THE history of a mysterious tree that people hang shoes from is being researched by the Chilterns Woodlands Project.

Volunteers are looking at the tree, between Stokenchurch and Studley Green on the A40, which is currently adorned with several pairs of trainers and other footwear, after getting money from the Heritage Lottery Fund for a Special Trees and Woods Project.

Liz Manley, project manager, got together a team of volunteers to trace the story behind the "shoe tree" by collecting pictures, records and memories from people in nearby villages.

She said: "People came forward and told us about the tree because it was a bit of a local oddity. It seems there used to be another shoe tree that fell or was chopped down, and this one has only started up within the last year or so."

Russell Read, 65, from Bank Road, Tylers Green, is one of the volunteers who has been talking to people in Stokenchurch about the tree.

He said: "We had just happened to drive past this tree and I was curious about it. From the digging I have done so far it seems there is evidence of other shoe trees around, in Oxfordshire and further north."

A local tale surrounding the tree suggests newly-wed couples would tie together one shoe each and throw them over the tree's branches to aid fertility.

It is believed this practice has pagan origins, and has been carried on by a handful of people.

Another more sinister explanation is that the shoes were thrown up as a ritual in witchcraft to put a hex on an unfortunate individual.

Over the next three and a half years the project, run from the Chilterns Conservation Board in Chinnor, will delve into the stories of many of the unusual or famous trees throughout the Chilterns.

Mrs Manley said: "We know there are lots of special features in the Chilterns countryside and even in the towns and villages. We anticipate hundreds of trees and woods to be recorded throughout the life of the project and we hope to research many of these with the help of volunteers."

Some people in Stokenchurch have criticised the decision to give funding to investigating the tree.

Hazel Warden, from the Stokenchurch Older Persons' Action group, said: "I can think of a lot better ways of spending money. For a start they could deal with the litter that accumulates on the footpaths."

l Contact Liz Manley on 01844 355525 or lmanley@chilterns