1. The Walnut Tree
An iconic landmark
The walnut tree in Higham has been a notable landmark for centuries. Situated on the old village green, it has been suggested that the present tree was 700 years old and growing during the reign of Henry Vlll, although this would be unusual as most walnut trees live for about 150 years, so the current one is probably the last of a succession of such trees. In 1740 there was great concern expressed about people who were “splitting trees for great profit” as “walnut trees in divers places have suffered this calamity”. The wood was used for windmill posts, dresser boards and gun stocks and because of these various purposes, some people believed that the trees were being damaged beyond repair.
An archaeological excavation
The land immediately surrounding the walnut tree has been central to life in Higham for centuries. A test pit dug by Oxford Archaeology between 1992 and 2002 found, among other things, an 1884 Penny, a pencil made of slate for use on a school slate (commonly used in the Victorian period), a silver Sixpence from the reign of Henry VI, a fragment of Late Medieval Reduced Ware pottery which could have been piece of a pot made by William Potter who had a kiln in 1436*.
The finishing post
On Friday 3 November 1893 Mr W Poole, seeking to confirm his claim as the “Seven Miles Champion of the Midlands,” walked from The Wheatsheaf public house in Rushden to the walnut tree. His claim was that he could walk the distance in an hour. His first 3.5 miles was completed in 29 minutes but his progress was hampered by a strong wind, and his total time for the distance was one hour and one minute. Undeterred at his missing his target by one minute, he said he would return in a week or so to have another attempt.
The starting post
The walnut tree was a starting point for the festivities celebrating Mr Owen Parker’s election as the town’s MP on the 17 November 1922. The procession, led by the Wesleyan Silver Band, walked to the market square where the town’s dignitaries, led by the Mayor and Deputy Mayor, greeted Mr Parker with a hearty handshake and sincere congratulations. The Mayor, Mr Frank Walker, said that this was the first time in this ancient borough’s history that a citizen has been elected as an MP. The cheering of the crowd was described as deafening.
Sister-in-charge Mrs Betty Patenall
After the First World War the soldiers who fought and died were listed in 1921 on an inscribed stone tablet placed on the west wall of the church. However, it was not until the 18 April 1930 that a lady, Miss Betty Patenall, was acknowledged for her work during the first World War. Betty Patenall was the sister in charge of the VAD hospital located in the Parish rooms in Higham. A rest garden in her memory was “formed round the famous old walnut tree”.
A different patient
Under the caption “The Patient” the Northampton Mercury reported on Friday 19 October 1951 that:
“with the fall of leaf Higham’s famous walnut tree 700 years old and as ancient as the borough itself is to receive skilled attention which should give it another century of life”.
In 2018 there were further problems. An arboriculturist who came to inspect the tree because somebody had set fire to it and damaged it significantly, said that the long-term prospect for the tree was poor and that he recommended removing the tree within six months.
Fortunately for Higham the tree survives. Three “replacement” trees were planted by the Town Council at the beginning to the 21st century. They were donated by a resident who had grown them from walnuts from the original tree and are to be found at each corner of the triangular ground adjacent to the mature tree.
A second archaeological excavation
In 2017, the Higham Ferrers Archaeology and Research Society (HiFARS) excavated three test pits in the grassed area of the Walnut Tree at the top of Kings Meadow Lane, as part of their Test Pitting Programme to trace the settlement of the late Anglo-Saxon people as recorded in Domesday. Excavations by Oxford Archaeology from the early 1992 to 2002 discovered evidence for early, middle and late Saxon settlements, but the size of the late Saxon settlement was insufficient to house the 120─130 or so people that Domesday indicates. No stratified evidence for the late Saxon period was forthcoming as the area showed disturbance.
The justification for the excavations was based on the following:
A photograph of the Walnut Tree captioned “The Moot Tree” in the book Higham Ferrers: A Pictorial History.
Saxon Meeting Points research at the University College of London
The Saxon excavations* in Kings Meadow Lane by Oxford Archaeology, and the wider area surrounding the Walnut Tree depicted in the Milton Estate map of 1789 is roughly triangular in shape, at the junction where two roads meet, the former A6 running through Higham Ferrers, and Kings Meadow Lane that joins Higham with Irthlingborough. The Oxford Archaeology Unit associated the Higham enclosure in Kings Meadow Lane as a regional administrative centre associated with a royal centre which included Irthlingborough*, all of which strongly suggests a typical Saxon meeting point. The fact that the Walnut Tree is on this site is also of interest, as these were introduced during the Roman period and it is not impossible that former trees may have been planted on the site continuously from the Saxon period to the current date which would account for the photograph being captioned “The Moot Tree”. The current tree is rumoured to be around 400 years of age and appears to be marked on the 1789 map.
*Death & Taxes: The archaeology of a Middle Saxon estate centre at Higham Ferrers, Northamptonshire – Alan Hardy, Bethan Mair Charles, & Robert J Williams – 2007 p203-204