It’s become increasingly apparent in the past few weeks just how important the UK’s woodlands are to so many, not just in terms of a beautiful place to physically exercise, but also when it comes to a means of escape and a natural way to ease worries and frustrations.
Whether you’ve recently become a fan of walking in the woods, or are a seasoned hiking pro that frequents the forest on a regular basis come rain or shine, you’ll no doubt agree wholeheartedly that entering a wood is like stepping into another world. A world where time almost stands still, where the evocative smells, sounds and sights seem to wrap you in a blanket of comfort and awe.
The fascinating thing about our woodlands is that many of them are hiding away a whole host of historical secrets. Great Britain has been covered in woodland since the end of the Ice Age, but our wonderful woods have been used for so many different things as the centuries have passed by. From woodcrafters’ homes to royal hunting grounds, from sources of timber and charcoal to military bases and industrial sites, woodlands have so many interesting stories to tell.
Intrigued? Read on to discover a few clues to help you work out just what it was that went on amongst the trees when you’re next out on a woodland walk. Your rambles may never be the same again!
1. Ancient Woodland Indicator Plants
Ancient woodland is any wooded area that has persisted since 1600 in England and Wales, and since 1750 in Scotland. Ancient woods tend to be mostly uninterrupted by human development, making them exceptionally complex and unique natural communities, teeming with highly valuable biodiversity.
The plants you see on your walk are a really good indicator of whether a wood is ancient, and the more diverse the species you see, the more likely it is you’re in ancient woodland. Here are some to look out for:
- Wood anemone
- Wild garlic
- Guelder rose
- Lichen – barnacle and lungwort
- Trees - wild service, small leaved lime, spindle
- Ferns – scaly male, hard fern, hart’s tongue
There are manmade features to look out for too, all covered as you read on.
2. Wood banks
Wood banks can also be indicators of ancient woodland. Usually you’ll see raised earthwork banks alongside a ditch. These tend to mark where boundaries lie, and could reveal how a wood was segregated between different parishes or landowners.
Coppicing is a traditional method of woodland management that has been in use for centuries, and still is in some areas to this day. Coppicing involves cutting trees back to ground level. This encourages a new spray of regrowth, historically used for all sorts of things, from furniture to bean poles.
Traceable back to Neolithic times, coppicing is most common amongst hazel, oak, willow, ash, sweet chestnut and lime trees. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, coppiced woods were a popular source of industrial charcoal used for iron smelting. The bark of some species was also used to make tanning liquors.
If you find yourself in a coppiced wood, and you see a clearing full of scrub with trackways leading in and out, you may well be standing where a timber worker once lived. Charcoal burners, woodcrafters and other green woodworkers would often camp out in the woods for extended periods whilst working on a project.
5. Field boundaries
Field boundaries such as low walls sitting between tree trunks are an indicator that the area was previously arable land or pasture. Some of these boundaries can date back thousands of years. In some areas Iron Age field systems have even been uncovered.
If you come across a rectangular pit that’s been partly filled in, it’s likely a disused sawpit. These were used during the 18th century to make it easier for a two-man saw to be used to cut large logs right where they were felled in the woods. They were also used to produce things needed locally, such as fence posts or rails.
7. Industrial sites
Woodlands were often historically used for industrial purposes, including mining. Keep an eye out for the remains of stone buildings, abandoned machinery, cobbled or paved pathways or tracks, and piles of slag or spoil. If you spot undulating ground, this could be a sign quarrying took place in the area.
8. Military sites
Wooded areas would often be used as covert military sites and it’s fascinating to look out for clues, such as tarmac tracks and the remains of concrete or brick buildings.
Ready for a walk through history?
There are so many woodlands throughout the UK where you’ll come across all sorts of historical wonders like these. Why not start planning your walk through history today?