Nine historical clues to look for on a walk in the woods

Autumn view through a woodland alley, Ashridge Estate

Britain has been forested since the end of the Ice Age. But our woods have been used for many different things over the centuries. They have been our homes, sources of timber and charcoal. They have been Royal Hunting Forests, and even industrial sites and military bases.

Here are nine clues to help you detect what once went on under the dappled canopy on your next walk.

1. Wood banks

Marking where boundaries lie has always been important. Look out for raised earthwork banks – often accompanied by a ditch. These might reveal how a wood was once divided up between different landowners or parishes.

2. Coppicing

Traditional woodland management is alive and well: coppicing on Danbury Common
The woodland whilst being coppiced. Standards stand proud with coppice stools freshly cut
Many woodlands were traditionally managed by coppicing and many of our places continue this tradition, including Hatfield Forest and Danbury Common in Essex. Coppicing is when trees, usually hazel trees, are cut down to ground level to produce a spray of regrowth. This was used for a whole variety of purposes, from bean poles to making furniture.


3. Pollarding

The practice of pollarding died off over a century ago, leaving lapsed pollards in some of our parklands
A large, old and gnarled sweet chestnut tree at Sheffield Park, East Sussex, in autumn

People used to manage woodland by pollarding. Trees were cut back to around head height or above with the aim of producing a spray of regrowth, as with coppicing. You can still see pollarding at many of our places, including Cobham Wood, Kent.  Large areas of pollarded trees may have been areas that were once woodland pasture for animals to graze.

4. The remains of saw pits

Timber was often processed near where it was felled. If you find old, partially filled-in, rectangular pits, these may be the remains of ‘saw pits’. Tree trunks would be rolled on top allowing two men to use a large saw. One man would stand above and the other in the pit itself. You can see the remains of old saw pits in the woods at Lanhydrock and Cotehele, Cornwall.

5. Old field boundaries

Lidar clearly shows prehistoric field boundaries beneath trees at Slindon
Lidar clearly shows prehistoric field boundaries beneath trees at Slindon
Not all forests are old, even if the trees do look ancient. Look out for low level walls between trees trunks, these may be the remains of old field boundaries meaning that the wood was once pasture or arable land.
Ancient woodlands are particularly good places for identifying field boundaries dating back thousands of years. The recent use of lidar data (airborne laser scanning which allows us to map the terrain beneath the canopy) has revealed Iron Age field systems preserved in the woods at Slindon.


6. Ancient Trees

Ancient Ankerwycke yew tree, about 2,500 years old
Anccient Ankerwycke yew tree

Many trees live for hundreds of years. Some can live for over a 1000. Near Runnymede, Surrey, we look after the 2,500-year-old Ankerwycke Yew. It's thought to have witnessed the events around the sealing of the Magna Carta in 1215 and King Henry VIII's wooing of Anne Boleyn in the 1530s. Calke Abbey, Derbyshire, has two magnificent 1,000-year-old oaks, both true living sculptures, as well as another which is 800 years old.

7. Industrial sites

Remains of a tunnel brick kiln, Dewerstone Woods, Devon
Remains of a tunnel brick kiln, Dewerstone Woods, Devon

Many industrial processes used to take place in woods, such as mining. In addition, many old and abandoned industrial sites have now been overgrown by woodland. 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, Shropshire, are packed with industrial heritage. 

8. Military sites

An unidentified military structure sited at the top of Reigate Hill in Surrey
Military structure at Reigate Hill, Surrey

Many woodlands contain evidence of previous use as military sites, particularly those built during the Second World War. These range from pill boxes and other defences constructed in preparation for a potential German invasion, to abandoned airfields and ammunition dumps. Look out for the remains of brick or concrete buildings and tarmac tracks. We have an almost complete layout of a Second World War site at Sheffield Park, Sussex. There are many military structures at Reigate Hill, Surrey. And there are remains of a First World War camp at Witley Common, Surrey, where Wilfred Owen was based for a period.

9. Clearings

Keeping alive the ancient craft of bodging at Tyntesfield
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.