HOW IT BEGAN
Visiting the UK following the launch of my book on the Thames Path at Marlow Library in 2014, I received a message from a friend and ex-neighbour at nearby Harleyford. Jo wanted an extra copy of the book as a gift for a friend, so my partner Rob and I promised to drop one in. We decided it would be a nice idea to park the car in Hurley (Berks) then walk along the riverside and across the wooden footbridge to the Harleyford Estate (Bucks.)
This was always one of my favourite sections of the Thames Path. To my delight there was a wedding about to take place at Hurley Church. We were too early for the bride, but I did enjoy watching all the guests arrive in their summer finery.
At Hurley Lock Island we stopped to check on the Royal Oak. This has become a bit of a tradition for us over the years. It was still a sapling when we bought our lodge at Harleyford back in 1996. The history of the tree is explained in this extract from my book;
‘Amid great excitement on October 18 1974, Queen Elizabeth arrived in Hurley by car, then took the footpath from the village to the lock, where she boarded a steamer for a trip down to Runnymede. The Queen planted an oak tree on Hurley Lock Island to commemorate the journey, or as a plaque states more regally: ‘…the occasion of her river progress.’ Oaks grow slowly, but forty years on the tree has reached a considerable size.’
The oak was looking fantastic. I swear its girth has increased a few belt sizes since our last visit in 2011 No doubt this is due to relentless rain over the last couple of years. However, as we approached we noticed a raw gash on the near side of the trunk. It was about 20cm square, a couple of feet from the base.
THE MYSTERY DEEPENS
Oh my hat, we were appalled! This was definitely a case for my alter-ego, Miss Marple. My first instinct was to blame vandals. Yes, I know…. a sad reflection of my jaded opinion of modern society. However, on closer inspection we realized the deep gouges were unlikely to have been caused by human hand.
It was definitely claw marks we were looking at. Could the culprit have been a squirrel, or a water rat? Or perhaps a buck rabbit…..or, God forbid, a rabid mole? I don’t think so! None of these creatures could cause such damage, unless an individual had somehow morphed into a monster of its species. Hmmm …no reports of a grizzly bear on the loose from London Zoo. But, there are stories the world over of escaped panthers and pumas. Admittedly, most of the sightings in the UK have been in Hampshire, including an alleged baring of the fangs incident at Basingstoke station! How scary if their range has increased to include Berkshire. It makes the warning sign on the nearby field scarcely worth worrying about.
While Rob and I were puzzling over this next day our friend Errol Fuller turned up. Now Errol is something of an expert on natural history and he mentioned one animal we hadn’t thought about….the badger! A little bit of research and we were sure we had our culprit. Just look at those claws;
CASE SOLVED? MAYBE….
Of course we don’t have conclusive proof, but I think it might be worth contacting the palace. It must verge on treason to willfully damage a royal tree. Beware Mr Badger of Hurley, there could be a price on your head. Or you might even lose your head!
Jokes aside, I hope the oak has not been seriously harmed, and that whatever creature inflicted the damage stays away. A few more attacks and the tree could be ring-barked. Just look at the one pictured below. In this case it was verified badger damage. I suppose a Yeoman Guard from the Tower could come out and keep watch!
I hope to return for years to come to watch the Queen’s tree approach maturity; it would be so sad if it didn’t outlive Her Majesty.
POSTSCRIPT – After we delivered the book to Jo (and enjoyed her carrot cake and griddle scones) we retraced our steps to Hurley. Just by the lock we came across another mystery. The case of the missing rower. Investigations continue…..