Woods Without Trees – An Arboreal History of Huntingdonshire

View up an Oak at Archers Wood, Sawtry

The Huntingdonshire we know and love today could hardly be described as a “forested” area; as part of Cambridgeshire it is one of the least wooded counties in the country. In a 2008 survey, just 3.6% of the county consisted of woodland, compared to the wider UK which had 11.3% woodland cover.

Surprisingly enough, this has not always been the case…

Paleolithic Forests
70,000 years ago the landscape of Huntingdonshire was entirely unrecognisable from today. At this time huge forests of Oak, Elm, Birch, Yew, Alder, Hazel and Willow would have covered the entirety of the county, stretching far across Cambridgeshire and into Norfolk and Suffolk. Stone Age peoples would have lived a nomadic lifestyle in these woodlands, hunting the birds and mammals (the remains of wild oxen, deer, boars and horses have been found). The forests of the Stone Age grew due to the incredibly fertile peat soil which lay across the area, unfortunately the very same peat would prove to be the downfall of the trees…

This modern day peat bog at Kemeri National Park, Latvia gives a good indication of how the deforested woods of prehistoric Huntingdonshire would have looked as water levels rose across the fens

Deforestation #1
There was a mass deforestation over a course of years which left millions of tree trunks buried between one and four feet below the surface across the East Anglian fens. These “bog-oaks” must have destroyed hundreds of ploughs over the years, and some excavated trunks have been over 100 feet, or 30 metres, long! Some historians believed this was caused by humans; stone age wood fellers and fire setters or even Romans, both of which seem unlikely as the lumber was left to rot (or not as the case has been!) where it fell.

The currently accepted theory on the death of these woods is that rising water levels turned the peat soil into peat bogs, the water slowly rotting away the roots and killing the trees, so that when winter gales blew in from the south-west, the dead trees fell north-eastwards, which is how they have been unearthed ever since. The result was a landscape which was largely fen, with pockets of trees on ridges of highland now islands in the flooded landscape. Huntingdonshire would have been less affected, with its slightly higher ground compared to most of East Anglia, the forests persisting more-or-less up to the edges of the fens.

Modern Day excavation of a Bog Oak, the preserved wood can still be worked and has a beautiful finish.

Pre-Roman Life
The inhabitants of this area would now be living in settlements, farming having been introduced across Britain between 5,000-4,500 BC. The Proto-Celtic and Celtic tribes would have cleared spaces in the woods or else exploited natural clearings to establish settlements, the cut wood being used for building and fuel. There is some evidence of making woven wood roadways to cross the fens as in the Somerset Levels and hollowed out log canoes have been discovered near Stanground, Whittlesey and Warboys.

What Have the Romans Done For Us?
The Celtic religion was based around respect for (and fear of) the beings which inhabited the woods, rivers, hills and fens. Celtic roads would have worked within the landscape, avoiding sacred landmarks. Ridges of high ground were used as roads to cross long distances; the Icknfield Way, bisecting the country Norfolk to Dorset is one such road, the Bullock Road running near the A1 at Sawtry and upwards north another.

The Romans, when they came, would have had little of this reverence. A manner of establishing Roman power over areas was to build over the landscape rather than working through it; “the landscape itself could be reshaped to reflect and consolidate the military and economic interest of the empire”. The Romans cleared woodland, set out stone laid roads and famously went arrow straight, these swathes of woodland cut back began to compartmentalise the “wild wood” of Iron Age Britain.

This map shows the extent of the fens during the Iron Age and Roman Period, its worth stating that the modern day A1, A14 and A1198 are based on the routes of Roman Roads.

In addition, Roman fortresses and settlements would have required spaces to be cleared, timber for building, wood for industry and fuel, and of course, space for farming on a scale hitherto unseen. The rich soil, temperate climate, long days of sunshine and plentitude of water for irrigation made farming here a very attractive prospective. Large amounts of woods would have been cut down to increase arable land, a trend which would only continue down the years.

The Birth of Place Names
After the departure of the Romans and the start of the “Dark Ages” the landscape did not regress to a wooded state, as might be expected. The population was still largely in place and the farmland cleared was still in demand to keep people fed. Likewise, with a decline in stone building good timber was in demand for construction and so woods would have been kept well managed.

It is around this time that the naming of places we know today began; the majority of place names in Huntingdonshire have their origins in Old English as it was spoken from the 5th Century AD. The etymology of place names is an endlessly fascinating subject with huge amounts of variation, however there are many repeated word elements which give clues as to how a particular place was named.

Any Huntingdonshire settlement with “wood” is an obvious giveaway such as Woodwalton, Upwood or Woodhurst. In addition, anywhere with “-ley” as a place name ending, was derived from “lēah”, which translates as “clearing”, for instance; Yaxley, Sapley, Woolley, Stonely, Abbotsley, Pidley and the Raveleys. There are also more obscure local examples in field names with words like “Stockings” in their name; referencing the stumps left after trees were cut down, or “Grub”; where tree roots were grubbed, or dug, up. If you look at a map the vast majority of these sites are located in the North West of the county where the less fertile clay upland soil made farming harder work and gave lesser crop yields. Indeed the Hundred-name of Hurstingstone is derived from the Saxon settlers, the “hyrstingas” or “forest dwellers”.

1066 and All That
The Norman Conquest of England would have been another seismic change in the county’s fortunes. The Saxon county would have had an almost complete change of landowners as Norman knights were granted tracts of land (arable and forested) for their service to William I. The relative prosperity of Norman England saw a huge increase in population nationwide (potentially tripling between 1086 and 1300) and this was seen in Huntingdonshire too. The increased population required more food, more fuel and of course housing, all of which necessitated controlled deforestation, for lumber and more farmland. In Huntingdonshire food (fish and fowl) and fuel (dried peat turfs) came largely from the fens due to the designation of large amounts of the landscape as a Royal Forest.

Noblemen hunting with a bird of prey, taken from the Bayeux Tapestry

Royal Forest
The midlands had been largely deforested during the Dark Ages and the relatively heavily wooded Huntingdonshire was valued as a result, not only as a source of timber but also as a hunting ground. These early Norman Kings of England were enthusiastic hunters as most landowners were, and they lay claim to all game animals on their estates. This was a major change from the way game had been legally owned; before the Norman invasion all game was “res nullis” or “no one’s property”, and this legal change would have resulted in serious food problems for many across the country and been incredibly unpopular. On top of the hunting restrictions the monarchy also started adding new land to their Royal Forests, their avariciousness knew few bounds, and whole tracts of countryside were designated Royal Forests. By 1189, between a third and a quarter of England was designated as such.

This land included not only forests, but farmland, villages and whole towns whose inhabitants were prevented from gathering living firewood, hunting and “waste, assart and purpresture” which is to say felling trees, using the land for grazing or appropriating land for building or farming. The final authority on the “Forest Law’ which governed these Royal Forests was the monarch, who was obviously slightly biased! The harsh laws surrounding the Royal Forests were not challenged until King John I (the Bad King John in every Robin Hood film you’ve ever seen) was brought to account in 1212 when land added by John or his two predecessors was returned to previous owners; even then it would be many years until Forest Law was fully reined in.

Medieval Illustration of a women beset by brigands

Of Brigands and Outlaws
Who owned the wood made little difference to the commoner who would be treated the same if poaching or tree felling on Royal Forest or the local Landowner’s Forest. The draconian laws around the use of woodland is one reason for the brigandage (violent crime) which was rife. Another reason for the high rate of crime was the fact that large parts of society could be expected to go to war; to kill, maim, loot and burn and then peacefully return to their farming, quite often without full pay. To such men the opportunities offered by a life of robbery probably seemed quite appealing.

The effigy of John Tiptoft “the butcher of England” on his tomb, Ely Cathedral

Such was the fear of roadside theft and murder that the woods along major roads would be cut back to be outside of bowshot and prevent outlaws loosing arrows from the tree line against travellers. We know that were outlaws in the woods of Huntingdonshire, as Archers Wood near Sawtry is allegedly named for the outlaws who made it their home. The woods also offered a safe sanctuary for less common criminals such as John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester. He was a Yorkist commander in the War of the Roses, also known as the “butcher of England”, and was dragged from his hiding place in the Forest of Weybridge (a wood which stretched across Alconbury, Ellington and Brampton and whose remnant survives at Brampton Woods) and would end his life on the headsmans block at the Tower of London.

Bucken Woods: “the Great Park”
To track the changes in the forests in detail over the following centuries it is worth following the fortunes of the well documented woodland at Buckden. The substantial woodland at Buckden (around half the whole parish) was gifted to the Bishops of Lincoln whose palace was Buckden Towers in 1155. They were given permission to divert the Kimbolton-Huntingdon Road around their wood in 1215, which gives some idea of the size of the woodland. The crown took the wood away from the Bishops sometime in the early 14th century after the forest keepers were found to be driving the kings deer into the wood from the Royal Forest at Sapley! The wood was restored to them in 1354.

At approximately 1440 acres almost the entire western half of the parish of Buckden would have been part of “Buckden Wood”, the northern border of the parish is the Huntingdon – Kimbolton road redirected around the wood in 1215

By 1512, the wood was being leased out in part for grazing and being carefully managed with tree felling and underwood clearance bringing in nearly £40 during the years 1512-1519 (around £26,500 by todays standard). The park survived the ecclesiastical uprisings of the reformation when many Bishops had their land holdings reduced and by 1599 a local man Samuel Hooke was “keeper of the Great Park”. The job included a lodge, suit of livery, £3.10s. annual wage (around £482 today) and the rights to pasture two horses and four cows in the park.

Buckden Woods: Deforestation #2
By 1606 a morose Bishop Chadderton noted that “part of the parke has been plowed and sowne”. His successor did much to restore the woodland until his fall from grace and imprisonment in the tower of London in 1637, when the solicitor put in place to run the estate “felled the timber, [and] killed the deer of the park”. Even with this negligence, by the end of the 1640’s when the estate was being surveyed for the “Sale of Archbishops and Bishops Lands” the Great Park was estimated at 425 acres, with 200 deer and nearly 7,000 Oak trees.

The park was brought by a London Alderman Christopher Packe who would preside over its near total destruction, partly to turn a quick profit from the sale of timber and then by turning the land into farmland. By 1699 the deer were gone and the 425 acres were all enclosed fields save for three small pockets of woodland “24 acres in all”. In the 1831 Enclosure Map, the whole village of Buckden had over 50 acres of woodland in total, by the time of the 1887 OS Map these remnants are also gone.

Huntingdon Elm Trees
Huntingdon Elm Leaves

The Huntingdon Elm
In an 18th century nursery in Brampton a sapling was being carefully grown. This hybrid tree Ulmus x hollandica ‘vegeta’ would become known in time as the “Huntingdon Elm”. The tree would prove to be very popular as it is fast growing and can grow up to three meters a year in the right conditions. It also has a wood so waterproof it can be used for boats, shipbuilding and even as a water conduit; cities across England including Southampton, Bristol, Reading, Exeter and Liverpool had Elm water mains before the advent of metal pipes.

The tree had some resilience to the lethal Dutch Elm Disease which decimated the Elm population of England in the 1960’s but even so it is not as prevalent as it once was and is likely to be found (if at all) as a lone survivor in a park or hedgerow.

View of Aversley Wood from Archers Wood

Surviving Woods
Despite the years of deforestation there are still ancient woodland spots to visit in Huntingdonshire, mostly clustered in the west of the county on that soil which proved so unpopular with our farming ancestors. Below are five of my personal favourite local woods.

All the sites listed below are free to visit but for exact details on how to find them, where to park, etc, it is worth visiting the links provided.

Archers Wood; home to brigands in the past and now a beautiful pocket of woodland just off the A1.

Hinchingbrooke Park; the original park of the Montagu family of Hinchingbrooke house, a very short drive from Huntingdon.

Holme Fen; one of the loveliest Silver Birch forests in the country and part of an ambitious 50 year project to reintroduce the lost landscapes of the fen.

Brampton Woods; the second largest ancient woodland in Cambridgeshire.

Aversley Wood; a lovely woodland on a slight rise offering beautiful views across Huntingdonshire.

Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.

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