Near Oxford, England, a stalwart battalion stretches several miles across the landscape. It’s been there for centuries, rooted, quite literally, in the ground—the troops are oak trees. They guard Blenheim Palace, which was a gift to John Churchill, England’s first Duke of Marlborough. His forces defeated the French in 1704 during the War of Spanish Succession. Legend has it, the trees were planted en bataille, as if honoring Churchill’s victorious regiment, says photographer Simon Norfolk. He read the tale in a guidebook (though no hard evidence supports it).
Norfolk shot the arboreal soldier above and several of its compatriots while on assignment for the Historic Houses Association’s 25th anniversary (the palace is a World Heritage Site). “I’m very interested in anything to do with military structures and military traces left on the landscape,” he says, and the phalanx of trees struck a chord. Coveted for their strength, “Oak trees were [once] the basis of the British Navy,” says Norfolk. “[They] were kind of like the Kevlar of their year.” But insatiable hunger for shipbuilding material in the early 19th century threatened England’s oak supply at a crucial time—during war with Napoleon. “Suddenly, Britain was naked,” he says. An effort to plant trees followed—and some of Blenheim’s oaks might have been donated as lumber—but by the time the saplings matured, ship construction required iron, not wood. The trees were thus left to nature.
To Norfolk, the palace’s oaks represent at once England’s great empire and its decline, “the last of the old vanguard still standing on the battlefield.” Encircled with ghostly Halloweenish fog (from a smoke bomb the photographer detonated) and starkly framed against an eerie twilight sky, the tree above writhes as if in pain, a circular hollow looking for all the world like a howling mouth. In autumn its twisted, leafless arms stretch toward—or in defiance of—heaven.