• The Legend of the Old Oak Tree

    The mystery surrounding the Chained-Oak has generated significant interest over the years and brought much speculation over its legacy. Situated close to the village of Alton, not far from the gates of Alton Towers, the Chained-Oak is an incredible sight: a gargantuan oak tree whose branches are shackled together with yards of thick metal chain. Who took the time to do this? And, more importantly, why?

    Local legend has it that one night around the 1840s, the Earl of Shrewsbury was travelling by carriage to his home at Alton Towers, past the site of the oak tree. Suddenly and unexpectedly, an old woman stepped out and, upon bringing the Earl’s coach to an abrupt halt, asked him if he could spare a coin. The Earl dismissed her, and bid his driver to continue, ordering her off his land as he departed. As he did so, however, the old woman issued the chilling reprimand, “For every branch that falls from this old oak tree, a member of your family will die.”

    Some time later a violent storm raged, during which, a single branch was torn from the tree and fell to the ground. Shortly after, a member of the Earl’s family – purportedly his son – suddenly and inexplicably died. So, as the legend has it, the Earl returned to the tree and demanded that the branches were chained together to prevent a similar tragedy.

    Like most legends there are certainly elements of truth to this story. The Chained Oak, lying as it does in Barbary Gutter, did indeed once sit next to on an old carriage-way that once wound its way from Alton Abbey (later to become Alton Towers) down the ‘Gutter’ to the Churnet, where it passed over the river via Lord’s Bridge and snaked its way up through Dimmingsdale, until it eventually found the town of Cheadle. The 16th Earl, in particular, would have frequently used this carriage-way to get to St Giles Church in Cheadle, in order to visit and attend mass at the now famous church, designed by his architect Augustus Welby Pugin. It is also very likely that it was indeed the Earl who would have ordered the chaining, as no other person would have had the authority or the resources to carry out such an operation. However, the order may have been for quite different reasons than the legend would have us believe.

    Both the 16th Earl, as well as his predecessor, had been responsible for the planting of thousands of trees on their estate lands around Alton, and it was normal that such old oaks were greatly prized. But, as these trees age, their huge boughs are often under threat of collapse due to the burden of their own weight, and what is likely is that the Earl ordered these to be secured by chains to preserve them, as this tree in particular, was highly visible in its high position, just off the carriage-way. 

    Unfortunately, to date, no reputable historical commentaries have been found, to order factual authority on the events that led to the chaining of the great oak, and because reasons can only be surmised, speculation has been rife, and the legend and other versions of it have grown up as part of the folklore of the village, and the region.

    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.  

    So truth merges with speculation and tale with tale. That is the stuff of all good legends, and a reason why, in the late 1990s, Alton Towers began to conceive an attraction that pulled upon this fascinating piece of local folklore. ‘Hex: The Legend of the Towers’, was installed in 2000, and the ride is both an interactive guest experience and a documentation of the oak tree’s significance to the heritage of Alton village. The ride focuses upon the premise that the Earl, upon hearing the death of his kin, brought the fallen branch back to the Towers and stowed it inside a secret vault, where it laid undiscovered for over a hundred and fifty years until excavations began in the late twentieth century. The ride theme came about following a brainstorm and the intention was that the attraction would allow more areas of the Towers to be opened up and renovated, which ties into Alton Towers' commitments to their 'section 106' agreements for restoration, with the local council.

    During the commissioning and building of Hex, the project was referred to as ‘Project Les,’ the namesake of Les Davies,  who supplied the relevant information to the Project Team. The situation of the ride was to be significant. In 1998 two million pounds were earmarked by Alton Towers for the ride itself, with a further two million for accompanying restoration work to the Towers. The cleverly themed queue system incorporated passage through the Grand Entrance, followed by the Armoury, Picture Gallery, and part of the Octagon, before it reached the ride itself, which was constructed adjacent to these areas. This gives visitors a chance to interact and behold some of the magnificent rooms of the great listed house, and the instillation of the attraction also helped ensure that money was spent, as part of ongoing restoration, to preserve the Towers for generations to come. Furthermore, as part of the project, the magnificent stained-glass windows of the Armoury were replaced or renovated by the same company who originally installed them in the mid 19th century - Birmingham based John Harman Studios, established in 1838. This was one of many elements of restoration that enabled skilled local craftsmen to work once again on the house, as generations before them had done.

    But the story doesn’t quite end there…. On the 9th April 2007, one of main boughs of the old oak tree fell, the chains no longer able to carry the great weight. Thankfully, it has been confirmed by the family of the current Earl of Shrewsbury that no one has died since the incident! 

    The lands which the oak tree stands were sold off as part off a sale of estate assets, which took place in 1918. However, the great tree still stands to this day and around one-hundred and seventy years later, despite the collapse of April 2007, many chains remain in place. Although the carriage-way is now defunct and overgrown, it forms a path, which passes by the tree as it still winds its course through the spectacular landscape that surrounds Alton Towers.

    © Steve Hollyman and Gary Kelsall, 2008