Finding Radiohead’s King Of Limbs

Few know where to find it and less are prepared to tell.

I’m hunting the largest privately owned forest in the UK to find clues about the new Radiohead album. ‘King Of Limbs’ is named after one of the oldest trees in Savernake Forest - one of the oldest in Europe, in fact - and something tells me I’m getting close. The paths ended an hour ago, and even with the morning light, the depth of darkness between the increasingly dense trees is becoming ominous. I really must be close.

Radiohead have grown familiar to Wiltshire. It began when they recorded ‘OK Computer’ in a mansion near Bath, which began their affinity for recording in grand houses. They returned to the county to record part of ‘In Rainbows’ at Tottenham House, the grand mansion that reigns over Savernake Forest. ‘It was literally an old country pile,’ Ed O’Brien told Mojo in 2008, ‘huge and crumbling at the seams… Stanley [Donwood], who does all our artworks, said the ley lines were not very forgiving.’

They spent three weeks there, recording live their most energetic songs from the album, ‘Bodysnatchers’ and ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’. Between recording, they had the extensive forest to explore, with Thom reportedly being struck by the sound of a barking stag guarding it’s territory. But Thom became sick, and with only a damp caravan to recover in, they soon returned to an Oxford studio. Before leaving, producer Nigel Godrich sampled the reverb from the mansion’s grand chamber, which was applied to much of the album, notably Thom’s vocal on ‘House Of Cards’.

Perhaps the drawing of a six-limbed monster revealed on for the ‘King Of Limbs” official announcement offers a clue. King Henry VIII hunted here, where he famously met his third wife Jane Seymore (not the actress, of course) whose father owned the forest. They lived here at Wolf Hall, better known since the Booker-prize winning novel. Could each of the six limbs represent the ill-fated wives of the English dictator?

Although access to the ‘King Of Limbs’ is difficult, Savernake houses the largest concentration of ancient trees in Europe, a status only achieved when it’s age is close to a millenia and the structure appears so strikingly complex that the appearance becomes a landmark. But the ‘King Of Limbs’ is the tree hunter’s goldmine. Said to be older than England (which became a state in 927), few know where to find it and less are prepared to tell. Before my journey, I found a source who was unwilling to reveal the ‘King Of Limbs” exact location, but more than happy to challenge me with his cryptic advice. ‘Head towards Ashlade Firs, a third mile from Crockmere Oak’ he tells in his thick Wiltshire drawl. I have no idea what he means. ‘Yes, King Of Limbs lost major branches, but still, ‘tis magnificent.’

I want to turn back, but I see a clearing ahead. The last of the thin whipping branches hit my rain-beaten face, and finally, I see it. The King Of Limbs. The sight of this oak leaves me no doubt, but a wooden sign confirms the landmark. It stands grand and majestic, the bark slick with rain and litchen. Two branches lay on the ground beside it, themselves large enough to appear an independant felled tree. I walk around the trunk’s supposed 11-metre girth to stand in the hollow cavernous stump.

I imagine Thom Yorke standing here together in staggered disbelief, just as I am. Civilisations have risen in less time than this tree. I wonder if I should rummage through the hollow in case the band left a memento for the keenest fans, but to trek here has been obsessive enough. I take some photos, sit for a while, and begin my walk back.

Now, how do I get home…

For more opinion, analysis and coverage of Radiohead’s new album ‘The King of Limbs’, click here