude.There is an ancient thorn in Norfolk that is sometimes connected with the same Joseph of Arithmathea myth. Hethel Old Thorn can be found along narrow lanes amidst unremarkable farming country 10 miles south of Norwich. Close to the better known Kett’s Oak that can be seen propped up alongside the old London Road near Wymondham; closer still to the Lotus car factory and Hethel’s All Saints Church, which dates back at least to the 14th century and may even have a Saxon core.
The old thorn stands enclosed behind a fence, a measure designed to deter the red poll cattle that graze here, and perhaps also would-be tree-huggers if the rampant bed of nettles around its base were not enough. Occupying just 0.025 hectares, the site is Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s smallest nature reserve; indeed it is probably the smallest nature reserve in the country. The tree itself is impressive although now much diminished from what it once was – in the mid 18th-century its trunk was recorded as having a circumference of over 12 feet and a spread of 31 yards.At an estimated 700 years old this is thought to be the oldest specimen of Crataegus monogyna in the UK. Like the nearby Kett’s Oak, the thorn was thought to be a meeting place for the rebels during Kett’s Rebellion in 1549. Long before that it may have been used as a meeting point for protesters during the time of King John. According to the information on the sign board local children would once have danced the village maypole and then scrambled to the thorn to count the number of props holding up the boughs. Seventy or so years ago it would have witnessed a flow of American Liberator B-42 bombers taking off for operations over Germany from the nearby airfield that now serves as the Lotus works. Despite age, decay and fragmentation the thorn still appears to be in good fettle. On my visit in late November a fine crop of haws were hanging on its boughs, a rich invitation for blackbirds and wintering redwings. Clearly the Hethel Old Thorn is still very much alive and thriving. Who knows how many more centuries the tree will live and what future events it will observe as silent witness?