College Oaks


College Oaks

T his story regards the replacement of the oak beams in the college dining hall, and is occasionally given as an example of admirable forward planning. In its mythical form the story is often attributed to the anthropologist Gregory Bateson and may be found in a number of places:

  • Brand, Stewart How Buildings Learn Viking, 1994
  • McDonough, William A Centennial Sermon: Design Ecology Ethics and The Making of Things [Online]

To summarise, the story relates that at some point in the 19th century the oak beams in New College's dining hall needed replacing. Since these beams are (it is claimed) approximately 2 feet square and 45 feet long the purchase of new timber was prohibitively expensive. When the college forester was asked for suggestions it transpired that a grove of oaks had been planted when the hall was built (some 500 years previously) with the specific intention that they would be used for rennovation.

W hen the college archivist was asked about this story she came back with the following information.

In 1859, the JCR told the SCR that the roof in Hall needed repairing, which was true. (As an aside, at this time, there were few enough people that Hall contained a grand piano; this can be seen in the Joseph Nash watercolour of the hall illustrating the Introduction to the Treasures pages.)

In 1862, the senior fellow was visiting College estates on `progress', i.e., an annual review of College property, which goes on to this day (performed by the Warden). Visiting forests in Akeley and Great Horwood, Buckinghamshire (forests which the College had owned since 1441), he had the largest oaks cut down and used to make new beams for the ceiling.

It is not the case that these oaks were kept for the express purpose of replacing the Hall ceiling. It is standard woodland management to grow stands of mixed broadleaf trees e.g., oaks, interplanted with hazel and ash. The hazel and ash are coppiced approximately every 20-25 years to yield poles. The oaks, however, are left to grow on and eventally, after 150 years or more, they yield large pieces for major construction work such as beams, knees etc.

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Last updated: Mon Nov 5 17:55:56 2001
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