The Magical Old Oak

How often have you wandered through a woodland marvelling at the different tree shapes and forms and thought that there is something magical about them? You wouldn’t be the first person to think this, as there is a host of folklore associated with some of our native trees, passed down through the generations.

Our majestic oak probably has more folklore and legend associated with it than any other native British tree. It has long been associated with the gods of thunder such as Zeus, Thor and Thunor, probably because it is frequently struck by lightning. It has also been associated with the coming of Spring and is almost always incorporated in depictions of the god of Spring, the Green Man, Jack in the Green, Robin Hood or the King of May.

However, oak has also long been viewed as a magical tree with the ability to ward off all manner of devils and evil. This is demonstrated in the local legend of the ‘Cauld Lad of Hylton’. The ruins of Hylton Castle near Sunderland are reputed to be haunted by the ghost of a murdered stable boy, known locally as the Cauld Lad of Hylton. The events are said to have taken place in the 16th or 17th century and there are several legends concerning the ghost’s origins. One story states that the stable boy was caught courting Baron Hylton’s daughter, and was killed. The Baron was then reported to have disposed of the body in a deep pond, or an unused well. Soon afterwards, strange events began to occur in the castle. The kitchen would be tidied at night if left in a mess, or messed up if left tidy. An unseen person would take hot ashes from the fires, and lie on them, leaving an imprint of a body.

Versions of the tale describe the Cauld Lad as a brownie who is under a spell from which he can only be released by being given a gift. His mischief is intended to draw attention to himself in the hope that he will be saved. He sings the following song, which indicates how long he expects to be enchanted:

“Wae’s me, wae’s me,
The acorn’s not yet fallen from the tree,
That’s to grow the wood,
That’s to make the cradle,
That’s to rock the bairn
That’s to grow to the man
That’s to lay me!”

This implies that only a man who was rocked as a child in an Oak cradle would have the magical power strong enough to exorcise the Cauld Lad.

There are many more legends and folklore associated with our native trees, which I will look at in future articles. If any reader has any stories, please send them to me at Rainton Meadows, Chilton Moor, Houghton-le-Spring, Tyne & Wear, DH4 6PU.

If you would like to visit Hylton Castle you will find it situated in the North West of Sunderland and easily accessible from the A19 via the A1231. Once on the A1231 follow the signs for Hylton Castle. The castle is adjacent to Hylton Dene Local Nature Reserve, which is managed by Durham Wildlife Trust on behalf of the City of Sunderland.

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