Flashback to 1995


Shocked villagers take a close look at the fallen tree in September 1995.
Shocked villagers take a close look at the fallen tree in September 1995.

According to some accounts, the famous Arbor Tree in the south Shropshire village of Aston-on-Clun was brought down by a gale on Saturday, September 2, 1995.

But that's wrong. There was no gale. In fact the weary tree simply keeled over.

As it crashed to the ground just before 9.30am on that fateful day it hit a parked car, causing minor damage, and blocking Mill Street.

Shocked villagers take a close look at the fallen tree in September 1995.

The black poplar tree had been festooned with flags as part of an old tradition, and was a colourful centrepiece to the village.

Instead of the tradition being lost forever with the demise of the tree, villagers rallied round and a new tree arose in its place.

In its final days villagers had noticed that the Arbor Tree appeared to be ailing. The old hollow tree was leaning over and a heatwave – it had been Shropshire’s hottest August on record and the second driest of the 20th century – was thought to have contributed to the collapse, with heavy rain the previous night being the final straw.

As it lay forlorn on the ground, villagers took away pieces of bark as souvenirs, and the flags were collected.

One dug for “buried treasure” underneath the tree – well, you never know – but if he found any, he didn’t let on.

Mrs Pam Booth, chairman of the Arbor Day organising committee, said in the aftermath: “It really is a terrible mess. This tree is known throughout the world, and now it’s gone.

“The whole village is shocked, but we are obviously thankful that no-one was hurt.”

Arbor Day celebrations had first been held in the village in 1786 when the tree was the focus of festivities.

However of late the traditions had been in danger of extinction because too few volunteers had come forward to help, being saved only at the last minute when some locals stepped in to ensure the celebrations continued.

As so often, how it all began is a matter of some debate.

According to tradition, after the marriage of Richard Martson, the local squire, to Mary Carter on May 29, 1786, in nearby Sibdon Carwood, the wedding carriage reputedly stopped by the flag-bedecked tree and Mary was so entranced that she provided money to ensure that it was always decorated with flags annually on that date.

However, the custom of tree dressing is ancient.

And in 1660 King Charles II proclaimed a day in May a national holiday, to be known as Arbor Day, or Tree Dressing Day.

Suitable trees all over the kingdom were soon dressed with flags, with the day spent dancing, eating, and drinking.

Aston-on-Clun was thought to be one of few places where the custom survived.

The original tree in May 1937.

The end of the Arbor Tree was not the end of the Arbor Tree – only three months later a replacement was planted on the spot.

It was a rooted cutting taken from the old tree that was given to local resident Marina Harding.

Marina had played the “bride” in the pageant in May 1986 celebrating the 200th anniversary of the wedding of John Marston and Mary Carter.

After the 1995 crash of the original tree, the teenage Marina made a present to the village of its 20ft descendant.

It was planted on December 16, 1995, in a ceremony attended by the Bishop of Ludlow, the Rt Rev John Saxbee, and television gardener Roy Lancaster.

A new black poplar is planted to save the tradition in December 1995. At the ceremony were the Bishop of Ludlow the Right Rev John Saxbee and Roy Lancaster, the television gardener.

That tree is now fully grown, allowing the traditions to be continued. In normal circumstances hundreds attend Aston-on-Clun, with children making flags, dancers, singers, poets and folk musicians all joining in a parade to the tree followed by fun and food at the village hall afterwards.

With pandemic restrictions not being fully lifted, in May there was a scaled-down celebration of Arbor Day in the village, involving around 30 people, whereas there would normally be about 200.

Fresh flags were put on the tree, which was blessed by the vicar.

Paul Sweetland, Andy Marsden and Terry Bateman prepare the flags to keep the tradition alive in May 2021. Picture: David Bagnall

It is hoped that in 2022 the village will be able to hold full celebrations once more.

Black poplars have seen a massive decline and are facing extinction. But with a lifespan of up to 200 years or so, Aston-on-Clun’s tradition seems safe for some time yet.

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