The Stonnall Tree at Grove Hill
by Julian Ward-Davies BA Hons
For decades, the solitary tree at Grove Hill, Stonnall, has been the cause of endless fascination and speculation among residents, visitors and passers-by alike, to the point in which it has long since acquired iconic status. But what, exactly, is known about it?
The purpose of this paper is to gather any discernible facts, documents, research, circumstantial evidence and folklore associated with the tree which, in turn, might help us to tease out a few clues that point to its history and significance.
Grove Hill and the Stonnall tree
Early map references to Grove Hill
The very first Ordnance Survey map of the area, which was issued in about 1830, displays a group of five trees where there is now only one (see fig 1). The present tree may or may not have been one of them, but on a balance of probabilities discussed below, it probably was not. The group of trees undoubtedly gave rise to the name Grove Hill. The area is marked up as Grove Hill on this map.
The name of the enclosing field is recorded in the Estate Map (1818) (see fig 2) and in the Tithe Map Book of Awards (1838) as Grove Hill , although no tree or set of trees is marked on either of these maps at this location. That does not mean to say, of course, that there was no tree or trees there at the time of the surveys. The surveyors might have considered that the feature was too trivial to bother with.
The evolution of Grove Hill
Fig 1. The hill in the early 19th century with the original grove of five trees
Fig 2. The hill in 1818. The mark between "William Tennant" and "Grove Hill" is the number 5
Fig 3. The hill in 1883. Clearly, there was another stranded tree in the field at the time.
This was the last remnant of the original grove
A possible newspaper reference
This incident might yield a clue relating to the practical significance of the hill, which we will try to elaborate on later.
The origin of the grove of Grove Hill
After the introduction of agriculture during the Bronze Age, more and more space for growing cereals, other crops and pasture was required. A piecemeal process of deforestation took hold and, over hundreds of years, great swathes of woodland were cleared, with the vacated areas turned over to farming.
Thus, the grove of Grove Hill was a remnant of the woodland that once covered the Stonnall area.
Why was the grove retained when the rest of the woodland was cleared?
This might seem to offer an explanation for the mystery of Grove Hill, but as we will see as this story unfolds, things will get a bit more complicated than that.
What happened to the grove?
This process took place probably over several hundred years and, indeed, we can detect a transitional phase from one of the OS maps: in the 1883 edition, it appears that there was still one representative of the original grove still in place a few yards away from the present beech tree (see fig 3).
Was the single tree part of the original grove?
If the present tree was part of the original grove, it would be well over 200 years old by now. Judging by its girth, that seems unlikely, although its exposed location together with the damage it suffered in its early life might have contributed to its lack of bulk.
Another possibility is that, far from being a self-set accident of nature, it was planted deliberately for a particular reason. It does seem to be located very precisely at the apex of the hill, which might indicate human intervention, of which more later.
What was the grassy knoll for?
While this was undoubtedly a means of protecting the tree's root system and its trunk from accidental damage that might otherwise have been caused by impacts from farming equipment, such as ploughs, as we will see, there may well have been another practical reason for the creation of this feature.
A photo of the location of Thornes Hall with the tree and grassy knoll clearly visible
A feature to be cared for
The single tree under threat of removal or damage
Landowner-farmer, Mr Ikin, made clear publicly his intentions, apparently shortly after he had purchased Manor Farm, which included the Grove Hill field, in 1945.
By the way, it has been suggested by Val Powell that he was dissuaded from this course of action by Harry Jones of Primrose Cottage in Footherley Lane, Footherley.
This abandoned plan is really only worthy of mention because of what happened afterwards.
The full text of the letter
What can be gathered from this letter?
Are we any the wiser?
The obvious problem here is that Mr Poxon does not state how he knew about any of these things.
Moreover, as we will see, it is possible that he conflated and confused the suggested Grove Hill investigation with another local archaeological discovery that we know beyond any doubt to be a factual certainty.
A Bronze Age discovery
William Tennant esq
While working near the Gainsborough farmhouse in the year in question, some labourers happened upon an ancient grave (now interpreted as a Bronze Age burial) and several items were recovered from it.
The point here is that the range of these excavated materials was identical to that described by Mr Poxon as having been discovered at Grove Hill.
Two archaeological discoveries in a single year? The same items found? Half a mile from each other? The same landowner? All these things are possible, but could this be just a bit too good to be true? Is it the case that Mr Poxon got things a bit mixed up?
The problem is that we just don't know. Unless evidence emerges that supports what he said in his letter, unfortunately, Mr Poxon's claims about Grove Hill must be taken with a big pinch of salt.
As to the fate of the items recovered at Gainsborough Farm, it seems that they were placed in the custody of the Tennant family, after which History lost track of them. An account of this discovery and the subsequent events and circumstances surrounding it can be viewed in this article.
But could this explain the trench?
The hill and folklore research
These stories included the supposed facts that it was the tomb of an Iron Age warrior who, when dug up, had been found wearing a suit of golden armour; and that the ghost of a Roman centurion haunted the place on midsummer nights.
Perhaps the least sensational and possibly the most telling comment was collected from Mr Ikin, with whom we have already met, as it were, about 30 years previous to Judith's research. When asked why the solitary tree of Grove Hill had been left as it was, he is said to have replied that it would be bad luck to pull it out - and that had also been the attitude of his father.
A deeply entrenched folk-memory?
Furthermore, Mr Ikin is said to have reported that this attitude had been transmitted down two generations of his family. Are we to believe that this had started with his father, or was it possibly the direct consequence of a long-established folk-memory?
The Ikins undoubtedly had contact with their immediate predecessors at Manor Farm, the Smiths, who undoubtedly had contact with their predecessors, the Wrights - and this takes us back to when the grove disappeared and the single tree was left to mark a spot.
There was, therefore, every opportunity for a folk-memory to be handed on, family to family, tenant to tenant, parent to child, over a long period of time. But, if it ever existed, just how deeply-seated was that folk-memory? Could it have been transmitted over numerous generations for hundreds or possibly even thousands of years?
Going back in time
So if, as he claimed, there had been a long-established tradition of folklore associated with Grove Hill, which was perfectly possible, especially in the light of what Mr Ikin had said, we should be able to find references to that tradition in the work of some eminent local historians and antiquarians in preceding centuries:-
Dr Robert Plott's Stonnall visit
A detailed plan of the hill fort at Stonnall, from an early 20th century OS map
Reverend Henry Sanders' curacy and book
Reverend Stebbing Shaw's survey
What did they say about Grove Hill?
As non-residents, Dr Plott and Rev Shaw could be forgiven for an act of omission in failing to give notice to Grove Hill, if there ever was anything to give notice about, that is. But the same could not be said of Rev Sanders. As one of the parish clergymen, clearly, he had travelled the roads and footpaths around the village. He had definitely visited nearby Thornes Hall in Church Road and, although we don't know it for a fact, probably on at least one occasion he had walked or ridden to the top of the hill to admire the views. He must have known Grove Hill.
So why did he fail to mention it? There really can be only one reason. Since no-one had reported any stories associated with it, as far as he was concerned, Grove Hill was a good viewpoint but an otherwise unremarkable hill with a pleasant but otherwise unremarkable group of trees on top of it. In short, it simply was not notable enough to exercise his writing hand. Ditto Dr Plott and ditto Rev Shaw.
Is this the end of the story?
Moreover, if we are to consider folklore as valid in any way, that is to say, that it relates to actual events and cirumstances of the remote past, we would expect it to be reported continuously in an unbroken chain. Clearly, in this case and over an extended period of time, it was not.
And therefore, unfortunately, we can conclude that Mr Poxon's claims were fanciful.
Nevertheless, there must be an explanation for the single tree and the grassy knoll. This leads us to a reconstructed narrative of the story of Grove Hill, taking into account everything we have discussed and noted so far, which will solve its mystery once and for all.
About 1,500 years later, when most of the hill's tree covering was removed, a grove was left behind, possibly in a superstitious response to a half-forgotten folk-memory of an ancient burial.
The grove was incapable of regeneration because of farming activities and it gradually died away over the succeeding 300 years or so. Over this period, all associated folklore, if ever there was any, appears to have been forgotten. The last representative of the grove disappeared in the late 19th century.
Even before that event, the landowner of the time in the mid-19th century, who was certainly one of the Wright family of Manor Farm, took action that would result in the creation of the feature we still recognise today. Why did he do this?
As we have seen, Grove Hill was probably the location for the celebration following the opening of St Peter's Chapel of Ease in 1823. This gives us a clue as to how the hill was regarded by Stonnall people in the Old Days. Bearing in mind that there was no public space in the village until the late 1960s, it is very likely that Grove Hill was the place to which people would take a walk and admire the views for a while, especially after harvest time. Stonnall people had probably been doing this for hundreds, possibly even thousands of years.
An aerial photo of Grove Hill dating from 1945 with, centre, the tree and grassy knoll
Recognising that the hill was a semi-public place and that the last remnant of the grove would soon be lost, in around 1870 the landowner placed a beech tree at the apex of the hill and surrounded it with a protective layer of turf. This also served as a platform for visitors to stand on and helped to prevent wear and tear to the hilltop.
Thus, what we see now, what we remember of the tree and the grassy knoll and what we see in old photos is the result - no more and no less - of a slightly eccentric but wonderful piece of landscape gardening.
The Manor House, Stonnall, formerly the Manor Farm farmhouse (and before that, the Swan Inn, but that is another story). George Wright was the occupant in the mid to late 19th century and he would have been about 40 years old when he planted the Grove Hill tree.
Perhaps a few years after the tree was planted, the upper part of its trunk was broken off, probably as a result of vandalism. Nevertheless, the tree survives to the present day, but with the damage still clearly visible during the winter months.
At some stage, a trench was cut into the grassy knoll. As noted, there are two plausible anecdotal explanations for this:-
There is no direct evidence for either of these explanations and yet the trench was dug by somebody for a particular reason.
If it was the result of the activities of archaeologists, it must have been dug some years after the tree was planted and the surrounding turfed area was laid. However, archaeologists always backfill their trenches and this would seem to rule out professional archaeology at least.
The wartime Home Guard was based in the first floor of the former Kennings Garage at Shire Oak. It is said that they dug the trench to enable them to use the hill as a look-out point. It is certainly true that the horseshoe-shaped trench overlooked the whole village.
The Grove Hill tree as seen from the Manor House front doorstep, Excluding the recent housing developments, this is the view that would have greeted George Wright on leaving his house every day.
There can be no real doubt that it was George Wright (b about 1827) of Manor Farm who arranged for the tree to be planted on his land at Grove Hill, directly in line with his house. Indeed, the tree is placed so precisely on the horizon relative to the Manor House that we can be absolutely certain that instructions for its exact placement were indicated from the house at the moment the tree was planted.
© Julian Ward-Davies 2015
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