Historic woodlands

Historic woodlands

treesleighwoods.jpgWalking in woodland today you might well hope for a scene of utter tranquillity. The quietness may be briefly disturbed by the flapping of a bird in the trees above you, the rustle of a small creature in the undergrowth, the gentle plashing of stream, or at most the sudden crash of a startled deer bounding for cover. Step back a few hundred years in the very same place and you are likely to have had your ears assaulted by the tumultuous racket of human activity. Back then woodland was much more heavily exploited, for hunting, foraging and for the many timber and mineral resources it could yield up. If you look carefully the evidence for that exploitation is still to be found.

Go back to the late 11th century and your trip through the woods may have been rudely interrupted by the blast of hunting horns and the wild cries of a royal hunting party. After his victory at Hastings in 1066 William the Conqueror sequestered all the land of the vanquished nobility, to be retained or handed out as favours to the new Norman aristocracy. Large chunks were placed under ‘Forest Law’, to be managed for the hunting pleasure of the King and his followers. Not all ‘forest’ was tree covered but any hunting estate would have had tracts of woodland for the raising of the ‘venison’ they liked to chase. The woodland areas were often bounded physically with a “pale”, an earth rampart and ditch, with a high wooden fence on top. The pale was designed to keep the deer in but also acted as a clear sign that this was a royal forest. Woe betide you if you were found to be damaging the land in any way or stealing from it, worse still if you were caught with one of the King’s deer strapped across your back.

Developing woodland for the benefit of hunting did not die out with the medieval kings and their barons. Come the 18th and 19th centuries the ‘enclosure movement’ brought many common spaces, including woodland, into private ownership. On arable land this allowed the introduction of much more efficient farming methods. As for the woodland, on which common people had relied for centuries for firewood and the occasional snaring of a rabbit or bird, the landowners found a more 'refined' purpose. Birds suitable for shooting were introduced from the continent; the pheasant became a common sight in the copses around large country estates and wire fence pens for rearing them can still be found in many woods. Shotguns had developed tremendously too. With birds that were easily driven and not too quick in flight a good shot could bag hundreds, if not thousands, of the poor fowl in a single day.

Despite the profligate carnage, the birds were reserved strictly for the landed aristocracy. The notorious ‘Game Laws’ were made ever harsher as poaching developed into a long-running battle between rich and poor. Taking and selling any sort of game, be it pheasant, hare or even rabbit, was made illegal. Walking through a wood at night (and one would have to wonder what you were doing there yourself…) you might well come upon a desperate fight between gangs of poachers and groups of gamekeepers. For a poacher this was a deadly game to play, as wounding or killing a gamekeeper could lead to deportation or hanging. If you see a quaint gamekeeper’s cottage on the edge of a wood, it’s as well to remember why it is placed so strategically.

mine levelElsewhere in your journey through Britain’s past you might come across a truly industrial scene. On wooded slopes minerals and ores would sometimes be discovered breaking out of the ground, where water had washed away the topsoil. Such riches may have been first stumbled across in prehistoric times; once the easy pickings had been taken, shafts would have had to be dug to gather the wealth lying deeper underground. In currently peaceful woodland you may find the remains of an extensive mining concern, now overgrown as the mine has been worked out or abandoned as unviable. Look out for the openings to ‘levels’, the near horizontal tunnels used to drain water out of the mine and to bring out the ore or coal. The tracks along which the carts would have trundled may still be visible.

Come across a woodland stream or river and you could hardly have missed the noise of machinery. In the ages before the widespread exploitation of coal and oil, water was one of the major sources of power. On a river with a decent volume of water and fall, there may have been a mill every few hundred yards. Look now for the weirs built to dam the water to provide a steady flow, and the mill races diverting that flow to the mill wheel. In Britain most mill wheels were mounted vertically, so a system of cogs and gears was needed to turn millstones for grinding flour. Other mill wheels would have been powering the bellows for the smelting mills handling the iron and lead ores dug from the mines.

The other source of power to be found in the wood came from the trees themselves. Those smelting mills needed charcoal, which burns at a higher temperature than fresh or even well seasoned wood. Although the demand for metals has been blamed for deforestation, the never-ending need for fuel meant that most mill owners guarded their supplies carefully. Wood for charcoal was generally coppiced, with the new shoots from a trunk cut right back to the ground every fifteen years or so.  If you are in an old coppiced wood you may find the platforms on which the charcoal makers heated the cut branches over several days, carefully keeping out the oxygen, so that they turned into the precious carbon-rich fuel. The platforms are small circular areas that have been made flat, sometimes by cutting into the slope of the hill and piling the spoil onto the downhill side. Look for blackened soil under the leaf cover.

offasdyketrees.jpgIn some places trees have grown over structures that would once have been in open ground. Hill forts, dykes and burial mounds are often found deep in the woodland. Offa’s Dyke, a linear fortification thrown up in the late 9th century by the powerful Mercian king to protect his domain from the Welsh, runs through woodland for much of its way. A particularly beautiful stretch looks down through thick tree cover onto Tintern Abbey, with a natural rock formation known as the Devil’s Pulpit forming an excellent lookout. In Offa’s time the dyke and a decent band on either side would have been kept completely clear of trees, to give a good view of the enemy and to allow for passage of his own troops. Now the trees have enveloped it.

Some woodlands to visit

Banagher Glen, Northern Ireland
Very little British woodland is untouched by human hand. The one place you can find almost entirely natural ancient woodland is on steep river-cut ravines, where felling or any other sort of management is almost impossible. In the Peak District in Derbyshire and the Wye Valley in South Wales projects have been undertaken to preserve these unique sites (www.ravinewoodlife.org.uk).  At Banagher Glen in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, knarled oak trees cling precariously to the cliffs above the Glenedra and Altnaheglish rivers. Ash, hazel, rowan, hawthorn and holly are also found, an ideal habitat for the native red squirrel. Legend has it that St Patrick was able to trap the last snake in Ireland at this spot, and that it still lurks in the pools where the two rivers meet. www.backonthemap.org.uk

Leigh Woods near Bristol
leighwoodscastle.jpgLeigh Woods sits on a plateau above the Avon Gorge to the western side of Bristol. Woodland tracks take you above a series of disused stone quarries to reach Stokeleigh Camp, which sits on a spectacular promontory overlooking Brunel’s famous Clifton suspension bridge. The camp is an Iron Age hillfort, believed to have been occupied from around 350BC until around the time of the Roman invasion in 43AD. The fort is in an ideal location to defend the crossing over the River Avon. The banks and ditches have recently been cleared of trees and it is now much easier to appreciate their scale. A companion fort, Clifton Camp, sits on the opposite side of the gorge, near to the observatory on Clifton Down. The woods themselves include oak, ash, lime and beech and there is an all-ability trail. www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-leighwoods

Pamber Forest, Hampshire
Pamber Forest is a remnant of the Royal Forest of Windsor, set up in Norman times as a royal hunting ground. It covers nearly 500 acres, of which the dominant tree variety is oak, for several centuries used as timber for local crafts and construction. The remains of banks and ditches can still be found around the perimeter of the wood and in its interior. There are patches of heathland and open pasture, while to the north the wood joins onto Silchester Common; areas still grazed in the traditional way by cattle. The ‘Portway’, a Roman road, passed straight through the woods  to reach nearby Roman Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum), whose stone-built town walls can still be visited. The wood is renowned for its butterflies; over forty species, including the Purple Emperor, Silver-washed Fritillary, Purple Hairstreak and White Admiral, can be spied along the wood’s many rides. Walk ID 183 

King’s Wood, Kent
kingswood.jpgThe little church at Boughton Aluph is a reminder that woodland could be a dangerous place for a passing traveller. The south porch is flanked by a huge chimney and inside there is a great Tudor fireplace. Pilgrims on their way to Canterbury are said to have gathered there before venturing into King’s Wood; it was clearly better to do so in a large group and perhaps with an armed escort. That fear was not entirely unfounded. A group of pilgrims from Warwickshire reported being attacked and robbed at “la Bleo” on their way to Canterbury in 1332. The location is presumed to be Blean Wood on the London Road, just a few miles outside the city. Large sections of King’s Wood are now coppiced sweet chestnut, probably first planted around 200 years ago to provide poles for the hop industry.  www.forestry.gov.uk

The Forest of Dean
The Forest of Dean has been heavily exploited for many centuries. It was a target for the Spanish around the time of the Armada in 1588, as it was such an important source of timber for the English navy. Local miners from St Briavels have been digging for coal and mineral ores since the Middle Ages; indeed after they helped to undermine Berwick Castle for King Edward I, the “Foresters” were granted a free right to mine that exists to this day. True “Foresters” are those born within the hundred of St Briavels, an ancient administrative area. According to the statute, males over 21 who have worked in a mine for a year and a day can register as a “freeminer”. In October 2010 a woman successfully claimed the right. Remains from the mining industry, such as trackways, can be found in surrounding woodland, as well as open cast stone quarries. www.visitforestofdean.co.uk

Brignall Banks, Durham
There are records of four mills along a short stretch of the River Greta near Barnard Castle in Durham; one, Brignall Mill, is mentioned in a lease document in the mid-18th century. The one remaining mill can be reached by a fairly challenging walk through the woodland from Greta Bridge. Wych elm, ash and oak cling to the steep sides of a deep gorge cut by the river; the path makes its way through them. Brignall Mill (which may or may not be the one referred to in the lease) has been restored as a holiday cottage, with parts of its water wheel and corn grinding machinery still intact. Nearer to Brignall village are the remains of the tiny St Mary’s church; it may have been an outlying chapel for Egglestone Abbey, whose ruins are nearby. The picturesque spot by the river featured in the poems of Sir Walter Scott and the art of William Turner. www.brignallmill.co.uk Walk ID 1410

Badby Wood, Northamptonshire
Badby WoodsBadby Wood has a history of continuous woodland cover for over 750 years, as we know that it was made into a deer park for the abbot of Evesham in 1246. Permission to hunt and eat the game of the wood was given to the abbot by Henry III (the privilege was known as a grant of “free warren”). The banks of the park pale, used to keep the deer in, can still be seen around the perimeter. Later the wood became part of the Fawsley Estate. James Hawker (1836 -1921), who wrote about his life as a poacher on various Midlands estates, fell out with the head gamekeeper at Badby early in his ‘career’. Hawker’s book, ‘The Poacher’, displays a close link between detailed knowledge of the wildlife and radical politics; he continued to poach long after he needed the extra income. Badby Wood is also renowned for its carpet of bluebells in spring. Walk ID 2498

Epping Forest, near London
Epping Forest may have become a royal hunting ground in the 12th century, under Henry III. After disputes over its enclosure, which would have lead to wide-scale destruction of the remaining woodland, the Epping Forest Act 1878 brought it into the hands of the City of London Corporation. The pollarded trees, cut regularly at head height or above for animal feed and firewood, reveal its previous status as a working wood. Pollarding ceased with the Epping Forest Act and the boles have sprouted massive branches, often themselves the thickness of a tree trunk. Where these have crashed to the ground the rotting timber becomes a home for fungi and insects. The forest was notorious for highway robbery; Dick Turpin (1705-1739) was said to have a hideout there. Walk IDs 3257/4400

Glen Affric in Scotland
After several years of trench warfare and demand for coal, the First World War left timber supplies severely depleted. Determined not to be caught in such a position again the Government set up the Forestry Commission, giving it extensive powers to buy land and plant fast growing conifers. During the early years farming land was cheap and the Commission was able to develop plantations in many parts of the country. In the second half of the 20th century new plantations were increasingly placed on upland sites, on land that was not suitable for agriculture. The non-native trees did not always thrive. At Glen Affric in Scotland the wisdom of planting native varieties and taking a long-term view was realised remarkably early, in the 1950s. That foresight has paid off and there is now robust native forest offering a haven for wildlife and a beautiful place to walk. www.forestry.gov.uk Walk IDs 910/2091

Coed Craig Ruperra, South Wales
Coed Craig Ruperra is a recovering broadleaved woodland found between Newport and Cardiff, in South Wales. Largely given over to conifer plantation between 1920 and the 1990s, the site has been taken over the Ruperra Conservation Trust. Hundreds of volunteers have been helping to replant the native woodland species, an effort that has also involved cutting back the exotic Cherry Laurel and Rhododendrum invading the area around an Iron Age hill fort. All across Britain woodlands are being restored, often with volunteer labour. This is history in the making; in a hundred years’ time these initiatives may well be considered some of the most vital in the story of our woodlands. www.ruperra.org.uk Walk IDs 999/5818

This article by David Stewart was first published in the Guardian/Observer supplement '100 Great British Woods and Forests' (April 2011).