The Cross Tree
The Cross Tree
The Cross Tree, immortalised by R.D. Blackmore in the well known book 'Christowell' is now only represented by a cross minus its shaft, enclosed near the Alms Houses. This famous tree, a fine old elm cut and clipped in the form of a punch bowl, has therefore been named the 'Cross Tree', the 'Dancing Tree' and the 'Punchbowl Tree'. The elm tree has long since disappeared, and in its place a beech tree has been planted. It is known that a market cross stood on what was at one time church land, prior to 1636. After the reformation, the cross fell into disuse and somehow an elm tree seed managed to germinate in the pedestal that held the cross. Either through lack of concern for the cross or simple neglect, the tree established itself and eventually its spreading roots managed to topple the cross. This resulted in the shaft breaking and the head separating; the broken shaft was taken away and probably used in some other capacity such as a gatepost. The head remained and, to this day, can be seen at the base of a modern tree. This association with the old market cross is why the tree became known as 'The Cross Tree'.
As time passed the elm tree flourished and in 1799 a local man, John Hancock decided to open an inn near the tree. After two applications, a licence was finally granted giving him permission to open his hostelry which he called 'The London Inn & Tavern'. Hancock then undertook to pollard the elm tree which resulted in the tree taking on the appearance of a punchbowl, which is how it also became known as, 'The Punchbowl Tree'. So it was that on special occasions such as Mayday and the like, many of the celebrations were held around the tree. In 1801, a witness to such an event wrote the following:
"The Cross Tree floored and seated around, with a platform, railed on each side, from the top of an adjoining wall to the tree, and a flight of steps in the garden for the company to ascend. After passing the platform they enter under a grand arch made of boughs. There is sufficient room for thirty persons to sit around, and six couples to dance, besides the orchestra".
It was because of this custom that the tree acquired its third alternative name – 'The Dancing Tree'.
During the Napoleonic wars the paroled French Officers who, in effect, were prisoners of war, would congregate around the tree. Their band would then entertain both locals and officers with their music. The tree was still in good order by 1862 when it became something of a tourist attraction. But disaster literally struck on the 13th of October 1891, when a violent storm blew down much of the tree, including a large part of the hollow trunk and much of the upper canopy. Following this a man named Harvey managed, with the aid of bands and iron nails, to restore the mighty elm. Bravely the tree struggled for its life but once again, 12 years later another storm completely destroyed it. Following this tragedy, Mr A. C. Loveys planted a new tree but this too was doomed and never managed to establish itself. Another attempt at replacing the old tree was undertaken in 1912 - this time a copper beech was planted. It is this tree that stands on the site today.
When the new tree was planted, it was decided that the original head of the old market cross should be re-sited and iron railings erected to protect both tree and cross head. The tree remains today a tourist attraction.