Ancient Woodland

Winter Tree

Last year we celebrated the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta (which spellcheck irritatingly insists on changing to “manga”). Next year it will be the 800th anniversary of the Great Charter’s less famous little brother, the Charter of the Forest, which was drawn up to limit some of the abuses relating to the king’s forest law. To celebrate this, in 2017 the Woodland Trust is planning to issue a Charter for Trees, Woods and People which is intended to “redefine the relationship between trees and people in the UK for the future”. To shape the contents of the charter they are asking people to share their own stories of trees and woodland, and the ways in which they have shaped both the landscape and the lives of individuals and communities. So, as you do, I have been pondering trees in general and historic woodland in particular.

One of our regular walking spots is a nearby country park at Heath and Reach in Bedfordshire. Much of this is recently planted woodland on land which was once the grounds of a country house, but it also includes some reinstated natural heathland and two areas of “ancient woodland”, Bakers Wood and Kings Wood. Google tells me that to qualify as “ancient” a wood must be known to have existed since at least 1600, though most will be far older and may date back 10,000 years as part of the country’s original woodland cover. These woodlands are semi-natural – for centuries they were managed and used sustainably through the use of pollarding and coppicing, practices which are being reintroduced to maintain the ecological balance of the woodland. Bakers Wood also has a medieval woodbank, originally used to mark boundaries and now flanking the side of a footpath, formerly a road.

A little research turned up a lawsuit which gives a glimpse into the working life of the wood in the 19th century. In 1842 a local man, Thomas Bodsworth, appeared at the Bedford Quarter Sessions charged with stealing a quantity of “ling” or “heath” (heather) from Bakers Wood. James Hedges, a woodman employed by the owner of the estate, Lord Leigh, had been cutting and faggoting ling, leaving it in stacks containing ten faggots. Another woodman, Thomas Morgan, described how he had been going along the bottom of Bakers Wood early one July morning when he saw a man who should not have been there coming down a private path. The man called out to him, apparently assuming he was someone else, but he did not answer. Morgan followed, caught the man, who he then recognised as a certain Thomas Bodsworth, and found him in possession of a bundle of ling. Morgan escorted Bodsworth from the wood and left the ling under some oak boughs. Hedges stated that when Morgan told him he had caught Bodsworth he had checked his stacks; two had been pulled down and the best of the ling taken out of the faggots.He was able to identify the ling found on Bodsworth as the missing amount. Lord Leigh’s land agent John Flint told the court he had never given Bodsworth permission to take any ling, either from the wood or from any other part of the estate. Bodsworth said he hoped Mr. Flint would forgive him. He was unable to buy any ling and he had wanted some to make besoms; he had nothing else to live on. Although Bodsworth pleaded not guilty, he was found guilty of stealing two faggots worth sixpence and sentenced to one month’s imprisonment with hard labour.

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