One local result of Covid was the significant increase in visitors to Savernake Forest. Paths that were mere suggestions became well worn, and new paths opened up to become similarly obvious. It was on one delightful amble discovering several new variations that I realised my current Savernake Forest Map (available at White Horse Bookshop, St Peter’s Church and Postern Hill caravan site) was becoming seriously out of date, especially as two more cattle grazing areas had been fenced since its publication. It was time to produce the next edition but as I pondered this, I thought about the history of Savernake and realised that there was nothing anywhere in the forest to commemorate the family that had been wardens and then owners of the estate for some 950 years. Wasn’t that worth recording somewhere? The answer suddenly became obvious as I passed the Marie Louise Oak and asked myself the simple question ‘who was Marie Louise?’
Research tentatively suggested that she could have been the Duchess of Parma, Napoleon’s second wife, who is known to have visited Bath and would inevitably have rested at a fine house and estate half way along the bumpy road from London; and what finer than Tottenham House on Savernake estate. And would not her host, Thomas Brudenell Bruce (Lord Ailesbury), have proudly shown her his Capability Brown designed forest and rides; and perhaps, as she expressed her delight he named the track they rode in her honour: The Marie Louise Ride, and subsequently, the tree itself. Or perhaps Marie Louise was just a family friend… or the horse! That tree’s name however reminded me that some of Savernake’s mighty oaks, part of history themselves, also record snippets of human history too. This idea could be extended.
With the permission of Forestry England and the approval of Lord Cardigan, whose ancestors were the wardens and owners since 1067, his long established Savernake connection is now recorded in the names of trees; and as the surname changed three times through female inheritance and marriage, four great oaks now perpetuate that history:
Esturmy – (the name believed to mean ‘trustworthy’), Richard of that name was a Norman knight who accompanied William the Conqueror.
Seymour – (also originally a French name from St Maur south of Paris), Roger married Matilda Esturmy and the Seymours inherited the forest.
Bruce – another lack of male heir transferred ownership, by marriage, to this family and shortly afterwards there was a similar transfer of name to:
Brudenell – the name Bruce was however retained such that the present Lord Cardigan is David Brudenell Bruce.
During those recent discussions, three non-historic tree names were also added, Troll and Goblin (for the children) and Young Paunchy a near obvious pairing with Old Paunchy giving a nice total of 32 named oaks for visitors to seek out, and all now appearing on the latest map (5th edition). But how would visitors recognise these added trees?
It was therefore a very pleasant surprise on discovering that local architectural technician and Savernake enthusiast Kieren Dobie had become involved on a different but complementary front. While involved in my map-making and discussions, Kieren, a very competent sign maker, had been quietly restoring damaged tree signs or replacing the missing ones, and he matched Forestry England’s own signs perfectly.
On accidentally meeting, we both realised that while the map might direct visitors in the right direction, Kieren’s signs would prove their arrival, and he was keen to add the new names to his project.
Regarding the twenty-six earlier named trees, although the significance of many names is understood, it remains a mystery as to who allocated them and when, and in some cases why.