The giant sycamore on the green in the Dorset village of Tolpuddle is known worldwide, and reproduced on posters, mugs and T-shirts as the Tolpuddle Tree. It is One of the most famous trees in Britain because in 1834 six agricultural labourers met beneath this tree to talk about their poor living conditions and became part of one of the early trade unions in Britain Though they were arrested by the government and went on trial for committing an secret oath. They were found guilty and were deported to Australia,. These men became known as The Tolpuddle Martyrs, who the tree is named after.
As the tree is of such symbolic importance I wanted to cover it in my book.
The Sheltering Tree opens with the protagonist, Elizabeth Standfield climbing the sycamore tree. I wanted Elizabeth to climb the tree as we today live in a time where the art of tree climbing is dying. With our lives revolving more indoors and the fear of health and safety some kids have never even climbed a tree. But for anyone who has they will recognise the joy that this can give.
As Elizabeth pulls her self up through the branches she enters into another world. She watches as people pass below, making them separate – similar to when you watch fish swimming by in a stream. Hiding in the canopy, Elizabeth feels she is in a secret garden, a place of quiet reflection. This must of been important for Elizabeth. Imagine coming from a family of six children, living in a tiny cottage with only one room on each floor, never sure if you were going to have enough to eat. The immersion into the natural world allows Elizabeth to forget street level worries.
Trees have always played an important part in societies.
They are natural landmarks and are a rural calendar e.g. mulberry bushes where dances abound, gospel oaks where people offer prayers. And it was under the Tolpuddle Tree that George Loveless discussed the trade unions with fellow agricultural workers.
The Tolpuddle Tree is estimated to be around 350 years old and is now looked after by the National Trust. No one is sure when the sycamore was introduced to Britain but a general consensus is that it was before 1500 – some say that it was the Romans that brought it with them.
Many conservationists claim it is an invasive tree that has little or nothing to contribute. I disagree as I feel it has lots to offer. Yes they are less showy than other trees in the country but there is a beauty in the beast. In spring there are clusters of miniature flowers which protrude between two of the leaves. They hang in yellow-green tassels with up to fifty minute flowers. Each flower produce a winged samara/key – a fat pair of seeds joined at the centre with curved wings at each side. These mini helicopters can bring hours of fun as they twirl through the breeze. But the most beautiful features of mature sycamore trees is their bark. The thick flaking crust is curiously patterned and textured, like pieces of a jigsaw. thousands of little crevices for insects to hide.
So next time you visit Tolpuddle, stop by the Sycamore and imagine not only the Tolpuddle Martyrs huddled around the tree discussing the union but look up and imagine Elizabeth hiding behind the green leafs.