In our forthcoming illustrated book, “Cadi & the Cursed Oak,” much of the plot centers on an acorn cup.
Once there was a cup.
But it was not an ordinary cup, for it was a silver cup with an oak sleeve turned in the shape of an acorn, one hand high, as if it had been crafted for a child.
And on a winter day in Dolgellau, a small town in northwest Wales, it was Cadi who found the cup, lodged between a stone wall and her grandmother’s oak coffer.
Cadi pulled the cup until she heard a quiet “pop” muffled by the coffer’s cobwebs. A tiny split opened in the wood, smaller than the breath of a bee.
“Oh,” Cadi whispered, fearing what her grandmother would say. Cradling the cup, she examined the two silver discs attached to the wooden sleeve. One had an engraving of an oak tree above the words Ceubren yr Ellyll, and 1813. The other was engraved with a coat of arms and ASGRE LÂN DIOGEL EI PHERCHEN.
It was so lovely and so unknown, Cadi thought she might cry. Although she had never seen the cup or heard talk of it, it was beautiful and important-looking. And the tiny crack grew heavy in her mind.
Cadi and her grandmother are fictional, of course, but this cup, made by John Reilly, exists at National Museum Wales. According to the museum, “On 25 June 1824 one of Wales’s grandest 21st birthday celebrations took place for Sir Robert Williams Vaughan, the son of Merioneth’s biggest landowner. Held on the Nannau estate in Dolgellau, 200 guests sat down to an extravagant banquet … Various items produced to commemorate the event are now in the collections of Amgueddfa Cymru, including two of the six acorn-shaped toasting cups made for the occasion. They were made from the wood of the Derwen Ceubren yr Ellyll, ‘the hollow oak of the demon,’ the ancient tree at Nannau associated with Owain Glyndwr.”
Many objects made from the cursed oak exist in Wales still today.
What happened to it, to the tree? Cadi asked.
“A terrible storm, in 1813,” said her grandmother, who began to walk again. “A man named Sir Richard Colt Hoare visited here. Sir Richard was a wealthy man, an antiquarian. He also loved plants. He collected exotic plants, he planted thousands of trees, and he loved to draw them. While at Nannau, Sir Richard became enchanted with the blasted oak. By this time it measured 28 feet around and was more than 900 years old. So he sketched it. That very night, lightning struck the tree and destroyed it. The remaining wood was collected and quite a few things were made from it – tables, candlesticks, picture frames and some lovely stirrup cups, set in silver and shaped like acorns. I own one of the cups, although it appears to have gone missing.”
Cadi dared not move.
“There are two silver discs on it, opposite each other. One disc says ceubren yr ellyll, the hollow oak of the demon. The other, ASGRE LÂN DIOGEL EI PHERCHEN, a good conscience is the best shield.”
Cadi’s grandmother turned and looked at her.
Legend says if you drink from it, the tree’s stories will haunt you.”
They walked a bit more and then Cadi quietly asked, “How do you get the dreams to stop?”
“You can’t stop stories, child,” her grandmother said. “Even bad ones. Every living thing has a story. And every story deserves to be told.”
This is the actual sketching of the Nannau Oak, by Sir Richard Colt Hoare, which is part of the Stourhead House collection (National Trust). The inscription on the top of the frame says “The Nannau Oak fell to the ground 27 July 1813. This frame is made of the real wood.” The inscription on the bottom of the frame says, “Sketched by Sr Richd. C. Hoare on the morning preceding the night on which it fell.”
This Victorian breakfast table, sold at auction by Bonhams in 2014, is said to be made from the Nannau Oak. It came with a printed etching of the tree and text about the tree as referenced in Sir Walter Scott’s poem, “Marmion,” framed in wood also said to be from the cursed tree.
Here you can see more photos by Philip Nanney Williams, author of “Nannau: A Rich Tapestry of Welsh History,” of a book slide made in 1848. It was reportedly made from wood from the Nannau Oak supplied by the third bart’s wife, Lady Vaughan of Rhug. Philip was of wonderful assistance to me during the research phase of this book.
The website nannau.wales, created by Ian King, provided a wealth of information while working on this book. There I found a transcription of a 1960s tourist guide, which included an image of candlesticks and more cups made from Nannau oak.
Philip writes about these candlesticks, made from the Nannau Oak, in Chapter 3 of his book. Made in 1840, they are modeled on the chimney of the Archdeacon’s House, Bangor, where Owain Glyndŵr met with Henry Hotspur during the rebellion.
And according to Woolley & Wallis, this folding table has a 19th century veneered top with “Ceubren yr Ellyll,” inscribed underneath on a later turned folding base.
— Kara Gebhart Uhl