As a former Leeds student, I spent many a happy hour in the Oak and the Skyrack in Headingley. Now visits are restricted to a few pints after a day at the cricket. When I drive down Otley Road nowadays, you still see hundreds of students in fancy dress doing the Otley Run and filing into the pubs for alcoholic gratification
But how many of those people know that they are both named after an ancient Oak tree that stood in Headingley for many years known as the Shire Oak.?
Picture credit: Leeds Museums
Sadly the Oak tree was felled in 1941 by high winds and there is a plaque marking the place it once stood in the beer garden wall of the Original Oak.
But many don’t realise that the Oak was there well before the two pubs were built and even well before St.Michael’s church was there. In fact the tree has a fascinating history dating far back as the Vikings!
When the Vikings controlled the area which became Yorkshire, they split the area into the “Thryddings” – essentially – the Three Ridings with York (or Jorvik as the Vikings called their capital).
The areas were broken down further into administrative areas called Wapentakes. Leeds was split into 2 Wapentakes either side of the River Aire – The Morley Wapentake and The Skyrack Wapentake.
At the time many of these wapentakes would meet around local oak trees around Northern England. The Original Oak is a nod to the Shire Oak and the Skyrack an old derivation of Shire Oak. The Vikings would have called the meeting place “Skyr-ak”.
At these Wapentakes the local men would meet to pass law, resolve legal disputes, dish out punishment and generally make decisions. As they voted on each issue, if they agreed with the motion they would raise their weapon in the air – hence “Weapon Take” is where the word wapentake originates.
The Original Oak drawing - 1700's The Gott Collection
There is a drawing of the tree from the early 1700’s, but the first photo of the oak tree growing in Headingley didn’t appear until later.
The Original Oak 1903 - credit Leeds Libraries
When the tree fell over in the 1940’s, part of it was taken by the famous oak furniture maker Robert “Mousey” Thompson and carved into Madonna & Child – this can now be seen in St.Michael & All Angels Church in Headingley, across the road from the two pubs.
A mouse was carved beneath the Madonna but this is not visible now as the Madonna has been screwed onto a wooden plinth.
There is also part of the original Oak tree in the Abbey House Museum across the road from Kirkstall Abbey.
A new Oak tree planted 65 years ago from one of the original oaks acorns grows near the site of the original tree helping to keep the original oaks Headingley tradition alive.
So next time you are in Headingley and nip into one of the pubs for a pint - remember the site was once a meeting place for the Danes way before becoming a mecca for drink students!
There are a couple of framed pictures in St.Michael & All Angels Church which are worth a look - see below: