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The Hollow Oak

Fri 4th Mar, 2022

Think about your favourite nature walk for a moment. Is there a special place on the walk that you always look forward to visiting?  No matter how much I try to focus on a new area I may not know very well, I will be looking forward to that special place, which if I remember correctly, is just around the next corner…

This is exactly the feeling of anticipation I had on a recent winter walk in the Howardian Hills. Trudging through the mud, across windswept arable fields devoid of inspiration, my mind was focused on visiting the mighty oak trees on the Castle Howard estate. I don’t take this walk very often so really did forget which next corner the trees were around!  

When I arrived, I was greeted by the song of a male Mistle Thrush. It was the last day of 2021 in the middle of winter but this bird was ready to start nesting, I was amazed! The strength of his song was magnificent, carrying far and wide across a silent landscape. I tried in vain to find him but then realised the beauty of the moment was in the sound, there was no need for me to see anything. I zoned out of the world and into the power of the song.

Behind me the old oak trees remained still and silent, all visual and massive, a completely different experience to the stormcock still singing in my ear. The huge structure of the trees always makes me stop; they are demanding my attention. As I ponder this, a group of walkers pass by, they are chatting but not seeing. I wanted to jump out and grab them like a mad druid, thankfully I just smiled and turn back to the trees.

So much of each tree was either dead or dying. At this time of year, I couldn’t work out which bits were still alive. Thankfully the estate has left all the dead timber where it has fallen creating a wonderfully wild scene. Tall grasses weave beautifully amongst the branches. The grass looked so delicate dwarfed by the massive trunks but these wavy strands will eventually swallow the whole structure as plant succession turns death into decay and then new life.  

The intricate shape and colour of every piece of wood could hold my attention for hours. Inside every cavity were unique forms and a multitude of niches for fauna or flora. These tiny hidden worlds going about their business inside the mother oak.


After my senses had been drawn into this other world, I had to put my whole self into a big hollow Oak. Maybe this was the real reason I was looking forward to visiting the Oaks. I stood inside beaming with glee in the same way I used to play in the woods as a small child. Never turn down an opportunity to be a big kid again!

Richard Baines

Yorkshire Coast Nature