A mysterious category of the pair tree
Historian DONALD STANLEY looks at the strange practice of festooning branches with shoes and boots
The Chilterns had long been famous for its beech trees when in the 1970s people commenced to hang shoes on a humble ash by the side of the A40 between Stokenchurch and Studley Green.
These ranged from tattered working boots to smart women’s slip-ons, many dangling from the branches by neatly tied laces. When it died the shoes were moved to another.
In all, three ash trees, were festooned in this manner but nobody came forward either to admit to hanging them on the first two or explain why they had done so.
The third was ‘dressed’ by the Studley Green youth group but had to be cut down for safety as it was vandalised.
However, the practice was resumed in time for another to be included amongst 500 selected for study in the four year Special Trees and Woods Project funded by a National Lottery grant of £265,000 which commenced in 2006.
In its findings the Project listed as possible reasons for hanging shoes on the trees: toll payments by travellers, fertility rites, preparations for the arrival of aliens, to be ‘faster on your feet’, or merely a local hoax.
Pagan worship and a witchcraft spell to put a hex on unfortunate victims were also suggested together with the happier thought that each of a newlywed couple would tie one of their shoes to one of the other’s and throw them into the tree for good luck.
Other ‘shoe trees’ have been reported in Oxfordshire and at Long Eaton.
In other countries, including the United States and Canada, decorating trees with shoes is a recognised custom associated with practices ranging from marking the end of the school year to preparing for the return of the spirit of a dead person who will walk at that height above the ground.
The Great or Beaver Shoe Tree in Arkansas collapsed in the year 2000 under the weight of shoes hung on it. In parts of the US shoes on trees mark a gang’s ‘turf’ or a drug dealer’s pitch.
The reason for festooning trees with shoes is not always explained, neither is any particular species of tree chosen.
For example, in some farming regions of Oregon people of all ages will, for no apparent reason, throw old shoes into the branches of isolated trees in the wheat fields as spring approaches.