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Oak beams

Notre Dame Cathedral burning

(photo from Wikipedia)

Is there any more tragic sight than the destruction of a thing of beauty by fire? Whether it is a cathedral of nature, like a lovely karri forest decimated by bushfire, or a noble religious and architectural icon like the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, it always brings tears to my eyes.

In the aftermath of the Notre Dame Cathedral fire, I was even sadder to read that one of the obstacles to the rebuilding of the cathedral was that no oak trees of sufficient size and age are available from which replacement roof beams could be cut. Inside the roof and spire of that great Cathedral there was a vast forest of timbers. Nearly all of it was oak and nearly all of it was lost.

Fortunately, France is one of the foremost countries in Europe when it comes to forestry, and has a large area of exceptionally fine hardwood forest, including oak. But centuries of timber cutting has meant that the forests of today are relatively young, at least by the standards that prevailed in medieval times when the Notre Dame Cathedral was built. The sort of massive oak beams needed for reconstruction after the fire will need to come from trees at least 400 years old, and there would need to be a great many of them. Trees like this do exist in Europe today, but they are a rarity and usually found only in national parks, sacred groves or the so-called “royal forests” where timber cutting is normally prohibited.

Strange as it may seem, these melancholy thoughts have actually brought back a happy memory for me. In the late 1970s I was studying at the Commonwealth Forestry Institute at the University of Oxford in England, and I found time to explore the glorious buildings of this historic and beautiful city. Among these were the University colleges, many of which are hundreds of years old.

One of the finest of these is New College. The name always makes me smile, as it was founded in 1379. At New College there is a grassed quadrangle, overlooked by superb stone buildings, comprising the library, accommodation, dining hall and a glorious high-vaulted chapel. The chapel is about 600 years old, and has long been famous for its massive oak beams.

New College at Oxford (photo from the New College website)

At the time I was at Oxford, I read that an inspection of the New College chapel roof had disclosed the alarming fact that the old oak beams holding up the roof and spire were infested with wood-boring beetles, and were on the point of collapse. The situation was dire, and the College authorities were at a loss. Where on earth would they find replacement oak beams for the restoration work?

The College historian then came forward, and provided the answer. It turned out that at the time the College was being built, in the late 14th Century, the builders anticipated that one day the oak beams in the chapel would need to be replaced. So, the College purchased land and arranged for a plantation of oak trees to be planted. A forester was appointed to look after the College forest. Over succeeding centuries, the word was passed along from one generation of College Foresters to the next: "You don't touch them oaks, they's for the College Chapel".

And they were.

Cometh the hour, cometh the trees. The oaks were felled, new beams were cut and installed and the chapel roof was again secure and a thing of wonder and beauty. And another grove of oaks was planted, anticipating the need for the next refurbishment of the chapel 600 years hence.

I have read that search is on all over France for trees to supply the replacement beams and roofing timber for Notre Dame.

Before the fire: oak beams and landings within the Notre Dame Cathedral roof (photo from Wikipedia)

I understand that use will be made of steel or laminated timber in the reconstruction. Doubtless it will be done professionally and the final result will be satisfying to all.

But I would have loved to have heard that the Notre Dame builders, like those of New College in Oxford, had also made provision for the future by planting and nurturing a plantation of oak trees from which, at some time in the future, new beams could be cut.

Perhaps as we speak, new oak seedlings are being planted somewhere in France and generations of future French foresters will pass on the message: “don’t touch them trees, they’re for the Cathedral roof”.

April 2019

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