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  • Writer's pictureSam

Supreme in State: The Oak Tree and the Hall

Updated: Aug 23, 2021

The monarch oak, the patriarch of the trees

Shoots rising up, and spreads by slow degrees;

Three generations he grows, and three he stays

Supreme in state, and in three more decays

John Dryden, from Palamon and Arcite

On 9th July this year, we woke to find that an oak tree at the edge of Ten Acre Field had fallen in the night. The tree had stood overlooking Bury St. Edmunds for at least 300 years.

The House on the Hill

Ten Acre Field itself used to belong to the estate of St Edmunds Hill, a modest Great House perched on the hill to the east of Bury St Edmunds, with unparalleled views across the historic market town, and nothing but undulating farmland behind.

In 1773, when St. Edmunds Hill was built, our oak tree was already somewhere between 50 and 100 years old.

The house was designed by Scottish architect Robert Adam (who also contributed to the neoclassical grandeur of both Edinburgh and Bath) for John Symonds, a local academic who had taken over the position as Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge after the death of poet Thomas Gray.

In 1773, when St. Edmunds Hill was built, our oak tree was already somewhere between 50 and 100 years old.

The house itself was a beautiful neoclassical jewel box – all pediments, columns and friezes – originally laid-out as a simple square, with bowed projections at the eastern and western ends. Perched above the medieval ruins of the Abbey, St. Edmunds Hill would have looked like the Acropolis at Athens in its heyday.

John Symonds died in 1807, and was buried in Pakenham, a village just outside of Bury St. Edmunds that was home to the Spring family, Baronets of Pakenham, who were relations of his mother. On his death, he donated his collection of more than 1,000 books to the University of Cambridge, effectively creating what is today the Faculty of History's Seeley Library.

From Symonds' death, the history of St. Edmunds Hill becomes a little hazy. It may have remained vacant for almost 40 years until 1844, when Henry Francklyn Esq. – possibly a cousin of John Symonds – took up residence. Another 40 years later in 1884, and the house was once again changing hands, this time being sold at auction (possibly) to Mr Ferdinand Eyre, son of Vincent A. Eyre of Lindley Hall (near Hinckley, to the south west of Leicester), and son-in-law to Sir Henry Paston Bedingfield of Oxborough Hall, (in Norfolk, now owned by the National Trust). It was briefly renamed The Mount in 1884, before becoming Moreton Hall 6 years later in 1890.

Much more recently, when our oak tree was at least 240 years old, Moreton Hall became the site of Moreton Hall Preparatory School, established there in 1962 by Lady Miriam Fitzalan-Howard (daughter of Lord Howard of Glossop) and her husband Commander Peregrine Hubbard.

And from the early 1980s, the hall gave its name to the initial phase of the Moreton Hall housing estate, which began built just on the other side of our oak tree. The estate has been steadily expanding ever since, and is now a sprawling suburban area covering almost 2 square kilometers of what had been that undulating farmland to the east of Bury St. Edmunds, though thankfully avoiding Ten Acre Field. And the housing estate is still growing today.

On 30th June, 2020, Moreton Hall Preparatory School permanently closed its doors, leaving the future of this beautiful neoclassical house in question. And nine days later, this more than 300 year-old oak tree, that had watched the planning and building of St. Edmunds Hill, seen it expand which each new owner, observed its changing names and functions, finally died.

Three Centuries Later

The walk down to the remains of the tree took us along a tree-covered cycle path from the local Community Centre, past the imposing southern face of the old hall. At the entrance to Ten Acre Field, we stopped, rather surprised by just how beautiful and otherworldly it was: when it had been standing, I would have found it hard to describe its shape or appearance as anything other than 'tree-like'.

Now, laying on its side, with its branches at all the wrong angles, its trunk split, and its roots unearthed, it looked so alien.

The folding, wrinkled wood twisted around itself like a snake. The leaves, prematurely bronze, like premonitions of autumn. Someone has crudely carved the date into the soft wood beneath the bark – 9/7/20 – like a doctor recording the time of death.

This is not an end, however, but a new beginning. The fallen oak is still a haven for nature, even in death: parts have been repurposed into a hedgehog house, and wasps are stripping thin slithers from the softening wood for making nests. As the leaves, branches, trunk and roots decompose, they provide food for another generation of insects, mammals and plants, making the land more fertile.

Finally freed from the shadow of the towering oak, a swaithe of young saplings have spotted their chance and are tentatively poking through the grass. Perhaps, if given the opportunity, one of them will eventually outpace the competition. Perhaps it would replace our oak on its lofty perch above the town. Perhaps in 10 generations from now, people will wonder about the people who were living around this towering oak tree when it was a sapling.


But as this small market town rapidly expands, eating into the countryside that had once formed the quiet backdrop to the old Moreton Hall, the Mount and St Edmunds Hill, we unfortunately have to question whether this next generation of oak tree will be allowed to survive another 30 years, let alone 300. Large open spaces like Ten Acre Field, or empty historic buildings like the old Moreton Hall Preparatory School, are now too frequently viewed as 'development opportunities', instead of being valuable or enriching in their own right.

Only time will tell what will happen next. It has been the year of the unexpected. This Summer has seen the fall of two giants: this fascinating neoclassical house, with a suddenly uncertain future, and this (even older) oak tree, that has sadly seen its last days. Without funding, without a purpose, what fate awaits Moreton Hall? And how will this oak tree look, for so long also a monument above this town, as it decays; when, next year, the other trees in Ten Acre Field send out new spring shoots, and our ancient friend remains trapped in winter.

But there is hope as well: Moreton Hall has already survived many changes, transformations, and reincarnations, and will have a new chapter; as will the land, the creatures, and the saplings that benefit from the fall of our oak.


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