Last week I mentioned ‘The Chapel for the Performance of the Burial Service by Persons Not Being a Member of the United Church of England and Ireland’.

You’ll no doubt agree that this lengthy title doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, but it does provide an intriguing background to Witney’s religious demography. The chapel was built in 1856 by James Long to the same specification as the other buildings in the graveyard – so why was it necessary to build a second chapel at the site?

Well, the simple name for this building was ‘The Unconsecrated Chapel’. To me the name seems to hold a dark foreboding – by definition suggesting an element of unholiness, but it actually refers to a place not sanctified by the Church of England. The ‘Persons Not Being a Member of the United Church of England and Ireland’ but of the Christian faith, were those known as ‘Dissenters’ or ‘Non-conformists’ and Witney had a significant number of such believers.

Weslyan Methodism was strong in Witney and many of the wealthy families belonged to this group. They belonged to other churches such as the Independents, Baptists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians that were active within the town.

Local historian Stanley Jenkins notes that Jackson’s Oxford Journal reported the consecration of the new burial ground on December 26, 1856. At that time, a boundary fence divided the consecrated and unconsecrated areas of the cemetery. I’m not sure how burial services of the wealthy non-conformist members of our community were conducted but I’m sure it was with due respect – their relationship with the Anglicans and other churches is reported as being good.

Richard Early for instance was ‘sincerely attached to Wesleyan Methodism… he evinced no sectarian dislike to other bodies of Christians, holding a deferential respect for the Established Church in which he was originally brought up’.

Equally Charles Early is remembered as being a lover of religious freedom. So, the dissenters were laid to rest. True to their beliefs many had lived their lives to the benefit and welfare of the town.

Walking along the path that runs parallel to Curbridge Road, the Consecrated Chapel is reached and next to it stands an interesting conifer. It’s official name is Juniperus Chinensis ‘Aurea’ – the Golden Chinese Juniper. As one of the original plantings this distinguished tree has stood in the graveyard for 160 years now and has reached a height of 13 metres with a trunk diameter of 65cm. This is apparently the largest specimen of its kind in Britain earning it the right to be nobly recorded in the UK Tree Register as a ‘Champion Tree’!

Taking the first path on the right, along an avenue of old trees one can read a ‘roll call’ of the town’s notable forefathers and even find a small stone dog sitting at the foot of its master’s gravestone. Then, to the right of the path, one will find the ancient beech tree I mentioned last week. It stands like a steadfast guardian of the other trees, reminiscent of the old ‘ent’, Treebeard, in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. Its very demeanour seems to whisper Treebeard’s words, “I do not like worrying about the future. I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me: nobody cares for the woods as I care for them, not even Elves nowadays.”

This is no ordinary tree. It is of course a ‘Wishing Tree’… or so I’m told. It certainly has a presence about it and stories are spoken about those children who would wrap their arms around it whilst making a wish for the bygone equivalent of an iPhone X. In fact, wishing (or wish) trees are normally studded with coins where people have pushed money into the bark when making a wish. There being a dearth of coinage on our tree I can only assume that wishes are now propitiated with a votive Visa card.

Other strange rites involving trees can be found throughout the country. Often small items and trinkets are hung on branches as a wish or a memorial, or ribbons tied as a symbol. Perhaps the strangest example is that of the ‘Shoe Tree’.

No… this isn’t the sort that you put into your shoes to help them keep their shape, but an actual tree into which shoes are hurled by the practitioners of this odd ritual.

There are many suggestions as to why one would do this – perhaps it’s another type of wishing tree or even a fertility ritual! Knowing of one such example I took to a motorcycle ride and headed east on Wycombe Road, just outside Stokenchurch, where an ash tree to the north of the road before Studley Green, is spookily festooned with a whole variety of shoes. Now, rather like the Champion Tree of Tower Hill Cemetery, this ash tree has been added to a list drawn up by the ‘Special Trees and Woods Project’. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, research is being conducted on many trees in the area including this slightly crazy specimen. Whilst riding back through Stokenchurch I couldn’t help noticing the villagers’ footwear. Was it my imagination or were they all wearing very new looking shoes?

Old trees hold a mysterious charm. Some wishing trees are called the ‘Tree of Life’ while others refer to the ‘World Tree’ – an elemental link between earth, heaven and the underworld that was part of Norse mythology. I wrote last week about the continuum of lives represented by the memorials in the burial ground, and the ancient trees equally seem to provide a sense of this enduring connection.