The history of Leigh Woods

Ramparts of Iron Age Hill Fort

We reveal the history of Stokeleigh Camp, an Iron Age fort in Leigh Woods. We can tell who lived here and how from what they left behind for us to uncover. We continue to manage this area today in quite an unexpected way.

The Iron Age

 
This site provided a home for people for thousands of years, and is an outstanding example of a defended settlement. Built at a key vantage point in Leigh Woods overlooking the Avon Gorge, the location was ideal for the families who lived here.
 

A home

Archaeological excavations in the 1960s revealed that people first lived in Stokeleigh Camp more than 2,300 years ago (late 3rd century BC) and remained for 400 years. It provided a home for people again in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD.
 

Discoveries in artefacts

The excavations found a variety of Iron Age and Romano-British objects including pottery, tools and animal bones. The remains of hearths and post-holes from round houses tell us how people lived in the hillfort.

 

A defensive fortress

Stokeleigh Camp is the largest of three Iron Age hillforts built to guard the approach to the River Avon. The two massive banks and ditches which can be seen here were built to protect people. These ramparts linked the steep slope of the Avon Gorge with Nightingale Valley and meant that the hillfort was defended on all sides.

This project is a partnership with a local farmer and Natural England, which supports the work through a Higher Level Stewardship agreement. This scheme will help to protect the National Nature Reserve (NNR).

The Industrial Past of Leigh Woods

In the 19th century celestine was discovered in Leigh Court estate in Leigh Woods and the Miles family authorised quarrying. Between 1880 and 1920 Bristol was producing 90 percent of the world's celestine, but the enterprise did not last long into the 20th century.

Bristol diamonds

Brilliant quartz crystals found in geodes in dolomitic conglomerate in the gorge, were popular souvenirs for visitors to the Hotwells spa in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Two railways run through the gorge

On the east side of the gorge the Severn Beach Line (to Avonmouth and Severn Beach), uses the remaining part of the Bristol Port Railway through the gorge, and then a tunnel under Clifton and Durdham Downs. On the west side the Portishead Railway was closed by the Beeching Axe in the 1960s, but has now been reopened for freight traffic as far as Royal Portbury Dock.

 

Our work today

Staff, volunteers and contractors are clearing young trees and scrub to prevent tree roots damaging the archaeology and to restore wood pasture. We're helped by a small herd of Red Devon cattle which graze the area.

Valuable members of the team
Cattle grazing in Leigh Woods
Valuable members of the team

Today: two woodlands in one

The wall which runs through Leigh Woods was built in 1813 as part of an Act of Parliament for enclosing lands in the Parish of Long Ashton.

The two adjacent estates have - until recent times - remained fairly intact, although parts have from time to time been leased for stone and timber. This dual ownership and consequent management is reflected in the present composition of the woodland.

A veteran yew tree in the Parish Wall
A veteran yew tree in the Parish Wall, Leigh Woods
A veteran yew tree in the Parish Wall

The northern half of Leigh Woods

The northern half was historically managed as coppice with standards. Though this hasn’t been actively coppiced on a large scale for nearly 100 years.

Consequently, it now has a closed structure and a good proportion of old trees and dead wood. The canopy is dominated by mature and over-mature oak standards with younger ash, birch.

Old coppice stools of large outgrown oak, ash and small-leaved lime make up a significant proportion of the canopy. There is a varied understorey of coppice hazel with field maple, holly, dogwood, hawthorn, spindle, and guelder-rose. Where the soils are thinner, yew is locally dominant.

The southern half of Leigh Woods

The southern part was formerly wood pasture and many of the veteran pollards, predominately oaks, have survived. A survey of the National Nature Reserve (NNR) found just under 300 Old Pollards.

This area was historically part of the Ashton Court Estate, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), to the west.

These two sites have one of the largest populations of veteran trees in the South West. The pollards are home to rare and uncommon wood decay fauna, while the woodland has a good mix of canopy species with areas of ash, beech, oak and occasional cherry, field maple and small-leaved lime.

There are also small but important areas of herb-rich limestone grassland which is notable for the presence of several rare and scarce plants.