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Ten clues from the past to spot on a woodland walk

A clump of formerly coppiced beeches with bright green spring leaves emerging
Coppiced beeches in Low Scrubs in the Chilterns | © National Trust Images/Hugh Mothersole

What once went on under the dappled canopy where you walk? Britain has been forested since the end of the Ice Age, but our woods have been used in many ways over the centuries: homes, sources of timber, royal hunting grounds, industrial sites, military bases... Areas once cleared or farmed are now reclaimed by the trees. These ten clues will help you spot the past lives of your favourite woodlands.

1. Wood banks

Marking boundaries has always been important – as has protecting valuable areas of planted woodland or keeping deer in one place for hunting.

Look out for raised earthwork banks, often accompanied by a ditch. These might reveal how a wood was once divided between different landowners or parishes, or where trees were planted to supply timber for ship building or construction.

The ditch provided the material to create the bank, but it gave extra protection – along with a fence on top of the bank – to stop animals getting in or out.

Whose side are you on?

The side of the bank without the ditch is traditionally the side that was valuable and being protected.

2. Coppicing

Coppicing is when trees – usually hazel – are cut down to ground level to produce a spray of regrowth. This was used for a variety of purposes, from bean poles to furniture.

Many woodlands were traditionally managed by coppicing, and some of the woodlands in our care continue this tradition, including Hatfield Forest and Danbury Common in Essex.

3. Pollarding

The practice of pollarding to manage woodland died out over a century ago, leaving lapsed pollards in some of the parklands in our care.

Trees were cut back to around head height or above to stop animals browsing and to produce a spray of regrowth. You can still see pollarding at many National Trust places, including Cobham Wood in Kent. Large areas of pollarded trees may once have been woodland pasture for animals to graze underneath – a traditional form of agroforestry.

A large, old and gnarled sweet chestnut tree - some of its golden autumn leaves cling to the branches, but most have fallen to the ground
An old, gnarled Sweet chestnut tree at Sheffield Park, showing a lapsed pollard | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

4. Sawpit remains

Timber was often processed near where it was felled, as it’s a lot easier to remove planks than a whole tree. If you find old, partially filled-in, rectangular pits with no discernible banks on either side, these may be the remains of sawpits.

Tree trunks would be rolled on top, allowing two people to use a large saw. One would stand above and the other in the pit itself. The person in the pit would get covered in sawdust, so was usually the apprentice – this is where the terms ‘top dog’ and ‘underdog’ come from.

You can see the remains of old sawpits in the woods at Lanhydrock and Cotehele in Cornwall, or the Slindon estate in West Sussex.

Tree throws

If the rectangular pit has a bank on one side, it’s most likely a tree throw – where an old tree has fallen over and then rotted away.

5. Old field boundaries

Not all forests are old, even if the trees look ancient. Look out for low-level walls between tree trunks – these may be the remains of old field boundaries, meaning that the wood was once pasture or arable land.

Further clues may lie in undulating ground known as ‘ridge and furrow’, which was created by ploughs pulled by oxen making long, low banks.

Ancient woodlands can hold field boundaries dating back thousands of years. Recent LIDAR surveys (airborne laser scanning to map terrain beneath the canopy) has revealed Iron Age field systems preserved in the woods at Slindon.

6. Ancient trees

Many trees live for hundreds of years, and some for over a thousand. Near Runnymede in Surrey, we look after over 30,000 ancient trees including the 2,500-year-old Ankerwycke Yew. It's thought to have witnessed the events around the sealing of Magna Carta in 1215 and King Henry VIII’s wooing of Anne Boleyn in the 1530s.

Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, has two magnificent 1,000-year-old oaks, both true living sculptures, as well as another which is 800 years old.

Remains of a granite building in the woods, with trees and ferns
Remains of a building in Dewerstone Woods, Devon | © National Trust Images/Mel Peters

7. Industrial sites

Woods were home to many industrial processes, such as mining, leaving abandoned industrial sites overgrown and reclaimed by the wild.

Look out for the remains of stone buildings, cobbled or paved trackways, piles of spoil or slag and abandoned machinery. Undulating or pitted ground may be evidence of quarrying. Benthall Hall Woods in Shropshire is packed with industrial heritage.

8. Military bases

Many woodlands contain evidence of previous use as military sites, particularly from the Second World War. These range from pill boxes, observation posts and other defences, to abandoned airfields, ammunition dumps, barracks and training sites built in the run-up to D-Day.

Look out for the remains of brick or concrete buildings and tarmac tracks, or the subtle zig-zag depressions from former training and defensive trenches.

Abandoned brick Second World War pillbox beneath a tree, surrounded by weeds and with grass growing on the roof
A WWII pillbox | © National Trust Images/Laurence Perry

Although military buildings used woodlands for their natural camouflage from aerial reconnaissance, lines of sight were also cleared to defend them. You may spot where these clearings have regrown by the younger trees present. Silver birch is a colonising species – a good sign of recent structures in the area.

There’s an almost complete layout of a Second World War site at Sheffield Park and Garden in East Sussex, and you’ll find many military structures at Reigate Hill in Surrey. At Witley Common in Surrey, there are the remains of a First World War camp, where poet Wilfred Owen was based for a time.

9. Clearings

Some workmen needed to live in the woods for prolonged periods. These included charcoal burners, green woodworkers or ‘bodgers’, and other timber workers.

Their camps are very hard to identify now. But a clearing full of scrub near a once carefully managed patch of pollarded or coppiced trees may be a clue. Broad trackways leading in and out may be another sign.

10. Hollow ways

A sunken lane (or hollow way) is a road or track that is lower than the land on either side. These features could have been formed by natural processes of erosion, such as the movement of water, or by animal or human activity and the passage of traffic, either pedestrian or vehicles.

Sometimes holloways mark boundaries or divisions of properties, or possible drove routes. The name comes from the Old English ‘hol(h) weg’ or sunken way. A good example can be found in the garden at Scotney Castle in Kent.

View from the Owl House towards Paine's Bridge at Wallington, Northumberland

Trees and plants

We care for 25,000 hectares (61,776 acres) of woodland, 135 wild landscape sites and more than 200 gardens, and have as many wonderful stories to tell.

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