2012 – 2013
In 2012 a Fenland farmer hit an obstical while ploughing a field. Many hours later and with the aid of a 14 ton excavator and two teleporters a huge subfossilised Black Oak tree emerged from the peat. Cabinet maker and Black Oak specialist Hamish Low was immediately contacted to assess the viability of its preservation. Not only was this exceptional specimen deemed suitable for preservation it was also decided that an attempt must be made to retain its extraordinary length. A charitable organisation (The Fenland Black Oak Charitable Incorporated Organisation) was established by a very diverse group of specialists to try to make this happen. This is their story so far.
At over over 13 metres long The Jubilee Oak is a giant amongst giants.
The Jubilee Oak is a very rare and special example of Black Oak. The sheer scale of this tree is what led to its extraordinary degree of preservation. It was so vast that its apocalyptic descent would have smashed and crushed everything in its path burying itself in the silt of the forest floor which formed an airless ‘grave’ where it lay for over 4000 years.
When this tree was first assessed in the field its sheer scale and degree of preservation was very exciting. However, it was only when marked out for cutting into manageable lengths that we realised there was no way to establish the root or canopy ends. This was astonishing because even at well over 13 metres long this meant that what we were looking at could only be a small section of a much, much larger tree.
This rarest specimen provides us with the unique opportunity to give a fascinating insight into the majesty and grandeur of the ancient high forests that covered much of Britain thousands of years ago.
We had to preserve the full length integrity of this tree. To cut it into more manageable lengths was unthinkable.
As soon as Black Oaks are exposed to the elements they rapidly deteriorate, so we wrapped and reburied this one while we resolved all the logistical challenges associated with milling a tree over 13 metres long.
The Jubilee Oak has been dated by dendrochronology to 4800 years old.
With the aid of two tele-handlers, a 14 ton excavator and the longest sawmill in the country we milled 10 breathtakingly beautiful sequential planks – quite unlike anything seen before.
To preserve Black Oaks they must first be converted into planks in order to manage even rates of water extraction. Once dry the planks are preserved in perpetuity.
A saw mill was flown over from Canada by Logosol and after 4 days of assembly in the field we had the largest saw mill in the country set up alongside the buried Jubilee Oak.
It is impossible to predict what any tree will yield before it is opened up, this is particularly true of Black Oaks as the seen surfaces have been buried in the peat for thousands of years. The Jubilee Oak hinted at great potential but there was always the possibility of unseen defects preventing us from retaining the planks full length.
We were unprepared for what this extraordinary tree actually yielded.
drying and preservation
The greatest challenge the project had to resolve was drying the planks well enough to retain them full length.
Black Oak must be dried artificially as traditional air drying is too aggressive. The milled planks were transported to the Building Crafts College and a bespoke 15 metre dehumidifying kiln was designed and built specifically to dry The Jubilee Oak planks. In order to dry planks of this length the kiln had to contain 3 dehumidifiers and 11 additional fans.
Complete control was essential over air flow, moisture extraction, temperature and relative humidity. All of these elements, together with daily measurements and monitoring, led to considerable adjustments and balancing.
Eventually – after 9 months the dehumidifiers were switched off for the last time.
Drying was an astonishing success. These are now arguably the rarest, most valuable 10 sequential planks in the world.
After 9 months we had extracted 397 gallons of water. Staggeringly this equates to 4 gallons per cubic ft and reduced the weight of these 10 planks by 1.6 tons.
The planks had shrunk by over one third of their sawn thickness, a quarter of their width and even 150mm in their length, and yet were flat and true for over 13 metres.
Leaving aside their ancient provenance and unprecedented length, the fact is that some of these quarter sawn planks are figured over their entire length and are breathtakingly beautiful.