Have you ever sat inside a tree? Maddy (our twelve-year-old in Badger Clan who is now grown-up and walks on her own regularly) told us the other day of ‘a tree that you can climb inside’. One September evening she takes Jemima and I with her, and Fergus, the energetic dog (Tyn has opted to stay behind). The sun is glowing a benevolent orange over the line of poplars marching across the high ridge that hems in one side of the village. By the time we’ve reached the right field via our scenic route it is getting dark, the way lit by the occasional dandelion and aided by the glow from the late-flowering oilseed rape, grown to be ploughed back into the soil.
‘Should we go on?’ I ask, but the girls are determined to reach the tree. ‘We won’t go any further than that,’ I say, pointing to where the trees encroach into the field, but we’ve arrived, for Fergus has stopped and is wagging his tail at the imposing oak.
Jemima needs no further invitation and has scrambled her way inside. ‘It’s like a hobbit hole,’ she says. Clichéd, perhaps, but there is no other way to describe it. The ancient oak boasts an arched front doorway, a larger rear exit and a naturally formed window.
‘Come inside,’ she tells me. ‘You know you want to.’
The tree is no less lovely inside and I touch the bark with my hands, the lintel over the door – aided to look this way or natural I wonder – and stare through the window and into the brambled scrub, ripe with blackberries. My log-perch in the centre is perfectly placed, presumably by a previous visitor, and I glance upwards to see how high the vaulted ‘ceiling’ is; it’s hard to tell as it’s so dark, and festooned with cobwebs that obscure the view. You couldn’t imagine a more child-friendly and welcoming tree, unless, of course, you are fearful of spiders. Being inside it takes me back to that safe, enclosed feeling we have in dens as children, whether impromptu camps under a tablecloth or creations with sticks and branches. I haven’t experienced it for years, but it’s very satisfying and snug.
The next day I’m back visiting it with our foster son, who dives inside on arrival, then proceeds to clamber up its height, fearless and free. His way of claiming a tree is climbing it, and he does it very well.
I’m left thinking about how readily we clamber inside these spaces as children, but have to glance over our shoulder as adults to check no one is looking, feeling we’re just doing it for the kids! I believe we should allow ourselves to do this more often, both physically and metaphorically.
The hollow oak makes me think of God’s protection; the psalmist says ‘Those who live in the shelter of the Most High will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty.’ (Psalm 91). There are mentions of him ‘concealing’ us ‘In the secret place of His tent’ (Psalm 27:5) and ‘In the shadow of His hand’ (Isaiah 49:2). Our lives are said to be ‘hidden with him’ (Colossians 3:3). This feeling of enclosure is natural for us to seek, our experience from our first conscious thoughts in the womb (said to be between 24 and 28 weeks), and perhaps why we want that cocooned feeling when we are small. We should naturally feel protected as children; in an ideal world anyway, and I suspect it should point us to our supernatural protection as believers, whatever age we happen to be.
While we enjoy the novelty of this tree, for some creatures it provides genuine shelter; it is a likely nesting site for birds and bats, no doubt for a fox or badger talking a break from a downpour, and perhaps a hibernating hedgehog, according to The Woodland Trust. It is far from unique too, and an oak in Cheshire (thought to be the largest tree in all of England in 1880) once ‘served as a bullpen, a pigsty and a Wendy house’, while a yew tree in North Wales contains steps up to a podium, thought to be a location from which John Wesley once preached.
It has (you might have noticed) sent me down a rabbit hole of research, and I now know its 222 inch girth suggests a tree of approximately 360 years. That tree could have begun life as a sapling in 1661. Should nature make us feel small sometimes, and cause us to stop and wonder? For my part, I think it should.
‘Those who live in the shelter of the Most High
will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
This I declare about the Lord:
He alone is my refuge, my place of safety;
He is my God, and I trust him.’
 The Marten Oak, Cheshire
 The Pulpit Yew, Denbighshire
 How to estimate the age of an oak: http://www.wbrc.org.uk/atp/Estimating%20Age%20of%20Oaks%20-%20Woodland%20Trust.pdf