Jeremy talks on Saturday 18th April as part of the BARK! festival of trees and woods. Shaftesbury Arts Centre, 7.30pm. Tickets from Shaftesbury Arts Centre or Shaftesbury TIC www.goldhilltickets,co.uk www.barkfestival.co.uk
A message for future generations
Trees live on when people have died, green witnesses to the days that are past. Throughout Dorset, people have handed down traditional stories in which trees serve as memorials to the dead – sometimes, indeed, their only memorial. The gaunt sycamore that stands by the road at Mapperton is the sole monument to a village which died in the great plague. In early days, though Mapperton was a flourishing village, it had no church, and mourners used to bury their dead at Netherbury, carrying the coffin on its last sad procession over the hills. But the plague came, and when its few survivors began their journey to the graveyard, they found that the way was blocked by the men of Netherbury, who had swarmed up the hill, cudgels in hand, to keep the infected burials from bringing death into their village. So the dead were buried where they stood instead, and the old tree marks the spot. It is called the Posy Tree, after the plague-defying posies of sweet flowers that the last survivors carried with them.
Sometimes a tree might carry a message for future generations. An oak in a field at Morden is deeply scratched with the letters SC and the outline of a coffin, and it is called the Bull Oak. If you ask why, they will tell you that Samuel Crumpler owned that field 200 years ago, and used to pasture his bull there. This was not well received by the villagers, as a footpath ran through it, but every time they complained, Samuel would retort that his bull was gentle as a lamb and that nothing but prejudice and awkwardness prevented them from using the path across the field. Finally he walked across the field to prove that they were wrong. The bull was not as lamb-like as had been claimed, and once Samuel's body was rescued for burial, his initials were engraved on the oak under which he had been gored, to warn passers-by of the dangers that attend rash confidence.
There is another Coffin Tree that records a life cut short, but this one was not ended by accident. The name of Maiden's Grave Gate nearby on the Purbeck hills confirms the old story, of a girl crossed in love who desperately took her own life, and who was laid to rest at this windswept spot with all the cruel rites which used to attend the burial of a suicide. Her body was placed in a grave hacked out where two tracks crossed at the furthest bounds of the parish, and a length of wood battered through the chest before the earth was piled back over her silent form. Suicide always aroused a mixture of horror and pity in the people of days gone by.
At Okeford Fitzpaine the tree on which a man hanged himself was marked by a cross, and beside it can be seen his staff, which took root and became a smaller tree.
One tree in the driveway to Eastbury House, to the north of Blandford, was long pointed out – the tree on which the faithless steward Doggett hanged himself. He had embezzled the funds entrusted to him to build the house, which would have been the greatest in Dorset if he had kept loyal to his master. Doggett was a gentleman so they buried him in the church, suicide or not, but the solemnities of the funeral gave him no rest, and he used to come back at nights and prey on the people amongst whom he had once lived.
Strange stories are told about old trees. One night the squire of Ashmore dreamed a terrible dream, and he knew it was true since it came to him three times. He dreamt that there was someone in trouble down where the ash tree leaned over Washer's Pit. He woke the household, and asked who would be brave enough to go and see if his dream was true, but no-one stepped forward, because the Pit had a bad name and was next to an old mound where things had been heard making queer noises at nights. At last the household cook said that she would go. She rode out on the squire's best horse and found a lady, dressed all in white, hanging by her hair from the branches of the tree. The cook released the lady, and not before time, for there were men coming to take her away. The two women clutched onto the horse and spurred it onwards until it had raced away from all possibility of pursuit, and came safe back to the manor house. So this tree was long remembered, not as a scene of death, but of deliverance.