The Oak Chapel of Allouville-Bellefosse

Monday, 31 January 2011

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It is like something out a fairy tale or perhaps a Tim Burton film.  Yet the oak tree in the small French village of Allouville-Bellefosse is not a figment of the imagination or, indeed, an old film set.  A staircase spirals around its twisted trunk but neither is this an everyday tree house.  Instead of a dwelling place atop or amongst its branches the visitor will discover that the interior holds the secret of this ancient oak.

Within there are two small chapels, which are to this day used as places of worship by the local people.  How old the tree is exactly is the subject of some debate but it is without doubt the oldest known tree in France.  While it has persevered the centuries, others have come and gone but Chêne Chapelle (Oak Chapel) has remained.

It was growing when France became a truly centralized kingdom under Louis IX in the thirteenth century.  It survived the ravages of the Hundred Years War with the English.   The Black Death, the Reformation, the Revolution and the time of Napoleon all came and went as it spread its branches.

Local folklore places the time at which the acorn first took root as a thousand years ago. They maintain that William the Conqueror said prayers at its base before he went off to thrash the Anglo-Saxons near a small seaside town called Hastings. Yet tree experts put the real age of the tree at around 800, which puts its roots firmly in the thirteenth century.

As such it is still a wood-framed mirror to the history of modern France and of course each country has its disasters. Catastrophe occurred for the oak in the late 1600s.  It was nearing 500 years in age when one stormy night it was struck by lightning. A bolt with a temperature approaching 30,000 °C pierced the magnificent tree to its heart.

Yet instead of dying, something astonishing happened.  The fire within burned slowly through the center and hollowed the tree out. Perhaps it should then have simply slowly rotted away, but each year new leaves would form and the tree would produce acorns in abundance. In those religious times it was not long before the miraculous tree gained some pious attention.

The local Abbot Du Detroit and the village priest, Father Du Cerceau, determined that the lighting striking and hollowing the tree was an event that had happened with holy purpose. So they built a place of pilgrimage devoted to the Virgin Mary in the hollow.  In later years, the chapel above was added, as was the staircase.

The chapels are called Notre Dame de la Paix (Our Lady of Peace) and the Chambre de l'Ermite (Hermit's Room).  On August 15 of each year it is still a site of pilgrimage for local Christians.  However, the tree had at least one moment of peril after the original lightning strike.

The need to survive sometimes precipitates change. During the Revolution the tree became an emblem of the old system of governance and tyranny as well as the church that aided and abetted it.   Le Chêne chapelle was to experience its own terror.  A crowd descended upon the village, intent on burning the tree to the ground.

However, a local whose name is lost to history had an inspired thought – as sometimes people do when they have to think at a speed approaching light.  He renamed the oak the temple of reason and as such it became a symbol of the new ways of thinking. It was thus spared the lightning strike of political revolution.

Of course, a tree this old cannot go on forever and Chêne chapelle is showing its age.  Poles must shore up its weight where it once it bore its own, like a giant stretching. Wooden shingles have been used to cover areas of the tree which have lost their bark.  Yet as much care and diligence is given to the tree as can be, to ensure that it lives on as long as possible even though part of its trunk is already dead. Yet twice a year its loyal congregation gathers and mass is celebrated within the confines of this remarkable chapel of oak.

Kuriositas would like to thank Flickr photographers Philippe_28, Solangenp2004, Comment vous dire? and FRBC for allowing us to reproduce their marvellous photographs here.  Please visit their photostreams!

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