Following on from my post last week where I visited the old WW2 Pillbox, my walk continued through the Bentley Priory Nature Reserve in NW London. The name Bentley is believed to derive from the Anglo-Saxon word Beonet, which means a place covered in coarse grass, and Leah, a piece of cleared ground on the uplands. These words imply open space and traditional grassland, which remain a feature of the reserve today.
This was originally the park and pleasure grounds of the estate of Bentley Priory which originated in the early 13th century as an Augustinian house attached to the Priory of St Gregory, Canterbury. In 1926 the estate was broken up, with 240 acres sold to a building syndicate, who divided it into lots, enabling Middlesex County Council to purchase 90 acres of land as part of the Green Belt for a public park. The Air Ministry purchased the mansion and 40 acres of land which came to play such a key role in the Battle of Britain. I really need to do a post on that great house.
Bentley Priory has a number of ancient woods, Heriot’s Wood is known to have been a wood since 1600 and probably ever since the last glaciers retreated 11,500 years ago. Here grows Hornbeam, a species characteristic of ancient woodland and also contains vestiges of C19th ornamental planting that includes Midland and common hawthorn, birch, cedars, yew, and odd patches of laurel, and rhododendron.
The whole area is rich in species of fauna and flora with it being declared a site of special scientific interest primarily as it has never been intensively farmed or been treated with any fertilisers, let alone modern products and so the open grassy areas known as Heathland is a very precious and rare habitat.
Since WW2 chunks of the heathland have turned into young woodland with gorse bushes appearing and then being colonised by trees and so in the last few years work has gone into clearing some of the scrubland to restore it even more accurately to how it has been for the last few thousand years.
It all makes for a great way to spend a socially distant walk and once again very much as part of London as Big Ben, St Pauls or Buckingham Palace. My main goal on this walk though was to find perhaps the greatest tree in Middlesex which in an area full of several woodlands and with out even a smart phone I thought might be even more tricky to find than an old Roman Battlefield or prehistoric ditch. My rough plan was to turn right just before the WW2 Pillbox, walk a mile or so through the heathland to find a lake (which i had also never been to before) and then walk to the end of the lake and the tree should be somewhere a few minutes walk away on the right.
For those overseas, Middlesex is a county that no longer exists but typical of people everywhere, the locals cling to it as their identity rather than have a new identity foisted on them by people elsewhere. In effect Middlesex covered what is now most of North London above the River Thames and parts of the present day county of Hertfordshire; it existed for almost 1,500 years until in 1965 it was decided the local governments needed to be re-organised which explains why people 50 years on still identify as living in Middlesex rather than London. Indeed I go and watch the Middlesex Cricket team at Lords, there is no professional team called North London!
Talking of Lords, the famous cricket ground and its neighbouring Abbey Road crossing are in the district of St Johns Wood. This wood used to cover almost the whole of Middlesex and the woods that have featured in my blogs recently are some of the last remnants of it. The name of the ancient woods comes from the Knights of St John who owned much of this territory almost 1,000 years ago and I visit them on my London Pubs Walk and also my new Castles, Crusaders, Communists & Courts and Castles, Crusaders, Communists & Courts tours. How fascinating that place names and geographical features that we can visit today have their origins in ancient history and in this case in Clerkenwell which is almost in the heart of the infamous East End of London.
To my surprise I found the Master Oak with no problem at all… I really need to be on one of those orienteering or globe-trotting holiday shows I think but I suppose the ability to not get lost even in new places is a good thing for a tour guide.
The trunk of the Master Oak is 9m (just under 40 feet) in circumference and is estimated to have been around when King Henry VIII was on the throne. Oak trees generally live around 900-1,000 years and have 300 years of youthful growth, 300 years of happy contentment and 300 years or so of old age and so if it is fortunate with strong winds, lightening and idiotic vandals there is every chance people will be visiting it at least in the 26th century.
It just goes to show how much Britain was built on oak trees that such survivors are so rare and protected compared to other species of trees that can live thousands of years but were never used to build ships, or buildings.
The Master was pollarded around 200 years ago; pollarding is a traditional method of tree management in which the upper branches are removed, promoting a dense head of foliage and branches.
Of course for famous and much older oaks, they don’t come much more important than the Major Oak where Robin Hood famous spent time in Sherwood Forest and you can read of my visit there at My first England Grand Tour
I was glad I was able to tick off another local must-see before I possibly croak from the Coronavirus. You can read about my visit to another of the worlds most famous trees at I met perhaps the most famous tree in the world at Sycamore Gap
Would you give a big old oak tree like this a hug or not? I think anyone who says no isn’t being entirely honest!!!