The Oak Tree

In this particular post, we are going to talk about the Oak tree, or more specifically the English Oak tree, and how we can use it. The Oak is one of those classic English trees, its a recognisable name, and most people will have things in their house that are made from Oak. How can it be used though? Well in this post we will go over some interesting uses, and what makes it special.

How to spot it

Before we can use it, we have to be able to identify it. There are some distinctive points about the Oak tree, to help you distinguish it from other trees. The Oak is a large tree, about 20m-40m tall when fully grown. It is also deciduous, so it loses it’s leaves in the autumn. When the Oak gets older it forms a broad crown on top, so no spike. It grows big sturdy branches underneath, so overall it forms a nice rounded tree, which is quite distinctive. The canopy it forms is actually really good at letting light through, so you generally find lots of plants growing underneath them; these can include primroses and bluebells, and other woodland floor plants. Young oaks have quite smooth and silvery bark, but as they get older, they get huge cracks and crevices throughout, this is a great way to differentiate from other trees.

The leaves are also pretty recognisable, they tend to be about 10cm long, with 4 or 5 big deep rounded lobes along the edges, these are smooth. Be aware though, that the amount of lobes can change between different forms of oak, in fact this is one big way of differentiating between them. The leaves generally don’t have much in the way of a stem, and grow in bunches, close together. They really grow around mid may. The Oak also flowers, the long yellow hanging catkins distribute pollen into the air. In the winter, the tree can be identified by bunches of rounded buds, with each bud having 3 or more scales.

Technically the Oak has fruits, although we know them as acorns. They are generally 2-2.5cm long, on fairly long stalks, and have a little cup that they sit in (called a cupule). While they grow  they are a green colour, but as they ripen they become a more autumnal brown. At this point they loosen from the cupule and fall to the floor. Anyone who has walked around an oak tree knows there can be many of them. These acorns are a rich food source, so they don’t hang around long. Many wild creatures come along to feast on them, like squirrels, jays and mice. For them to germinate, they need to root quickly, before they dry out.

The Oak is generally found in the northern hemisphere, in cool regions as well as tropical climates. In England they are found in southern and central woods.

Why are They Useful?

In terms of wildlife, the Oak tree is rich in biodiversity, and arguably support more life forms than any other tree native to Britain. In the autumn the falling acorns are often eaten by badgers and deer. These acorns are technically edible, but read up on ways to prepare them first, they contain tannins, which should really be removed before eating. 10,000 years ago, humans used acorns to make flour. Also during autumn, beetles and fungi take advantage of the fallen leaves. The leaves are soft, and break down easily, forming a rich environment underneath the tree. Birds are often found nesting in the Holes that the Oak’s bark provides, bats also use some of these holes, mainly due to the rich supply of insects.

The Oak tree has forever been known as a hard and durable timber, even it’s latin name Quercus Robur means strength. So it has been used for centuries as a building material, up until the 19th century, it was the primary ship building material. Unfortunately, it takes up to 150 years before an oak is ready to be used in construction. For those who want to tan leather, the bark of the Oak contains Tannin, and has been used for this purpose since roman times. This Tannic acid is also found in it’s leaves, and is poisonous to horses, and humans, damaging the kidneys.

If you wanted to plant your own acorn, it needs to be as soon as it falls to stop it drying out, if its right, a sapling should arrive the following spring.

Best Uses for an Oak Tree

For the keen bushcrafter, here is the main uses for oak trees.

  • Harvesting acorns, although these need to be processed before edible, its a great free source of food.
  • Plenty of insects to eat living in the tree, they also attract squirrels, birds, badgers and deer. So depending on how brave you are, there could be some good meals to be found.
  • Strong wood, things like digging sticks, tools, or anything that needs strength or impact resistance.
  • The inner bark of a dead branch is a good tinder.
  • The leaves do not rot very fast, and are often the last left on the forest, so could be used for shade, huts, or maybe even flooring.
  • The wood is good to burn for a fire. It burns wells, and produces a heat good enough for cooking.
  • The tannin found all over the tree is good for stopping bleeding, it does it by making the capillaries contract.

The Buran Warehouse

So browsing the internet recently, I came across a great blog by Ralph Mirebs. He classes himself as an urban explorer and photographer. In this blog post, he has some awesome photographs that he has taken in an abandoned hangar in Kazakhstan.

The Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan is currently the only place where astronauts can be sent up to the International Space Station. They get sent up via the Soyuz rocket, after the USA’s Space Shuttle was retired in 2011. Now the European space agency, and NASA both use this launch site to send up astronauts. On the subject of the space shuttle though, one hangar in the Cosmodrome holds some great pieces of history, captured by Mirebs in photographic form.

The Hangar

The hangar in question is knows as the MZK building. Designed by the Izhevsk Institute “Prikampromproekt”, the building is 132m long, and 62m high. Its fairly run down now, but in it’s day it was at the pinnacle of the Soviet space effort. The doors on the front measure 42m by 36m. Big enough to transport the rocket systems needed for the project. On top of that, these doors were perfectly sealed, so the building could be kept at a higher than normal pressure, to keep dust out. They weren’t really doors, they were just structures that just happened to move.

the massive doors

The building itself is fairly close to a heavily used launch site, so naturally it was made from a special form of steel, and was designed to withstand a rocket exploding on the nearest launch site. There are offices and laboratories on either side, four stories high. They hold testing equipment and controls. Inside the main part of the building are 3 cranes that are able to lift 400 tons each.

the 400 ton cranes

So what is this enormous secret Soviet era building holding? Well it houses 2 Buran class rockets, of only a few left in the world. The Buran programme was the Soviets reaction to the NASA’s space shuttle system. Although the Buran programme didn’t really take off (if you’ll pardon the pun!) it still holds some historical significance today. The reasoning behind the Buran system will be saved for a later post.

Looking at them, you would be forgiven for thinking that these weren’t really important. They have years of bird poo and dust covering them. Of the two ships in the hangar, one is the second flying prototype. Known as “little bird”, although never officially named. At the time that the Buran programme finished in 1993, it was about 97% ready. Unfortunately, the ship is now showing signs of wear, with the heat tiles falling off, and smashed windows. This ship started to be built in 1988, and was meant to fly in 1991 and 1992; with planned flights to the Mir space station.

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The second ship is known only as OK-MT, simply made as an engineering mockup. It has the same look, and shape, but was never designed to fly, it was for use by engineers to test functions on the ship, so they don’t accidentally break the real thing. This one was a mockup for the other ship, known as OK-1k2, which was the only Buran calls shuttle to have the red bars on the cargo bay. This one seems in better condition, still holding onto many heat tiles, and most of it’s windows.

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Unfortunately, most of the insides of the shuttles have been torn out, likely salvaged to be used on other projects. Some think they could have been salvaged for precious metals. Although it is a bit of a mess there is still a quality about the way it looks. A ship that was so close to being a massive part of the space age, and missing out by just a few years. Imagine if the Chief Designer had these ideas a few years before, these ships could have been the way we send astronauts into space.

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It is sad that these pieces of equipment are just the remnants of the late Soviet Union, just left to rot. Hopefully one day they will end up in a museum, along with the other important parts of the space race era. Until then, we can only use these pictures to get a glimpse into the Buran Shuttle.

The Fallow Deer

So today I was out with a group of friends in a local estate near Plympton. The owner was there and while we were talking, he told us to just stop and listen for a second. So listen we did. Behind the bushes and the trees, we heard grunting. This grunting was the sound of Fallow deer. Apparently there are around 100 Fallow deer in the area, and for this 2 week period, its mating season. The sound we heard was a rare one, it was the sound of the buck’s grunting and thrashing around in the ferns. Why do they do this? Apparently, they try and make as much noise as possible, so they sound big and scary, so mates will be attracted to them. The louder they are, the more likely that they will find a mate. I found this quite interesting, I thought you guys might too. I wouldn’t try and go up against a Fallow deer at this time of year, you are likely to lose. Lots and lots of testosterone flowing.

As an interesting side note about Fallow deer, they are the only British deer to have palmate antlers, so they have that bit in between the horns, like frogs feet.

Plymouth Castle

So as we discussed in a previous post, Plymouth wasn’t always the power that it is today. In fact, in 1066, during the norman conquest, it was still called Sutton Pool, and had a population of 18 people. So realistically, there was no real need for any sort of fortification. The only place with a need for protection was just up the river at Plympton. Here, there was a Motte and Bailey Castle. Basically a small keep on top of a big hill, surprisingly effective at the time.

Over time though, the river changed, and the need of Sutton as a main port suddenly became of strategic importance. Around the start of the hundred years war in 1337 it was attracting unwanted attention from continental forces. It’s thought that earthwork defences were built around this time on the hoe and waterfront. There was also likely to have been similar works on the other side of the river at mount batten.

The most important part of this defence was Plymouth castle. In 1377 a murage grant was received, this is basically a tax specifically for castles, walls and other defences. The exact date that it was built is unknown, but it was first recorded in the early 1400’s. The castle was on the western side of Sutton Pool. It had 4 sides, with round towers on each corner, with curtain walls, 4 meters high. The main need for the castle was to control a chain that was raised to stop access to the harbour. If a ship got caught in this, it would be subjected to the castle’s cannons. The castle’s entrance was shielded by a barbican, which now lends its name to a part of the city.

There is no official date that the castle is said to have been built, but based around events we can give a good range. In 1340 during the Hundred Years’ War, the town was attacked by a flotilla of french raiders. Although they burned a manor house, and took some prisoners, they failed to get into the town. It was said to be due to an effective defence, this could be the castle, or it could just have been earthworks. There was another attack by the french in 1377. This lead to the murage grant to fund fortification, this may well be the money used to build the castle, but it could also have been used to fund walls or earthworks.

In 1400, it was likely that the castle was in existence, as it allegedly drove off a fleet of french ships. It was said that an english force of ships were being pursued by James of Bourbon, Count le Marche. The english forces sought refuge in Sutton harbour and scared them away. In august 1403 the castle was definitely present, and provided refuge when a Breton army landed at Cattewater and attacked and burned the town. This attack is still remembered today, by a part of the town known as Bretonside. This is the point where the invaders were stopped by the citizens marching out from the castle to attack them.

After this the castle saw very little real action. Other parts of the city were being fortified, and the castle became less important in the grand scheme. In 1549, it did play a part in the Prayer Book Rebellion; where cornishmen rebelled against the law created to have all church services in the land to be conducted in the english language. The Cornish at the time rarely spoke english, and so a rebellion started. At a point during this time, the town was besieged by rebels. The town quickly surrendered, but the castle didn’t, it held members of the crown and protestants, likely targets by the rebels. Eventually the rebellion was defeated, and the siege was lifted.

In 1588, the castle played a small part in the attack on the Spanish Armada. The English Navy took shelter from the wind and waited for the tide in Sutton harbour. The Castle gave the Navy a good defence. Unfortunately after this, in the Elizabethan era defences had moved on from simple castles. Sir Francis Drake (kinda famous in Plymouth) built an artillery fort on the Hoe. The structure, eventually known as Drake’s Fort was partially built using stone from Plymouth Castle. After this the closest it got to any action was during the civil war, when it held a parliamentary Garrison. Although, because Royalists controlled Mount Batten, Millbay on the west side of the harbour was used over Sutton Harbour so the castle wasn’t used as a military structure.

That is basically the History of Plymouth Castle. The castle itself eventually fell into disrepair, actually described as ruinous. It was used as a prison, and also a workhouse for a time. Unfortunately, in the 19th century, during the population boom, the remains were slowly robbed to be used in houses and other building projects. There is only a small part of the gatehouse still existing, and it has been turned into a part of a garden.

castle gatehouse
The remnants of the Castle Gatehouse
castle gatehouse
The remnants of the castle gatehouse, and the building development behind it
garden in the castle
The garden set into the old gatehouse

Fun fact: the four towers of Plymouth Castle are said to be remembered in the towns coat of arms, with 4 towers separated by st. Andrews cross (the patron St of Plymouth). The towers are said to be protecting him.

plymouth coat of arms
Plymouths Coat of Arms on a JaJa Postcard in 1925