Skip navigation

The Bernician Studies Group runs a long term research project, called Cocwudu, exploring the ancient woodlands and Early Medieval landscape evolution of a part of Central Northumberland, broadly between the Rivers Coquet and Wansbeck. The following leaflet explains the background to the project. See Also our Cocwudu project page for current publications etc.

Ancient woodlands in their landscape

The North-east is much less wooded than, say, Kent, and there is much less evidence of coppicing or the industries supported by managed woodland.  Much of what we know about ancient woodlands in Britain comes from the work of Oliver Rackham, the indefatigable historian whose books on trees, woods and their landscapes enlighten and inspire.  But in the North-east of England the study is in its infancy and anyone with a sharp eye and energy to spare can contribute.

Woods which once graced the land but which are now long gone can often be identified by a place-name.  There are plenty of tree names preserved in villages, fields and rivers.  Leven is the river of elm trees; Derwent the river of oaks.  Native trees crop up in places such as Acton (Ac is the Old English word for oak), Thornton and Elmham, although sometimes these names may refer to single, well-known trees, rather than woods.  Some of the best evidence comes not from the names of trees, but from words which record their removal: the Old English leah, as in Oakley, would preserve the memory of a clearing in an oak wood.  Hirst and frith names similarly record the former presence of woodland, and since such names were formed in the Anglo-Saxon period, we can be reasonably sure that those woods were in existence before the Norman Conquest.  Hagg, hangar and shaw are names that say something about where woodlands were in the landscape or what shape they were, while spring is the old English word for a coppice.  Spring Wood (not an uncommon name) may not have a stream running through it; but it has probably been managed for a thousand years and more.  The term ‘coppice’ comes from the French coupé, to cut.  Gussie, as in Kingussie, is a Scots word for a pinewood.  The word ‘stock’ in a name such as Stocksfield suggests that the woodland has been removed and only the stumps remain.

Take an Ordnance Survey Explorer map and look at the distribution and pattern of woods which are no longer there using these names.  But what of woods which exist in the present?  How can we tell if they are old?  The first thing the historian turns to is the early edition of the Ordnance Survey, first carried out in the middle of the nineteenth century and always available at County Record offices.  If the wood you are walking through wasn’t there at the time of the first edition, it’s not ancient (although the land might have been wooded several times in the past).  In some places older maps may survive, and they are well worth looking at.  The earlier the map the better, and many great estates had surveyors draw maps of their lands in the seventeenth century: these are absolutely invaluable.

The woods to take a closer look at are those on your map which have curvy boundaries, those which lie on parish boundaries (lines of small dots on the 1:25,000 maps) and those bearing names which are also names of villages or parishes (such as Whittingham Wood) or which are called things like North wood, South wood, Great wood, and so on.  These are a good place to start: curved boundaries suggest that woods have not been laid out or planted, but have been enclosed along their natural edges.  Woods which lie on parish boundaries and which bear the name of the parish or local manor suggest that these woods belonged to the local lord and so their management may have been continuous since the formation of the parish.

Now it’s time to pull on the wellies and have a look on the ground.  In winter it is easy to see if there are any surviving earthworks: wood banks with accompanying ditches which would have had hedges or palings on top to keep deer out.  Sometimes you find these inside woods, where they show that the wood is now larger than it once was; if you find the walls of old fields in a wood, it rather discounts it as ancient.  The trees themselves might give a clue.  Many trees of the same species which have multiple trunks growing from the ground have probably been coppiced in the past; and on their boundaries one often finds rows of pollarded trees – which have been cut at head-height to prevent grazing of fresh shoots by deer and cattle.  Oddly enough, most ancient woodlands don’t have that many ancient trees in them – they have been managed, and trees over a hundred or a hundred and fifty years old will probably have been periodically removed for timber.

Go back to the same wood in spring and it is time to look on the ground again, this time for flowers.  Woods that have been established over many centuries and have been managed in the past tend to host a suite of flowering plants that share two main characteristics: their seeds drop to the ground next to the parent, so they do not spread quickly; and they tolerate, or require, periodic light and shade – in other words, those plants which have adapted to the cycle of periodic coppicing.  Such flowers include bluebells, wild garlic, wood anemone and wood sorrel, woodruff, lesser celandine and the splendidly named opposite-leaved golden saxifrage.  None of these on its own is diagnostic: it is the suite of plants which gets the woodland historian interested.  Once you think you have a good candidate for an ancient wood, go to the local County Record office and get the archivist to point you at the sort of documents that will confirm your idea: old legal records, tax accounts and wills, for example.  It is worth starting with a County History and with a volume of the English Place Name Society.  Those parts of the country lucky enough to possess the records of great estates will often yield maps of fantastic beauty packed with information about the landscape history of the last four hundred years or so.  These, above all other sources, show us the glories of a wooded landscape.

Anglo-Saxon woodland was extensive but not unbroken.  The great wooded areas of the Weald in Sussex and Kent; of Selwood in Wessex; of Dean in Gloucestershire, Epping in Essex and Sherwood in the Midlands, exist today as mere fragments.  But their presence loomed large in the economies and culture of the early medieval period – in song and poem, in law and custom.  The BSG’s research into the ancient woodlands of Northumberland is gradually revealing that the county was cleared for farming early on; that in the centuries after the Romans left there was a fragmented pattern of small woods which were a crucial resource for firewood and timber and for grazing pigs in autumn; that woods survived because they were woven into the fabric of medieval life until the great arable boom of the eighteenth century; the period of enclosure and of grubbing up the commons.  One great Northumbrian wood, which was called Cocwudu and which seems to have formed a belt between the Rivers Coquet and Wansbeck, may have acted as a sort of Dark Age borderland, a territory of brigands, outcasts and wild animals.  Much of it may have been what is called secondary woodland; that is, it was largely formed after the abandonment of pasture and arable lands – perhaps at the end of the Roman period – by trees self-seeding from established areas of woodland.  Nowadays it is a landscape of broad pastures and wheat fields, copses and hedges, small woods, winding lanes and open vistas: a civilised landscape with a secret, much wilder  past.

This item is abstracted from theThe Wisdom of Trees, by Max Adams,  published by Head of Zeus in October 2014