This is tree number 5552: an old pollarded oak standing in the eastern-most corner of Sleeper Field.
Pollarding is a system of pruning in which a tree has its upper branches removed in order to promote rapid and vigorous new growth. Trees are pollarded for many reasons: to restrict the height of a London plane in an urban street, to promote pliable willow withies for basket-weaving, to encourage the production of fruit or firewood or walking sticks.
Oaks are rarely pollarded nowadays but were in the past to provide timber. The new growth of an oak pollard was straight and long and would provide timber for fences in as little as three years and in five to ten years could produce beams for building houses.
Number 5552 is the perfect example of an oak pollard. It has a short thick trunk and its branches all grow from a height that, according to rural tradition, a man could reach from the back of a horse drawn cart. It has the symmetry of a child’s drawing: its branches all a similar length and thickness. In the spring, before the leaves develop and block the light, wild anemones and bluebells grow beneath it.
We can only guess how long it has been since 5552 was last pollarded: probably more than a hundred years. Some economic downturn or technical innovation at the end of the 19th Century must have made the pollarding of oaks unviable and slowly the practice ceased.