the mael of Malden?

Is this elm 1000 years old?

                      - Is it the mael of Malden?

An elm tree has been growing out of the top of the monument on the left of this photo of St John’s. The tree's roots must have been buried there at least 280 years ago.  As information comes in, evidence on this Signboard on Church Path is being updated on this website. Could this elm tree be of historic significance? A brick building with a sign in front of itDescription automatically generated with medium confidence

Standing in front of the board, you are on a hill (a ‘dune’ in Anglo-Saxon). Once it was marked by a Saxon sign (a mael).  Malden was maeldune - ‘Sign Hill’.  The original mael was a sign on this path, a way-marker on a highway, a dry way, the safe, direct way to - civilisation.  For Saxons, it was not just a blip on the London Loop. 

Christian faith was probably taught under this mael before any church was here.  Deals were struck here, more sure they would be faithfully kept.  Like many way-signs, the mael probably became the village cross, the sign of Christ, christes mael.  The church here was built close to it, bearing witness to the sign.  Malden itself was named after this sign.

The only material for a sign here was wood.  Malden had no masonry stone.  Elm trees were the tall, natural landmarks.  They could be 40 metres high.  Some lasted hundreds of years, standing out above the woodland.

These hill slopes on the south side of Church Road are still crowded with elms.  Sadly, because of elm disease, they now only grow 12 metres high.


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Elm wood, however, is durable.  It is so rot-resistant that it was later used for water mains.  This piece of water pipe made from elm, dated 1401-1600, is now in the Science Museum.







But in the churchyard no elms could be found - except a few invading at the boundary - until, about ten years ago.  An elm tree began growing out of the top of Catherine Lady Walter’s family memorial.

Branches of elm have forced up the stone slab on top of the monument - although this weighs about a ton.  Elm root suckers must have broken through layers of masonry in the vault underneath, then climbed inside the memorial and the vault beneath it.  For at least 270 years, the roots must have remained dormant in the clay under the vault.

Before April 2021, this tree of elm, three metres tall, had grown out from under the slab, though every leaf of it had been removed the winter before.

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Lady Walter of ‘Worcester Parke’ had died in 1733.  Her memorial was to go in front of the churchs east window.  But it was placed south of centre. 

Elm wood is hard to remove.  It is tougher than oak.  A single shred of elm root very soon becomes a whole elm tree.  But Lady Walter’s vault and the deep clay mound around it, seem to have successfully smothered the elm roots for nearly three centuries.  There must have been years of conscientious mowing, scything and probably grazing by farm animals and deer as well.

Roots like this, so near to a church, able to produce elm trunks 40 metres high and two metres in diameter, had to be taken very seriously.

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This is Mr.Thomas Weeding’s memorial.  When he died, in 1856, it was sited well to the north of centre.  The clay mound over his vault was stretched out over Lady Walter’s, perhaps to smother the elm in the central area even more deeply in clay.  Portland cement now made concrete foundations much stronger.  No elm tree is growing out of the top of his memorial - yet.

A picture containing outdoor, grass, rock, plantDescription automatically generatedBut at the corner of the Weeding memorial nearest to the camera, this one tiny elm, at the end of an ‘avenue’ of tiny elms, three metres long, survived the routine grass maintenance in 2021. 


It was cut down, but it re-grew. It survived a second strim in September and then a third one in October.





Not all trees cut at ground level die.  Elms can grow vigorously as a result.  This is the principle used in ‘coppicing- a successful method used since prehistoric times for managing woodland. 


Normally, ash trees, for instance, live for 200 years.  But they can re-grow for a thousand years if coppiced.  Could our elm tree’s life have been prolonged by indefatigable cutting - all those centuries from Saxon times?

The drawing below shows the total area where tiny elm ‘saplings’ were found growing in autumn 2021.  It is 9 metres long (east to west), and 5 wide (south to north).  The roots may have come from a single trunk, but possibly from several.  One trunk might die back after 3-400 years but others could grow from the root suckers.  Those with the best chance would probably be farthest from the shadow of the old tree and the church building.  So, every 3-400 years the tree might appear to ‘walk’ a few paces - out into open sunlight.

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Long stems of elm must have been growing for years, un-noticed, concealed among the brambles and shrubs on all four sides of Lady Catherines memorial, growing out of the top of the family vault beneath the monument. 

When, in 2021, a shallow trench was dug round the church to reduce damp in its walls, a 3mm thick elm root was severed and exposed under the east window in the Saxon wall.  This root was heading due west from Lady Catherines tomb towards the foundation of the wall.  It must have detected more moisture and/or nutriment there than in the open grass.

A few months later, that root had sprouted a 20cm tall sapling with fresh young leaves.  Trimmed with the grass in late October, smaller, darker elm leaves were uncovered. They had been there, hidden in the grass for a longer time.

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The long branches photographed in April 2020 were promptly removed.  By September many had regrown.  The tree was damaging the monument badly.

There are good reasons to conserve both tree and monument.  Kingston ecologist, Alison Fure, suggests elm can be managed as a hedge.  Could new branches in a hedge perhaps be trained to protect and support the monument rather than breaking it apart?  If the elm disease killed branches, would the root send up healthy ones?  Could branches perhaps be trained so everyone could see and be part of the breaking story of the elm, the mael and the monument?  Once, perhaps, this elm was an awe-inspiring forty-metre-high landmark, fashioned into a cross by Saxon craftsmen.  This sign gave this place a new direction for a thousand years.  This sign gave Malden its name.

How can we discover if this elm really was the ancient sign on this hill?  Can you suggest better ways to conserve both?    

If you would like to send a response or provide further evidence to support our studies, please email:

footnotes to the Signboard on Church Path

adapted from Old Malden News September 2021 (Footnotes to a notice board on church path)

‘St John’s should have a notice board outside it telling the story of conservation there’.  Barbara Webb told me that again, the last time we met.  Botanical evidence has appeared about this sign that gave Malden its name.  If she had been here to see an elm tree growing out of the top of Lady Walter’s monument as we did this year, she might have had relished the job of weaving it into the wonderful talks she gave on her Heritage Week walks.  How we would value her views now about conserving both the monument and the elm tree that seems to be destroying it.

This elm theory was given a test-drive on the Heritage Days.  Valuable advice came in from Kingston ecologist, Alison Fure.  She reminded me, Barbara fashion, what matters is to cut and clear the grass properly, rather than “micro-manage” projects (like this?).  She told me elm is now being grown successfully from seed.  But so much interest has come from this elm project, that (as a sequel to last year’s notice board featuring the Spring underneath St John’s Church) this article will do as a footnote to the Signboard on Church Path.  By using a QR code on the board, any passer-by will be able to read it.

In spite of much evidence of elm roots still underneath the grass, none of the old engravings of the church, starting in 1799, showed any sign of a tree near the church’s east window.  The prints probably just told us how successfully elm trees can be kept out of sight by very conscientious lawn-mowing.

In Heritage week, however, this lithograph of St John’s was re-discovered.  It is thought to have been drawn about 1825.  It shows a tree stump outside a very rough wooden church fence.  The stump is about 70 cm wide, judging by the height of the man.  He is posed, displaying a bill-hook, the tool used to cut brushwood and narrow branches.  Several branches growing out of the stump have been chopped short.  On the grass verge outside the fence, debris may be piled ready for carting away.  The artist’s view-point places the stump in front the east window.

The man has nearly completed his work, deliberately leaving one 5 metre high branch growing out of the top of the stump (to show how much there was to remove?).  The stump will soon be smartly pollarded again, allowing unobstructed views of the church.


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Workmen today take photos on their phones to prove when they turned up at a job, and completed it.  Maybe Mr. C. T. Cracklow, a surveyor (named at the bottom of the print) commissioned this lithograph, using the very latest copying method, was it to keep an eye on his employees?  He got C. Burton to sketch a ‘snapshot’.  P. Simonau then printed enough lithographic copies to satisfy the P.C.C., the Vicar, Merton College, whoever is paying to have the stump sorted out. 

Surplus prints from his surveillance exercise amused print collectors, who bought them as a quaint village scene, showcasing the latest Paris print technology.  (Amazingly, copies can still be bought on the net today!)

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Robin Gill kindly sent us this postcard issued in the 1900s showing “The Oldest tree in Old Malden”.  It is in a large, level, well-cut field.  Five clearly distinguishable English elms mark its boundary at the horizon on the right.  So it is likely to be an elm.  Can you tell us where this field is, or was?  Are those elms or their stumps now at the end of someone’s garden or in colour prints on your family photos?

The largest known English Elm in Europe was in the news recently, being removed on a lorry because it had Dutch elm disease.  Also hollow, also with a trunk two metres in diameter, it dated back 400 years.  This news confirmed that before elm disease, elms might stand for that length of time, but would then tend to become too frail.  This tree was one of two ‘twin’ trees in Preston Park, Brighton.

The dedicated folk who kept these alive may also know whether ancient elms tend to produce root suckers which ultimately take their place.  Someone studying peat bogs may be able to tell us if there are ring patterns in roots preserved under wet ground that show the dates of fragments of root preserved there.  Only four cycles of 300 hundred year old trees would take our tree back 1200 years and to Saxon times.  How many elm fence posts would the tree have supplied in that time if it had been coppiced?  And if all the trunks and branches originate from a single root mass, could our Malden Elm growing out of Lady Walter’s memorial be proved to be a living part of the original Saxon mael

Could be an excuse for a trip to a park in Brighton, but the wonders of the web may bring the story to all of us without even leaving our screens.