The Chained Oak - The Facts Behind the Folklore

· 5 min read
The Chained Oak - The Facts Behind the Folklore
The Chained Oak - Raven Photography

The Chained Oak of Alton is a 700-year-old English oak tree which has been the subject of legend, superstition and folklore for centuries. The tree has become a popular tourist attraction, partly because Alton Towers used the story of the tree to create a ride based on its legend, Hex.

But what are the facts behind the folklore?

The chains hanging down from the tree - Raven Photography

The most famous story about the tree is the one that is used by Alton Towers in Hex. The tale says that the 15th Earl of Shrewsbury was riding home to the towers in his carriage in 1821, when an old beggar woman (sometimes the story says it was a man), stops the Earl begging for a coin. When she is shunned by the Earl, she curses him, saying that every time a branch fell from the tree, a member of his family would die. There was then a storm, a branch fell, and a member of the Earl's family died.

So the Earl ordered the branches of the tree to be bound in iron chains to stop any more from falling.
Hex then goes on to say that the Earl became obsessed with the curse and took the branch back to the towers where he experimented on it in a secret vault that had recently been discovered during renovations.

This isn't the only version of the legend though. This is just the most famous one.

The chains have grown into the tree - Raven Photography

A less well-known version of the story is that a witch trapped a spirit in a tree in the 1600s, using chains to bind it. This isn't plausible though as the chains are from the 19th century. Unless they have been replaced through time, which seems unlikely.

The trunk of the oak is extremely thick - Raven Photography

An interesting and much less known take on it is a misunderstanding. It is said that a tinker was passing by the tree and he asked about it and was told that it was a 'chêne' which is French for oak. He couldn't see any chains on the tree so he took some from his cart and added them to the tree. Again, not a likely story because the chains are extremely heavy, long and high up the tree, so it would be pretty much impossible for one man to do this alone.

The most realistic version of the story is that it was a beloved and protected tree. Possibly even sacred.

A cutting from the Staffordshire Sentinel 1926 

There is a record in the Staffordshire Sentinel, Saturday 28th August 1926 that states that an old oak tree near the Middle Lodge at Alton Towers has had the limbs suspended by large crane chains. It doesn't say why, but we can safely assume it was to help the tree to hold its weight. Or possibly to protect the people riding, walking and driving their carriages underneath, as the track underneath the tree is the original Barbary Gutter Trail that led from Alton Towers to St Giles Church (Pugin's Gem) in Cheadle.

So we know that it is a true story that the Earl had it chained, it's just the wrong Earl in the story. In 1886 the 20th Earl, Charles Chetwynd-Talbot, owned the Alton Estate, although he lived at Ingestre. He is the Earl that started the sale of the Alton house and estate.

The Barbary Gutter Trail today - Raven Photography

This begs the question though, why chains? Why not rope?

Well, that is a little easier to answer. In the 19th century, Alton and the surrounding areas were home to a large industry of ironworks. This means that the Earl would have been able to access the chains easily and probably cheaply. It would have also been easy to transport them to the estate, as they would have been local.

The steps leading up to the tree - Raven Photography

One thing that I cannot find any information about though, is the steps leading up to the tree. Are these a later addition to help with tourism, or were they placed there to show the importance of the tree? The actual stones seem to predate the chains by a few hundred years, but we like to reuse things in Staffordshire so that doesn't help much.

In fact, the steps are actually marked on an OS Map from 1825-1914, but the tree isn't.

OS Map showing the steps leading up to the tree

One thing is for sure, The Chained Oak is still a fascinating and beautiful tree. It is the only tree in the world that is bound in chains and we need to protect it. It has deteriorated so much over recent years due to people climbing on it, putting padlocks on, pulling the chains off and generally vandalising it.

In 2007 a large branch fell from the tree. The family said there were no deaths though.

If you would like to view the rest of the photographs from the day, then please take a look at the full gallery here.

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