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

The woodland in May at Ashridge Estate, Hertfordshire

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, industrial sites and military bases. Some were once open land and now woodland has reclaimed them, this being particularly true of military sites – such as the Second World War camp at Ashridge, where trees now cover the hut platforms but the concrete road and path surfaces mostly survive.

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

1. Wood banks

Woodland bank at Runnymede, Surrey
Woodland bank at Runnymede, Surrey
Woodland bank at Runnymede, Surrey

Marking where boundaries lie 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 up between different landowners or parishes or where woodland was planted to supply timber for ship building or construction. The ditch was required to provide the material needed for the bank but it also doubled up as extra protection along with a fence on top of the bank to stop animals getting in or out.

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

2. Coppicing

Coppicing on Danbury Common
The woodland whilst being coppiced. Standards stand proud with coppice stools freshly cut
Coppicing on Danbury Common

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
The practice of pollarding died off over a century ago, leaving lapsed pollards in some of our parklands

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 as it is a lot easier to remove planks than a whole tree. If you find old, partially filled-in, rectangular pits with no discernible banking on either side, 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. The person in the pit would have got covered in sawdust so was usually the apprentice. In fact this is where the phrase ‘Top Dog’ and ‘Underdog’ come from. You can see the remains of old saw pits in the woods at Lanhydrock and Cotehele, Cornwall or Slindon, Sussex.

Top Tip: If the rectangular pit has a bank on one side then it is most likely a tree throw where an old tree has fallen over and then rotted away.

5. Old field boundaries

LIDAR surveys clearly show prehistoric field boundaries beneath trees at Slindon
LIDAR surveys clearly show prehistoric field boundaries beneath trees at Slindon
LIDAR surveys clearly show 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. Further clues may present themselves in undulating ground known as ‘ridge and furrow’ which was created by ploughs pulled by oxen turning soil to one side making long low banks.

Ancient woodlands are particularly good places for identifying field boundaries dating back thousands of years. The recent use of LIDAR surveys (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
Ancient Ankerwycke yew tree, about 2,500 years old

Many trees live for hundreds of years, and some can live for over a thousand. 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
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

This pill box at Sheringham Park has recently been restored
View of a pill box at Sheringham Park on Norfolk Mountain walk
This pill box at Sheringham Park has recently been restored

Many woodlands contain evidence of previous use as military sites, particularly those built during the Second World War. These range from pill boxes, observation posts and other defences constructed to counter a potential German invasion, 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 to more subtle zig-zag depressions from former training and defensive trenches. You will also notice that though some of these were built in woodlands to help camouflage them from aerial reconnaissance, where lines of sight, for defence, were cleared during the war these have now regrown and younger trees are evident. One other clue to this is the species, with silver birch being a colonising species so a good sign recent structures may be in the neighbourhood. Likewise identifying conifer commercial plantations may also be an indicator more modern remains may be present. 

We have an almost complete layout of a Second World War site at Sheffield Park, Sussex, and there are many military structures at Reigate Hill, Surrey. At Witley Common, Surrey, are the remains of a First World War camp, where poet Wilfred Owen was based for a period.

9. Clearings

Keeping alive the ancient craft of bodging at Tyntesfield
Bodgers
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.

10. Holloways

Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) in an ancient sunken lane (hollow way) Devon
Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) in an ancient sunken lane (hollow way) Devon
Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) in an ancient sunken lane (hollow way) Devon

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 derives from an Old English term – ‘hol(h) weg’ or sunken way.

Trees in bloom at Whipsnade Tree Cathedral, Bedfordshire

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