The Mysterious Chained Oak of Alton
There are many infamous oak trees in England, some the scene of witchcraft, others the site of murder and even places of summary execution for some. But have you ever heard of an oak that was considered so cursed that it was chained down to subdue it?
Just outside the village of Alton, along a sloping track off the road next to the Alton Towers theme park, stands the mysterious Chained Oak. Why is it like this? Legend claims that the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury was belting up the track homewards in a carriage when suddenly an old woman appeared in the middle of the path. The horses shrieked as the driver pulled hard on the reins and the Earl opened his door to see what on earth had happened. The wizened old lady hobbled down to him and asked for a penny but the toff refused, slamming his carriage door closed and shouting to his driver to move on. For good measure he bellowed at the crone to leave his land immediately.
She seemed to rise in stature before his very eyes, holding her stick aloft as she cried “I curse thee! When a bough from this great oak falls – one of your line shall die!”. The hag had halted the Earl's carriage next to a sprawling oak tree and she gestured to it with her free hand. For a moment the aristocrat was taken aback, shocked, but he regained his composure and the coach continued on home to Alton Towers. Later that night a terrible thunderstorm broke out over Staffordshire and a flash of lightning hit the great oak, causing a branch to fall. Within days the Earl's daughter fell ill and quickly died. The Earl ordered his men to gather up every length of chain they could find and bind the oak tree together, securing its branches – and that is how it has stayed, still to this day.
So there is truth here – the oak is genuinely chained – but what of the rest of the legend? The age of the chains and the time the legend began to be told points to the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, John Talbot. He was known as a kind man by the standards of the day and while his only son died as a baby neither of his two adult daughters died at Alton...but his daughter Lady Gwendoline did succumb to scarlet fever while working among the poor in Rome. An extremely religious woman who devoted herself to charity work, three of her own sons also died from measles shortly after their mother passed away.
Another version of the legend that was recounted to me moves the action to the sprawling mansion of Alton Towers itself. On a rain lashed night a poor old man knocked on the door to the stately home, begging for food and shelter. The mysterious figure offered to tell the fortunes of his benefactors in return. On a whim, he was brought inside and thrust in front of an assembly of dining aristocrats and bigwigs as this was the grand opening of the new dining hall at the Towers. They mocked him, shrieking with laughter as insults and even items of food were hurled at the poor old man. “You have not told us our fortunes!” shouted one toff as the man turned in an attempt to leave. “I will tell you your fortune my lord!” he bellowed at Earl Shrewsbury as a hush fell in the hall. “Tonight a bough shall fall from an oak next to the Barbary Track! It shall signal the death of one of your line – and each time another should fall – again you will know tragedy!” The Earl's son was late for the dinner and was riding solo along the track next to the oak, when with a flash of lightning a great bough fell and killed him as he passed.
We know that John Talbot had no adult sons and history suggests he was no sadist but more of a philanthropist towards the poor, as well as being devoutly religious, so this version seems unlikely – especially as it bears more than a passing resemblance to the beginning of the old Curse Of The Werewolf film starring Oliver Reed!
The Chained Oak is just a couple of hundred yards down a sloping track next to one of the entrances to the Alton Towers theme park and this inspired the owners to build a ride based on the legend. “Hex”, as it was named, draws prospective riders into the old hall where they gradually make their way through creepy corridors and into a catacomb where a giant bough of the oak is chained down, glowing red with evil. I won't spoil the rest but it's a fun experience and also fantastic that local folklore is being kept alive like this.
The chained oak from the track
Chains still on the oak
Despite being chained, this bough fell in 2007
The Chained Oak
Chains are draped all over the old oak
The Chained Oak
The 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, John Talbot
Alton Towers as it was during the mid 1800s