One of our most famous trees has attracted the attention of French television. A documentary crew is currently carrying out research on the Bowthorpe Oak which can be found on the side of a hill near Bourne where it has become a landmark over the past one thousand years.
The giant oak tree grows above a natural spring in a grassy meadow behind the farmhouse at Bowthorpe Park Farm, just off the A6121 near Manthorpe, three miles south west of Bourne, and has earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records. It has been featured frequently over the years in newspapers and magazines and in 1998 a short film was screened on BBC Television about its size and longevity.
The legendary tree is the largest girthed living British oak and its circumference measures 42 feet. Apart from its great size, it has a rugged bole, gnarled and crooked branches and a great spread of crown. Although its true age will never be known, it is reputed to be well over 1,000 years old and was therefore growing during the time of William the Conqueror (1066-1087) but chains have been used to prevent it from splitting under the weight of its heavy boughs.
There is a hollow trunk and looking upwards you can see a small patch of sky, or leaves, depending on the season. Bartholomew Howlett, in A Selection of Views in the County of Lincolnshire (1805), wrote that in 1768, George Pauncefort Esq “had the interior of the oak floored, with benches placed round and a door of entrance where 12 persons had frequently dined in it with ease. The tree, though not lofty, has a very beautiful head and is remarkable for its very early foliage.”
The book also contains a detailed drawing by J C Nattes showing the magnificent tree with the door built into the trunk, animals grazing beneath its branches and the stone farmhouse in the background. Other references suggest that a former tenant of the farm had a roof installed and used the recess as an additional room while successive generations of children born and raised on the farm played in its branches. There are many other tales about the uses to which the tree has been put. One former owner used to feed his small calves inside the trunk while children from the Methodist chapel at nearby Manthorpe held their annual tea and treat there.
In 1779, surveyor Andrew Armstrong included the Bowthorpe Oak in the first survey of Lincolnshire. On the map, beside a sketch of the tree, he noted: “The oak is 36 feet in circumference”. The peasant poet John Clare (1793-1864), who lived not far away at Helpston, was also inspired by the tree to write Burthorpe Oak and many times during the past century it has been photographed as a backdrop for gatherings and events. The Bourne photographer, Ashby Swift (1883-1941), used it for a postcard view in 1906 entitled “The Great Oak at Bowthorpe Park” showing the remains of the 18th century door frame compressed into a constantly expanding trunk.
Bowthorpe Park Farm enjoys a beautiful setting on the side of a hill with a stone farmhouse that is over 400 years old. The surrounding area was originally Bowthorpe Park, hence the name of the farm, and in 1226, Sempringham Priory acquired the manorial chapel which stood there but it has gone, together with its accompanying manor house.
The grass in the parkland that remained was lifted during the Second World War and the land cultivated as part of the drive to produce more food for home consumption. Manthorpe village can be seen a few fields away on the next hill and there is an attractive pond alongside the entrance track to the farm. The family who now run it welcome visitors throughout the year to take a look at their activities and their busiest period is during the lambing season in the spring, a favourite time for school parties.
A typical visit is recorded by a local newspaper in the summer of 1842 which said that a large number of ladies and gentlemen from Bourne and surrounding villages assembled at the old oak tree which had a girth of fifteen yards and was used in the winter by the farmer, Thomas Nixon, as a stall for feeding calves. The report went on: “The company, upwards of a hundred, partook of plum cakes and good bohea [a black China tea] prepared by Mrs Nixon, in parties of a dozen each inside the tree which also contained a large table. The visitors spent the remainder of the evening in a dance and separated at a late hour highly delighted with their visit. Several of the party expressed their intention of honouring the tree with their presence next year.”
The oak tree, however, is now at risk from the weather because of its old age, and one of the larger branches was ripped off during severe storms in the Bourne area over the weekend of Saturday and Sunday , October 26 and 27, 2002 when wind forces reached 90 mph but the owners of Bowthorpe Park Farm gave assurances that it would survive. As the year closed, the massive tree was named by the Tree Council as one of the Fifty Great Trees for Fifty Great Years that had been selected from around Britain to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002.
Now the French have discovered the Bowthorpe Oak and if the project goes ahead, the programme will be screened by the German-French Channel Arte in a series about the remarkable trees of Europe. Marjorie Graudon from the Paris-based production company, Camera Lucida, tells me: “We want to feature not only about the history of the tree but also the people who live around it and the way they feel about it.”
A PORTRAIT OF BOURNE is the definitive history of the town and is available on CD-ROM. An order form may be downloaded from the Bourne website at www.bourne-lincs.org.uk.