Guest post: Hamish Low on the creation of the 'Table for the Nation'
Expert on the preservation of Black Oak and project leader, Hamish Low, tells us more about the amazing Fenland Black Oak Table - which we are honoured to be able to be holding a workshop on as part of Medway River Lit.
The Fenland Black Oak Project, ‘A Table for the Nation’
In 2012, part of a gigantic 5,000 year old Black Oak tree (now referred to as the ‘Jubilee Oak’) was excavated from lowland peat in the East Anglian Fenland Basin in south-west Norfolk. Oaks growing at that time were much larger than the Oaks growing today, and the Jubilee Oak was the greatest of these fenland giants. Oak is emblematic of the British Isles, and this was arguably Great Britain’s most significant Oak tree, not just in terms of its unprecedented size and ancient provenance but also because of the work of art now made from it.
In recognition of the significance of this discovery and the rarity of the planks it yielded, a charitable trust was established to ensure its preservation and appropriate use; the Fenland Black Oak CIO.
The Trustees assembled a team of prehistoric wood experts, craftspeople, engineers, academics, scientists and designers to create a work of art worthy of the tree and the Nation.
To cut a very long story a great deal shorter, The Fenland Black Oak Project, ‘A Table for the Nation’ was unveiled at Ely Cathedral by HRH The Princess Royal in May 2022. Buckingham Palace officially endorsed engraving at one end of the table in commemoration of the tree’s unearthing during Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee year and on the other end an engraving in recognition of the table’s completion and dedication in the year of the late Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.
The table spent 10 months in Ely Cathedral, where it exceeded everyone’s expectations in relation to public engagement and interest from mainstream media. Visitor numbers greatly increased as people travelled from all over the country to see it and sales of table-related merchandise were considerable. There is a comprehensive historical and educational exhibition in the form of stand-alone panels which accompany the table wherever it goes.
The table’s second residency is at Rochester Cathedral until March 2024 where they are using it for a great variety of events and where it will play a central role in The King’s coronation celebrations.
The table has been designed to be used by the Nation but the liability of its size has also been very cleverly mitigated when the table is not in use or when other events take priority. The understructure is made from patinated bronze, (archaeologists refer to the period when the Oak was growing as transitional between the Stone and Bronze ages), which facilitates the folding down of the two outer boards halving the table’s width. Specially designed wheels concealed within the pedestals allow the table to be effortlessly and silently moved to the side of a space by just two people where it can then be used as a serving table during other activities. This is very much in the tradition of early English refectory tables and ‘A Table for the Nation’ is very worthy of comment even in this folded form as the joints of the 5 boards making up the top are spectacular when displayed in this way.
It is very unusual for such a large team of independent craftspeople and designers to work together on a single object in this way, and without charge for their time. We have often been asked asked ‘why’? There are rational reasons to do with saving an extraordinary example of our rarest native hardwood while we still can, and by doing so, use this object to raise awareness of the need to preserve as much Black Oak as we can for future generations when it is excavated. The tree also gives a tantalising glimpse into the late Neolithic period which I believe we all wanted to try and share. However, this tree represented a unique and extraordinary creative opportunity for visual impact and the simple truth is that this is very compelling to people who work with their hands.
Awards received by the Fenland Black Oak CIO:
The Carpenters’ Company, Bespoke Wood Award 2022
The Furniture Makers' Company, Bespoke Guild Mark 2023
The Furniture Makers' Company, Bespoke Guild Mark, The Christopher Claxton Stevens Prize 2023
In recognition of the achievements and support of everyone involved.
By Hamish Low, April 2023.
* You will be able to book your place on our 'Adventures in Time and Space' writing workshop (Monday 5 June, 11am-1pm) taking place on the table, when booking opens in May.