Sunday, 14 May 2017

England’s Working Forests & Woodlands:
The Difference Between Coppiced and Pollarded Trees

Many of England’s surviving forests and woodlands have been heavily worked throughout historic times, as revealed by the way trees were cut.

Coppicing and pollarding are two techniques of woodland management, begun by Neolithic farmers, used throughout history, and now being revived through woodland conservation efforts.

Definition of Forest in England
A forest in England is not just a collection of trees. Historically, it was a Medieval legal term whose definition had nothing to do with the flora but everything to do with fauna! A Forest was a designated area for deer kept by the king or another lord of the manor for feasts and gifts. Moreover, it incorporated much more area than the deer’s habitat, including associated villages, grasslands, and infrastructure such as roads and ponds. Each designated Forest had its own special laws and an administrative body to uphold them.

The idea of designated Forests was apparently introduced by the Normans after 1066. The Domesday Book (1086) first records the existence of Forests, and in the early 13th century 143 were known, but the Magna Carta of 1216 forbade further Forest creation (Rackham 1986:131). A legal Forest may or may not have included woods (deer can inhabit moors, heath or marshes), and of course many woodlands existed outside legal Forests. Whether woods were within a Forest or not, commoners had rights to exploit them for firewood, for wood to make tools and artefacts, and to graze animals. Forest Law survives somewhat in New Forest, Epping Forest and the Forest of Dean, but serves the villagers rather than the Crown or landowners (Rackham 1986:146).

The Enclosure Act of 1777 spelled the end of many Forests, but the modern conservation movement did not start until the late 19th century in order to save Epping Forest from the depredations that nearly destroyed nearby Hainault forest in the 1850s (Rackham 1986:139). However, modern conservation efforts have had equivocal results (see the Hainault Forest website below).

Coppiced Woods
New branches of coppiced trees
Where commoners had rights to exploit woodlands — whether in a Forest or not — they often continued a practice known from Neolithic times: that of coppicing trees such as hazel, oak or alder in order to regularly harvest the regrowth every five to six years. Coppicing involves cutting a tree at or below ground and allowing new shoots to grow from the ‘stool’ (stump) for several years before harvesting branches of the desired circumference. Branches can be culled individually or all harvested at once. Coppicing has been revived in post-war Britain as a woodland management technique.

Coppicing, however, does not mix well with grazing animals, since new shoots are immediately eaten. One strategy to keep animals away from coppiced woods was to enclose the woods with a fence or rampart. When this happened in a legal Forest, it is called a compartmented Forest (Rackham 1980). Woods in which grazing was allowed are known as ‘wood-pasture’; Forests that entail wood-pastures are, by Rackham’s definition, uncompartmented Forests.

Wood-Pasture and Pollarding
To protect trees from grazing animals yet still exploit their wood through regular harvesting, the trees were ‘pollarded’. Instead of being cut near the ground like coppicing, the trees were cut between 2-5m off the ground, so new shoots grew above animal head-height. Epping Forest, an uncompartmented Forest east of London, has been exploited as ‘wood-pasture’, attested by the grand pollarded beech trees still standing there.

Two beech trees pollarded above head height
Pollarding is also known from Neolithic times through the discovery of wood rods used in trackways, but the first mention in historical documents dates from the early to mid-10th century (Rackham 1980:135). The designation of legal Forests did not disrupt this ancient practice but incorporated it into commoners’ rights. In Epping Forest, the wood-pasture system continued until 1860 and pollarding until 1878 on a twelve to thirteen year cycle (Rackham 1980:187, 323).
Where to See Pollarded and Coppiced Woods
The Epping Forest Act of 1878 succeeded Forest Law, and a charity The Friends of Epping Forest was formed in 1968 “to represent the varied interests of all sections of the public who appreciate and use Epping Forest,” as stated on the charity’s website. The Friends host many guided walks during the year, including an annual day-long walk the full length of the Forest in September to celebrate the 1878 Act. Loughton & District Historic Society also offers on-line information for six self-guided walks, based on the book by Chris and Caroline Pond, by which many pollarded beeches in the former wood-pasture can be seen in Epping Forest.

Modern coppicing is taking place in Northmoor Hill Nature Reserve adjacent to the Denham aerodrome in Berkshire, a short trip northwest of London [Ordnance Survey map location TQ 034 891]. Here ‘drawing’ is practiced — the culling of individual branches rather than the more usual custom of cutting all new shoots at once.


Pond, Chris & Caroline (2002) Walks in Loughton’s Forest. Loughton: Loughton & District Historical Society. Reprinted in 2006.

Rackham, Oliver (1980) Ancient woodland: its history, vegetation and uses in England. London: Edward Arnold.

Rackham, Oliver (1986) A history of the countryside. London: Phoenix Press.


Monday, 28 November 2016

The New Forest 
Let's Go Geologizing (and fly a kite)!

Understanding what one is looking at on the ground adds greatly to the experience of touring the New Forest near Southampton. Because New Forest landforms are subtle, a keen eye is necessary to discern and decipher the clues of gravel shape, stream form, hill slope, and vegetation type. Winter is a great time to view the land as well as the landscape.

Geological Development of the New Forest
The area of the New Forest is underlain by chalk, laid down in Upper Cretaceous seas between 99 and 65 million years ago. This chalk bed dips to form a basin, which filled during the Eocene (ca. 56-34 million years ago) with sediments from transgressing seas, freshwater lakes and rivers. These strata were eventually uplifted and tilted towards the south, so that today there is a progression [like a tilted loaf of sliced bread with the top crust representing the overlying gravel and the stacked slice surfaces exposed] from north to south in the New Forest:

  • the Lower Bagshot beds of deltaic origin
  • the Bracklesham Beds of alluvial sand over clay
  • the Barton Clay of marine origin
  • the Barton Sand bed of loamy sand
  • the Headon Beds of loamy clay and marine shell marls

In the Pleistocene (ca. 2 million to 10,000 years ago), these slanted beds were overlain by alluvial gravels, which now only survive on the high points of all the above geological beds.

New Forest Landscapes: Cliffs, Hilly Terraces, U-shaped Valleys
Piper’s Wait is billed as the highest point in the Forest. Surprisingly, it is not a mountain but one of nearly 150 named forest carparks, located on a high gravel terrace at the northern end of the Forest. Bordered on the north by the Bracklesham escarpment, the terrace represents the original, undissected surface of the Early Pleistocene floodplain gravels. The braided streams that laid down these gravels were early versions of the Avon and Solent Rivers.

Today the Avon flows down the western side of the Forest, having cut a spectacular river cliff affording views westward to chalk hills from the Castle Hill carpark. On the south, the Solent is now a submerged river valley forming the 1.2 –8 km wide sea passage between the New Forest and the Isle of Wight. In the Early Pleistocene it was an eastward flowing river that was capable of cutting terraces from west to east, flowing across a more extensive amount of land exposed by lowered sea levels and eventually into the river that drained the dry basin of the North Sea.
Erosional valley

From Piper’s Wait, about twelve such terraces drop down to the sea, cut and filled successively during the Pleistocene. Unlike the highest terrace gravels, the middle terraces bear angular flints, indicating they were deposited by steep gradient streams which flowed across chalk — a substance now exposed to the surface only to the north and west beyond the New Forest. These middle terraces were heavily dissected in the Mid- to Late Pleistocene by small streams, but their U-shaped valleys have since been filled up with erosional deposits housing small bogs.

From Grass ‘Lawns’ to Heathland to Woods
The gravels forming the surfaces of the higher points in the Forest can support little but broad Calluna heathland. Exposed Bagshot and Bracklesham layers are also acidic and nutritionally poor, again hosting little but heather, gorse and self-sown Scots Pine. But the marine Barton Clay and Headon Beds and the loamy Barton Sands

Ornamental woodland
are less acid, supporting the Ancient and Ornamental Woodland in the north-central part of the New Forest and allowing brown forest soils to develop. Wide-open grass lawns are also a feature on the valley bottom silty river gravels accumulated over the Barton Sands.

While bogs are often thought to occupy the lowest point in the landscape, a tussock bog has formed on the hillslopes above Picket Brook. The water feeding this hillside bog comes from seeps along a hilltop juncture of overlying porous sands on impermeable clays. The tussock bog vegetation on the hillside is entirely different from the bracken on the sands of the hilltop above.

Geomorphology in Action
Point Bar in Linford Brook
Linford Brook, flowing beside the Linford Bottom carpark, affords several lessons in landscape change. A stream bank has been cut on the concave curve, with a deep pool at its base, while in the convex curve, a point bar of sand deposits is developing. On both sides of the meandering stream are abandoned oxbows, not lakes but boggy areas with different vegetation than that of the valley floor. A short walk away on Picket Brook is a nick point, a sudden drop in the floor of the stream of half a metre that indicates the uppermost reach of current erosional forces.

Nick point on Picket Brook

Most visitors to the New Forest enjoy the trees and wide-open views from the heathland, but few look under their feet to the history of the land itself. It is a story beginning with the chalky sediments accumulating from Cretaceous Seas. The chalk was then covered by a succession of seabed and coastal sediments, which were uplifted as dry land. In the Pleistocene when the sea coast was south of the Isle of Wight, the Solent flowed across the Hampshire Basin towards the east, cutting the terraces of the New Forest area, stepping down from north to south.

Chaffey, John (2009) “Geomorphology of the New Forest, Hampshire”. Fieldwalk handout.
Anon. (1986) The New Forest Landscape. CCP 220. Cheltenham, Glostershire: Countryside Commission.

Life Around Brunswick and Mecklenburgh Squares

Brunswick  and Mecklenburgh Squares are two of more than 440 ‘squares’ in London. They lie just east of Russell Square tube station in Bloomsbury, Borough of Camden, enlivened by cinema buffs, university staff and students, shoppers, and museum-goers.

London Squares: Foci of Nature and Leisure in the British Capital
The squares of London are renowned in making the city one of the greenest in the world. Often one city block in size, their variation in historical importance and surrounding ambience make these parks destinations in and of themselves.

Brunswick and Mecklenburgh Squares were established simultaneously between 1796 and 1799 as open spaces about 1 hectare each, adjacent to and for use by the Foundling Hospital, a hospice for abandoned children established by Thomas Coram in 1752. The three successor institutions to the Hospital — Coram’s Fields, Coram charity, and The Foundling Museum — now lie between the two squares, and a memorial statue of Coram stands in front of the Museum.

The squares’ names come from the British monarch at the time, King George III, who was also Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg (House of Hanover, Germany), and his wife, Duchess Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. One street feeding into Mecklenburgh Square is named ‘Caroline’ after the wife of King George II, Margravine Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach. A known sympathizer for Coram’s cause, she may have prodded her husband to charter the Foundling Hospital — after two decades of fruitless campaigning by Coram.

Brunswick Square: Foundling Museum, University of London, and Renoir Cinema
This public park houses at least five magnificent London plane trees (Platanus hispanica, or P. acerifolia), one given “Great Tree” status. Also known as sycamore trees, they are disliked by many people because they are planted so ubiquitously in the capital, being especially resistant to smog. They also tend to lift up adjacent pedestrian pavements. But they reach majestic heights and spreads and glow in golden colour in autumn.

Camden refurbished Brunswick Square, re-creating the 18th-century ambience. Iron railings which had been taken for raw materials during the Second World War were replaced, and new paths and park furniture were provided together with tree and landscape improvements. Mothers with children in pushchairs gather along with office workers, students and shoppers to eat lunch under the towering plane trees and enjoy these comfortable new facilities.

The commercial jewel of the neighbourhood is a cinema, formerly called the Renoir but after renovation was renamed Curzon Bloomsbury. It is one of several Curzon art-houses in London, all renowned for their excellent international and avant-garde offerings. The cinema is built into The Brunswick, a shopping mall on the eastern side of Brunswick Square.

Mecklenburgh Square: Goodenough College
This square is a mirror image of Brunswick Square, on the eastern side of Coram’s Fields. Covering two acres, it was laid out as a formal garden between 1810 and 1812 by Samuel Pepys Cockerell and Joseph Kay. It is noted for its New Zealand plantings, and because it retains most of its original features, English Heritage has designated it a Grade II listed garden.

Though established in concert with Brunswick, it has evolved into a private London Square accessible only by key. The grounds contain tennis courts, playground and barbecue area and a wide open space, all enclosed by a thick hedge. Many of these private squares become public during an annual Open Garden Squares Weekend in June organized by the London Parks & Gardens Trust.

Mecklenburgh Square hosts Goodenough College, an independent educational charity for international postgraduates studying in London. Established in 1930, it now has 650 residents. Add that number to International Hall’s 860 students in Brunswick Square, one would expect the Squares to be overrun with students — but no, education has a quiet presence here.

William Goodenough House and London House of Goodenough College stand on the north and south sides of Mecklenburgh Square. London House, designed by Sir Herbert Baker, is a neo-Georgian Grade II Listed Building available for conferences and events; its internal courtyard garden may be visited during Open Garden Squares Weekend.

Famous Residents: Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Syed Ahmed Kahn, Dorothy Sayers
These two squares were home to the literary and scholarly set. In Jane Austen’s novel Emma (1816), much is made of the fact that Emma’s sister and husband resided in Brunswick Square, described as “leafy”. An 1882 map of the area (Middlesex 1:10,560) shows solid architecture surrounding three sides of the square, perhaps presenting a façade resembling Bloomsbury Square in a 1787 print. However, no private houses survive on the square due to substantial bombing during World War II, thus, for the 2009 BBC TV series based on Emma, a Georgian house in Fitzroy Square was chosen to represent the Knightley home. The literary heritage continued with Virginia Woolf, resident at 38 Brunswick Square for five or six years from 1911 and at 37 Mecklenburgh Square in 1939-40. E.M. Forster lived at Brunswick Square ca. 1925-1940.

Mecklenburgh Square also housed famous 19th century scholar, historian and social reformer Syed Ahmed Kahn at No. 21 during his studies in London; he returned to India and founded Muslim University in Aligarh in 1875. Hilda Doolittle, American poet and writer, and her novelist husband Richard Aldington were at No. 44. Dorothy Sayers also lived at No. 44 from 1918 to 1921.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Coram's Fields, Coram & The Foundling Museum

Coram's Fields, and Coram & The Foundling Museum, are located between Brunswick and Mecklenberg Squares, Bloomsbury, London. The complicated, intertwined institutional histories of these three entities are unwound here. 

The Foundling Hospital
Wikipedia Commons
In the mid-1700s, the 56 acres of the Earl of Salisbury’s estate in rural London were bought up and dedicated to a Foundling Hospital. Its legacy survives in the form of three modern institutions still located on or adjacent to the same site just east of the Russell Square tube station in Bloomsbury, Borough of Camden.

Coram’s Fields and the Foundling Hospital
Bloomsbury residents are well acquainted with Coram’s Fields — a football pitch for after school use and a playground especially for children. Adults over age 16 are not allowed in without a child under age 16 in tow, except for organized football games on a pitch available for rent lunchtimes and evenings Monday through Friday. On site there are a children’s playground, youth centre, paddling pool, nursery, wildlife garden, and petting zoo of various animals: sheep sometimes graze by the iron railings, and a peacock used to crow in the quiet of a Sunday morning — sadly missed as the peacock is no longer in residence.

Coram’s Fields bears the name of the founder of the Foundling Hospital charity, Captain Thomas Coram, a shipwright turned philanthropist. Having obtained a Royal Charter from King George II in 1739, he established a hostel (hospital) for “reluctantly deserted” infants (in the words of the Museum display). A set of Governors empowered by Parliament ran the hospital, and one, Theodore Jacobsen, designed the hospital building — a rather imposing brick building with two wings, for boys and girls respectively, completed in 1752. Between these wings was a chapel in which George Frederic Handel, a patron of the Hospital, performed annual charity concerts of his works.

Between 1796 and 1799, two squares of enclosed land were established alongside the hospital grounds. These were named Brunswick and Mecklenberg in honour of King George III’s German heritage. The original hostel was demolished after the site was sold in 1926 to developers, but the enclosures live on as Brunswick and Mecklenberg Squares.

In the 1930s, the Foundling Hospital charity bought back part of the original site, while another larger parcel was bought by locally raised funds from Lord Rothermere and donations from the Harmsworth family. These seven acres were re-established as today’s “Coram’s Fields & the Harmsworth Memorial Playground”, now owned and run by the eponymous charity.

Alcove for receiving babies
West Gate

The east and west side gates and railings of the original site form today’s entrance to Coram’s Fields. Between the gatehouses stands the original stone alcove in which a basket was placed to receive unwanted babies. Those structures, together with sections of the
eastern and western colonnades and a memorial pavilion
built in 1936, constitute Grade II listed buildings in Camden.



The Foundling Museum: Hogarth and Handel Collections
The Foundling Hospital facilities had inadvertently become the England’s first art gallery and concert hall, due to the donations of several artists including William Hogarth — another Governor, Handel, Gainsborough, Hayman, Ramsay, Reynolds and Rysbrack. Thus, after selling the original hospice site in 1926, the charity built new headquarters in 1937 at No 40 Brunswick Square, in which their treasured art works and documents could be stored and displayed. A bust of Thomas Coram overlooks the entranceway, and inside, several architectural features saved from the original hospital were built into the charity’s new home — including the ornate wooden staircase from the Boys’ Wing, and the ‘Court Room’, an 18th century Rococo interior designed by Hogarth where the Governors used to meet.
In 1952 the Foundling Hospital charity changed its name to the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children; then in 1998 a new Foundling Museum charity was separately established. The Foundation’s name was again changed in 1999 to the Coram Family, and it moved out of the 1937 building, leaving it as a museum, to the Coram Community Campus, newly built next door.
The Foundling Museum, open to the public from 2004, houses documents telling the history of the Foundling Hospital and the works of famous patrons. Equally interesting is the collection of tokens that mothers attached to their children when given up to the hospice: beaded bracelets, rings and pendants. A modernist Corum Café offers refuge from the rain and respite for the feet, while concerts, conferences and gallery talks draw people from far and wide.
Corum's football pitch adjoining Brunswick Square

Corum and the Coram Community Campus
In 2007, Corum Family changed its name again to simply Corum. The charity continues the original remit of the Foundling Hospital for the “maintenance and Education of exposed and deserted children” (Malcolm Holmes, n.d.) by providing support and practical help for vulnerable children. But interestingly, it has widened concern to include the family context in the modern age. The Corum Adoption Service, for example, offers parenting skills workshops and provides support for adoptive families.
The Corum Community Campus occupies the northern end of the original Foundling Hospital grounds. The northern boundary wall survives, dividing the Campus from St George’s Gardens and cemetery, as well as some back outbuildings, originally part of the service complex consisting of the laundry, swimming baths, and infirmary.  The newly built Campus offers creches, after-school clubs and music therapy sessions for neighbourhood residents.
 In summary, the original Foundling Hospital charity of 1739 has undergone three further name changes: to the Thomas Corum Foundation for Children in 1952, the Corum Family in 1999, and Corum in 2007. The Foundling Museum charity is an offshoot of this original charity in 1998, while the Corum’s Fields & the Harmsworth Memorial Playground charity was established separately in 1936.  In addition, the Old Corum Association services pupils that attended the Hospital, before and after its removal from Bloomsbury, and their family members, while The Friends of Thomas Coram supports both the Foundling Museum and Coram.

Holmes, Malcolm (n.d.) The Foundling Hospital. London: Coram’s Fields & The Harmsworth Memorial Playground.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Wooded Dales of Northeastern England:
Visiting Causey Arch near Newcastle

Tucked into a sea of fields, Causey Gill of County Durham houses the oaks of the ancient English uplands. A walk under Causey Arch reveals all.

The journey from London to Newcastle exposes England to be a truly agricultural country. In the north, woods can only be seen in the niches and ravines that form seams between the broad fields.

Agricultural scenery from London to Newcastle
Rolling out of King’s Cross London on the train, through the suburbs and golf courses of the North Downs, we see the sky open up around Peterborough with Constable clouds towering over the fens. The black earth of the former peat marshes, the fenlands, is the best vegetable gardening soil in Britain, but the landscape northwards continues to be overwhelmingly agricultural: a patchwork quilt of fields in a score of green colours whatever time of year. Where are the grand trees of the ancient English wildwoods? In the tiny dales of northeastern England survive the oaks and hazels of the English uplands.

Past York to Newcastle, sheep-studded hillsides and shadows of medieval ridge-and-furrow field systems stretch away from the tracks. In the east, the thin flat ridge of the North York Moors rises from the horizon, while dark clouds pile up on the Pennine Mountains, England’s backbone, to the west.

English histories of landscapes and woods

The deforestation of Britain began some 5500 years ago, in the Neolithic; by the early Iron Age, 2500 years ago, half of the land was agricultural, and by the time of the Domesday Book 900 years ago, woods covered only 15% of the land. The agricultural landscape so obvious to the traveller today has been the face of England for over a millennium. Stands of woods provided building timber and have commonly been coppiced and pollarded as well, forcing the trees to send out new shoots that were harvested for tool hafts, fencing and firewood. In the north, such woods survive in the tiny upstream valleys – so different from upland forest of the south.

Whereas valleys are ‘vales’ in the south, a word originating in Latin and coming into English through French, in the north, valleys are ‘dales’, originating in Anglo-Saxon and related to Dutch. Each of the major rivers draining the Pennines towards the North Sea has its own valley collectively known as the Pennine Dales: Wensleydale, Teesdale, Weardale.
Roddam Dene near
Wooler, Northumberland

Following the rivers upstream in the big dales, 
the country-side still wears its agricultural
cloak, with more sheep and drystone walled
field boundaries encroaching on the heather and
moorlands that crown the high hills. Beautiful
and breathtaking as they may be, these are not 
the objective of our travel. To see the forests of
northeastern England, head for the gills and denes!

‘Dene’ may have Anglo-Saxon roots as ‘dale’ does, but ‘gill’ is an Old Norse word (ghyll), reflecting the later Viking conquest of northeastern England. Denes and gills are best imagined as ravines or gorges: deep-sided, dark enclaves of native vegetation through which run not rivers or even streams but ‘burns’, another Anglo-Saxon gift to English. Most of these ravines are also criss-crossed by paths — natural routes along waterways — but some are developed as nature areas or local parks. Causey Gill is a case in point.

Causey Arch in Tynedale, 
an industrial archaeology bridge
Causey Arch in wooded
Causey Gill, County Durham
 South of Newcastle, Causey Burn runs north through Causey Gill, eventually flowing into the Tyne in — you 
guessed it — Tynedale! But what about the placename 
Causey? It comes from ‘causeway’, a stone bridge built 
to cross the gill in 1725-6 and now known as Causey Arch.

A marvel of engineering of its time, Causey Arch was
built with Roman arch technology under the guidance
of a leading northeastern stonemason, Ralph Wood,
who took his life by jumping off the 80-foot-high
structure before it was completed. For thirty years after its construction, Causey Arch had the distinction of being the longest single-span bridge (100 feet) in the world. It was used, however, for
Old coal wagon from Tanfield Collieryhowever, for
barely ten years to haul coal out of
Tanfield Colliery before the mine was
closed down after an explosion and fire
in 1740. First hosting double rail tracks
for wooden carts pulled by horses (each
loaded with 4 tonnes of coal), Causey
Arch remains the world’s oldest
surviving single-span railway bridge,
though now disused.

Today, walking down the gill, one is surrounded by thick, lush foliage under a thin canopy of oaks, silver birch, hornbeam and sycamore maple. The burn has cut through layers of sandstone which line the gill as cliffs in places. A wren scuttles to a fence rail, while great tits and chiffchaffs twitter and buzz from above. A cuckoo calls in the distance. Below grow ferns and fragrant ramsons, betony and a variety of crane’s bill.
Sandstone cliff in Causey Gill

Though woodland areas have remained stable for centuries through careful resource management, many now are threatened by development and overgrazing. If, however, the woods were ever to reclaim British land, it would be a jungle.

Anon. (1995) “Causey Arch picnic area & the Tanfield railway”. Pamphlet, Durham County Council Environment Department.
Rackham, Oliver (1986) The history of the countryside. London: JM Dent & Sons.
Watts, Kevin (2006) “British Forest landscapes: the legacy of woodland fragmentation”. Quarterly Journal of Forestry, May 2006:273-279
Floralocale (2005) “Restoring ghyll woods”