In his speech to this year’s Conservative Party Conference, David Cameron enlisted “an old story that’s told about a great hall in Oxford” to illustrate the importance of long term planning.
According to Cameron, half a millennium after the hall was first built, when its “vast old oak beams” needed to be replaced, it was found that “500 years before, someone had thought… those beams will need replacing one day. So they planted some oak trees.”
It seems that Cameron was referring in his speech to the great hall of New College. The story of its oak beams was referred to in the TV series ‘How Buildings Learn’ and popularised as an example of the merits of foresight.
However, in 2008, the college’s archivist, Jennifer Thorp, declared the popular tale to be nothing more than a “myth”. She commented, “The New Buckinghamshire estates from which these trees were supposed to have come had not actually been acquired by us 500 years before the trees were needed. To have earmarked trees specifically for a chamber does not make any sense.”
In her 2008 paper, Thorp suggested that New College acquired the land in 1441, 70 years after the hall was first built. “I was hoping we had done with this particular chestnut,” she said in a statement to the Guardian.
Students expressed their scepticism of the myth, with New second year Lottie Pyper telling Cherwell, “Our only famous tree is the ‘Harry Potter Tree’ in reference to the tree under which Malfoy is transformed into a ferret in the fifth Harry Potter film.”
The college’s hall is currently undergoing its first major refurbishments since the 1960s, and has been closed until the end of this year’s Michaelmas term. Students and staff at the college are currently served in a marquee in New’s Holywell Quad.
This has led to student confusion, with New College’s Joel Mann saying, “The hall’s currently closed, with a large white plastic monstrosity of a temporary hall splayed across the front quad instead- and I’d be impressed if the college earmarked that white plastic 500 years ago in foresight.”
Tom Beardsworth, a third year Braseonse student and formerly of Secretary’s Committee lamented Cameron’s lack of tree-related knowledge commenting, “He should know a thing or two about trees, since he changed the Conservative party logo to one seven years ago. That said, the thing with myths is that they needn’t be true to convey a compelling message. Give him a break, I reckon.”