The Royal Oak

Royal Oak at Speyside School

This is the very first school I ever attended. Some twenty-odd years ago I arrived here for my first day of kindergarten. I remember very little about my time there, just small snippets such as the sandbox in the kindergarten room, or playing in the schoolyard. I was only at the school for that one year, after which it was closed due to low enrollment, and the students sent to other local schools. It was too bad, because this one was very convenient to home, being at the end of my parents’ road. Since its closure as a public school it was used for two years as a Catholic school while their new building was constructed in Milton, and then subsequently for a bit by York University, for their teacher education program.

These days the school is vacant, and looks forlorn, forgotten. The weeds grow high in the front yard, and the trees are unkempt. Overgrown bushes crowd out windows that are covered with metal grills to protect against vandals. Fresh graffiti defaces the front door, and old vandalism on the outer walls has been covered over with brick-coloured paint. It’s a sad, lonely place now, it hasn’t seen a child in a long time. The only cars regularly seen there are the local ambulance when it parks while on-call, and the occasional police car as they sit patrolling for speeders. The heat to the building was turned off long ago, and the building itself is no longer usable.

Royal Oak at Speyside School

In front of the gymnasium grows this magnificent old oak tree. Its boughs are strong and spreading, its trunk more than two feet in diameter. It looks like it may have seen better days as well, with the bark beginning to crack with age and a few dead branches in its crown, but it’s generally still very healthy.

Last year it was given an Ontario Heritage designation. The tree has an interesting history, and has done a bit of traveling. It arrived in Ontario as an acorn in 1937, sent overseas from England with many others taken from an oak tree in Royal Park in Windsor, distributed throughout the commonwealth to commemorate the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth I. The little local school, then a one-room schoolhouse known as Dublin School, was one of the lucky sites chosen for the three acorns allocated to the township. The schoolhouse’s teacher arranged an evening planting ceremony and the community came out to participate.

In 1960, a new brick multi-class school opened a short distance down the highway, amalgamating the students from all the surrounding one-room schoolhouses, which subsequently closed. Dublin School was sold to a private individual for retrofitting into a home, but money was raised to have the 23-year-old, 20-foot-high oak tree moved to the new Speyside School. In the 48 years since it was relocated to its current home, the tree has grown and for the most part flourished. In a recent assessment it was measured at 13.5 meters (44 feet) tall and 79 cm (2.5 ft) in diameter.

Plaque for Royal Oak at Speyside School

When Speyside School closed its doors in 1986, acorns from the Speyside Royal Oak were planted at the four schools that the Speyside students would now be attending, so while the crown of this tree no longer shades children playing at recess, its offspring do. A motion was made to designate the Royal Oak as a heritage tree last year, in recognition of its cultural and historical value in the community, and a formal plaque was placed on a large stone at its foot. An article was run in the local newspaper at the time, but because the school is no longer used or visited by the community, I think its story will gradually fade into obscurity. At the very least, however, the heritage designation protects it from being harmed or cut down for the rest of its natural lifespan, which could potentially be 500 years or more.

Royal Oak at Speyside School

Considering that this individual is just 71 years old, it’s still in its youth. The tree is an English Oak, Quercus robur, a species native to Europe and bordering portions of Asia and Africa. The species can grow to heights of 35 m (115 ft) or more in good conditions. It’s related to our White Oak, and shares the same broad, round-lobed leaves. As with the White Oak, the acorns mature in a single season, taking about 6 months to develop (some oaks, such as the Red Oak, mature the following season, requiring 18 months to develop).

Royal Oak at Speyside School

I didn’t see any acorns developing on this individual, and I wonder if that’s a reflection of some aspect of its current health, or if they simply haven’t developed yet. It looked like the leaves were being enjoyed by somebody, however. On the underside of a couple of the leaves in the photo above I could see the cast-off skins of caterpillars. I’m not certain of the species. Bits of the leaves are missing, probably from the same caterpillars, and they’re speckled brown from another pest. Likely most insects or fungi that would affect our native White Oaks would also find the English Oak attractive.

Royal Oak at Speyside School

In terms of use by humans, oak has long been used in building because of its inherent strength and hardness. Wood from this species especially was used in the construction of ships until the 19th century. The attractiveness of its grain patterns when sawn into planks has resulted in its use as decorative paneling as long ago as the Middle Ages, and it can be found, among other places, lining the debating chamber of the British House of Commons in London. It’s often used for constructing wine barrels, and lends a distinct taste to the finished wine. The wood of the European oaks, including Quercus robur, are particuarly preferred over the North American oaks for the greater refinement they imbue to the wine. Oak bark is rich in tannins and has often been used by tanners in preparing leather (this same tannin content can make oak leaves and acorns dangerous to horses, however, and horse owners are encouraged to fence off oak trees from fields).

In an interesting bit of trivia, in an episode of the British version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, the million-dollar question was “If you planted the seeds of ‘Quercus robur’, what would grow? A: Trees B: Flowers C: Vegetables D: Grain”. The player got the question right.

Royal Oak at Speyside School

It’s amazing how attached a community can become to a local, long-standing tree. Two years ago, in 2006, the city was planning on widening a section of road in the south part of the county. This road-widening would require the removal of a 250-year-old native White Oak. There was a public outcry to this decision, and so the town gave the community the opportunity to save the tree – if they were able to raise the $343,000 that it would cost to divert the road around it, within 6 months. Amazingly, they did it, and the tree still stands, while traffic detours around it.

As much as it’s hard to think of what either of these trees have been silent witness to over their lifetime so far (the 250-year-old took root sometime in the 1760s), it’s even harder to imagine what they will see over the rest of their lives – in the case of the Speyside tree, potentially another 400 years or more. The changes to come will likely be as dramatic and profound as the changes this land has seen over the past 400 years. If we’re lucky, we as a species will still be here; if we’re even luckier, so will this oak tree.