The Oak tree is an instantly recognizable feature of the British landscape and although this tree can be found across Europe and parts of Asia, its connection to Britain is a strong and unique relationship that stretches far into the past. Archie Miles has written a few other books on trees, even one that was made into a television series – ‘The Trees that made Britain’. But in this publication he puts down pretty much all that he knows about a single tree thus giving us one of the most comprehensive monographs ever written about the Oak.
To be pedantic this book actually concerns itself with two species of tree; the English (or Pedunculate) Oak – Quercus robur, and the Sessile Oak – Quercus petraea which both occur within Britain and look very similar. Miles covers this in the beginning, explaining the differences and similarities between them as well as stating that for arguments sake they will be treated as one species for the rest of the book. I want to make it clear that this book is not a biology text book, it does not go into great detail about the tree’s endocrine system, it instead explores the cultural, social and historical relationships that the Oak has with humans.
Straight off I must say that this is a high quality publication; the paper, cover and print quality is very good and scattered throughout are 250 excellent-quality photographs and antique illustrations to support and illuminate the text. The overall design of the book is most pleasing with a simple but bold front cover and a very well thought-out interior layout with a good choice of text (for those who appreciate such things).
There are ten main sections to the book, each covering a different aspect of the Oak such as the folklore/myths associated with them, Oak art and literature, crafts and industries born out of Oak wood, and of course the famous usage of Oaks to construct Britain’s once great navy. Each section is very interesting and you can tell that whole books could be written about these subjects yet Miles manages to convey the necessary information to the reader in a very readable, down-to-Earth and concise manner. That is not to say that one could read this book in one sitting! It took me the best part of two weeks to read all 292 pages yet I am glad I took the time over it as there is a lot of information to take in.
One of the best aspects of this book however is the inclusion of profiles for 50 notable British Oaks that are either remarkably old, culturally significant or are unusual in other ways – Miles even includes long gone trees that should be remembered. A clever idea was to evenly spread these tree profiles throughout the book rather than lumping them in one section as it breaks up the book well and doesn’t fatigue the reader with a long list of profiles. Of great interest is seeing all the humongous ancient Oaks pictured and described in detail; including the Bowthorpe Oak (the largest English oak in Europe at 42 feet girth) and the Marton oak (the largest Sessile oak in Britain at 44 feet girth) I now long to visit these behemoths of the plant world myself.
For anyone interested in wildlife or history this book needs to be on your shelf, it’s scope is large yet it manages to remain a manageable read, it sheds a lot of light on this country’s most important tree and highlights our need to conserve the past and prepare for the future.