I love local legends and tales of old, and have heard a few in my time; most of them bastardized from urban legends that have spread throughout the world, with the residents of each country adapting the story to suit their own particular storytelling tradition.
Only recently, I became aware of a legend involving a very old oak tree and a member of the landed gentry that originated in the village of Alton, about ten miles from where I live. I hadn’t heard of it before, despite the fact that the UK’s most visited theme park and ninth most popular in the whole of Europe, Alton Towers had capitalized on it and created a ride called “Hex”, loosely based on this very legend!
Since I heard about it, I’ve been to visit the “Chained Oak” on two occasions. It’s very impressive, and it keeps drawing me back to it. And the surrounding woodland is stunning!
There are a couple of versions of the legend, so I’ll give both versions to you. The first version is as follows:
In between 1821 and 1846 (the date varies with the source of the telling of the legend) one autumn evening, the Earl of Shrewsbury was returning home (the Earl at that time would have been the owner of Alton Towers) along a route known as Barbary Gutter, a track that begins at Alton Abbey, winds its way through the woodland, passes over the River Churnet into Dimmingsdale, and leads eventually to St Giles’s Church (the interior of which was designed by the renowned architect Augustus Welby Pugin, as was Alton Towers itself) in the neighboring village of Cheadle. As the Earl’s coach approaches the spot where the oak tree looms over the now disused carriageway, an old woman bars the way and begs the Earl for a few pennies. The Earl pours scorn upon her, refuses her request, orders her off his land and tells the coach’s driver to carry on. As a result of this, the woman curses the Earl: “For every branch that falls from this old oak tree, a member of your family will die.”
Some time later (possibly the very same night), a storm rages, and a huge limb of the tree is torn off and falls crashing to the ground. In the morning, it becomes apparent that a member of the Earl’s family–supposedly his son—died suddenly and without any indication of a cause of death. Fearing that the old woman’s curse had come true, the Earl ordered his servants to chain up the remaining branches of the oak to prevent further members of his family befalling the same fate, and thus, the legend of “The Chained Oak” was born!
The second version of the story changes slightly, so that in this version of the legend, it becomes the Earl’s son who is the one who sees an old woman as he is out riding one day, though in this tale she is standing beneath the oak, and as he passes the spot where the old woman is standing a branch breaks off the tree and kills him.
Incidentally, a huge limb fell from the tree in 2007, but there have been no reports of a death within the present Earl of Shrewsbury’s family.
As there is no actual documentation relating to either version of the event, one can choose to believe whatever one wishes. It is more likely that the Earl simply chained up the oak after a storm to protect the remaining branches of the tree. Both the 16th Earl and his predecessor were very proud of their trees and had planted thousands of them, and a fine specimen such as the oak would have been something that the Earl would have wanted to protect and preserve.
The website altontowersheritage.com tells of a similar tale: “There is also a long-standing tale of the ‘Witch’s Oak Tree’ in Staffordshire. In this story, however, the curse is delivered not by a crone in the road, but by an old man who gatecrashes the opening ball of the Banqueting Hall, rebuffed when he offers to tell fortunes for a night’s shelter.”
Here is some actual footage of the tree on Youtube, uploaded by Tim P. Commentary by Tim P.
If you’re of a mind to visit Alton Towers, or just to see the “Chained Oak”, and walk the beautiful woodlands, you could do much worse than to stay at The Chained Oak B&B, only ten minutes’ walk from Alton Towers, and right opposite the tree and the woodlands themselves!
Enjoy some of the other photographs that I took during my two trips to see the “Chained Oak”. Just keep scrolling!