The Chained Oak is an Oak Tree, tied in chains, located near to the village of Alton in Staffordshire, England. The tree, referred to as "The Old Oak", is the subject of a local legend involving the Earl of Shrewsbury and an old beggar woman. The legend was adapted and fancifully elaborated to form the back-story for the ride "Hex" at the nearby Alton Towers theme park.
The legend goes that on an autumn night Earl of Shrewsbury was returning to his home at Alton Towers when an old woman suddenly appeared in the road. The coach stopped to find why she was there, and then the old woman begged for a coin. The Earl cruelly dismissed her, so the old woman placed a curse on him. The old woman said, "For every branch on the Old Oak Tree here that falls, a member of the Earl’s family will die." The Earl dismissed this and carried on his way.
The same night a violent storm caused a single branch from the old oak tree to break and fall. Later that same night, a member of the Earl’s family[who?] suddenly and mysteriously died. This version was adapted for the Alton Towers ride "Hex", with the ride depicting a bolt of lighting striking the tree and causing the branch to fall.
The Earl ordered his servants to chain every branch together to prevent other branches from falling. To this day the Oak tree remains chained up.
There are slight variations in the story, however the core remains the same.
- One version states it was an old man who cursed the earl, not a woman.
- A second version is that instead of a storm bringing down a branch, the Earl's son was out riding the next day and, as he passed the old oak tree, the woman had been standing under a branch which fell on top of him, knocking him from his horse and killing him. This story is slightly more plausible, as there are records of a riding accident around that time.[dubious ]
Recent falling branches
On 9 April 2007, one of the tree's main branches fell off. The Talbot family confirmed that no one died when the branch fell.
Since then, a considerable proportion of the chained oak has collapsed. It is thought that one of the chains, having become integral to the tree's structure, rusted through resulting in the collapse of part of the lower side of the tree.
Date and identity
Various dates are attributed to the legend of the chained oak, affecting the identity of "The Earl". The Talbot Family, Earls of Shrewsbury, began building nearby Alton Towers in 1801, on the site of the former "Alveton Lodge". The new house they created was known at that time known as "Alton Abbey" (despite no religious affiliations or history). The 15th Earl (died 1827) made the house their permanent home in 1814. His nephew and successor, the 16th Earl (died 1852) moved to the house in 1831, after the family's principal residence, Heythrop Park, burned down. It was during the 16th Earl's residency the house became known as "Alton Towers".
The legend has various dates attributed. BBC Stoke and Staffordshire give date the legend as 1821, which would identify the earl as Charles Talbot, 15th Earl of Shrewsbury.
Alton Towers Heritage state the chaining occurred "around the 1840s", which would identify the earl as John Talbot, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury.
The 16th Earl is remembered as "Good Earl John" for his charity, having supported local schools and churches, and financed the construction of new Catholic chapels around the Midlands, including in the village of Alton where he also built almshouses for the poor and elderly. His reputation does not seem to fit that of the Earl in the legend.
The legend states a member of the Earl's family (sometimes quoted as his son) suddenly died or was killed when riding.
The 16th Earl's only son died in infancy; this does not fit with legend as it happened before John Talbot became Earl of Shrewsbury, and was not caused by a horse riding incident.
The 16th Earl had 2 daughters, the youngest, Lady Gwendoline Catherine Talbot, died in 1840 aged only 22. This fits with the legend's date range, but her death was not mysterious: she died of Scarlet fever in Rome. Also 3 of Gwendoline's children died of measles shortly after their mother, meaning the Earl had 4 deaths in his close family, not the single one described in the legend.
The 15th and 16th Earls of Shrewsbury built and then extended Alton Towers and its gardens. During their tenure, thousands of new trees were planted, but the old trees were "greatly prized". The Chained Oak was situated in a highly visible" position, "just off a carriage-way" frequently used by the Earls. As such, the tree may have been wrapped in chains simply to preserve it, and prevent it from collapsing under its own weight.
The tree can be found in the woods near Alton Village, close to the entrance of the Alton Towers theme park. From the main entrance gates, head south towards the village, past the staff & service entrance on the left. Next on the right is a tall gate house, alongside the driveway to the eponymous Chained Oak B&B. Don't drive down this driveway, as the road is tight, there's no public parking and turning around in it is difficult. Instead, park in the layby opposite. To the left of the driveway is a gap in the stone wall, through which you'll find a well-worn pathway heading down the hill. The tree itself is about five minutes walk down this pathway, on the right with worn down steps leading up to it.
- The ride Hex – the Legend of the Towers at the theme park Alton Towers is based on a fanciful elaboration of this legend.
- Sam Hale The legend of the Chained Oak", Odd Staffordshire, BBC Stoke and Staffordshire
- Steve Hollyman and Gary Kelsall (2008). "The Legend of the Chained Oak". Alton Towers Heritage. Retrieved 2012-06-19.
- Kohn, Marc-Arthur. "The Tragic Destiny of the British Aristocrat known as Rome's Mother of the Poor". Retrieved 25 October 2013.
- The Institute of Our Lady of Mercy. "John Talbot". Retrieved 25 October 2013.