Forest’s mighty oak is inspiration for children’s book

This Is Wiltshire: Author Barbara Townsend with Heather Lilley, from the Forestry Commission, with the book Author Barbara Townsend with Heather Lilley, from the Forestry Commission, with the book

Grandmother Barbara Townsend has written a children’s fantasy book after being inspired by Savernake Forest’s Mr Big – the mighty oak that is 1,117 years old.

She has loved the Big Belly Oak, which is prominently located along the A346 Marlborough to Burbage road, ever since she first saw it decades ago.

The mighty oak has been named as one of the 50 Great British trees and remains one of the area’s best loved natural landmarks, despite the indignity of having a corset fitted to prevent its impressive 35ft girth from splitting.

Experts have dated the tree’s origins to 895, during the reign of Alfred the Great.

Administrative manager Mrs Townsend was driving past Big Belly a while ago when one of her five grandchildren, eight year-old Isabelle Keen said: “Grandma, something lives in that tree.”

“I thought ‘what a remarkable comment’ – it struck a chord.”

On another occasion, 59-year-old Mrs Townsend caught sight of Big Belly in her rear-view mirror.

“The tree was covered in snow, the branches and gaping mouth dark against the snowy backdrop. I felt Big Belly was looking at me.”

Mrs Townsend, who lives in Burbage, soon found herself writing stories based around the tree. The result is The Savernake Big Belly Oak, a collection of stories for six to seven-year-old children which are narrated by the tree.

It draws on the history and folklore of Savernake, touching on incidents such as Henry VIII’s courting of Jane Seymour.

Mother-of-two Mrs Townsend, who also has two stepchildren, said: “In the book, the tree comes alive and tells stories to all the creatures who take shelter in it.

“I’ve always considered Big Belly as a ‘he’ rather than an‘it,’ so it wasn’t a big leap of imagination for the tree to became the narrator.”

The Forestry Commission, which manages Savernake, says the book will help promote the 4,000-acre forest. Communications manager Heather Lilley said: “The book is a wonderful collection of stories inspired by one of the most mighty, ancient and veteran oaks in the country.”

The book was printed in Wiltshire and features work by local artist Chantal Marie Bourgonje. It is available at £6.99 in the White Horse Book Shop, High Street, Marlborough, or visit bigbellyoak.weebly.com

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