We went on a field trip to Blean Woods yesterday. A hike. For 5 hours. Now, hiking is not one of my chosen recreational activities, and it was raining, so I didn’t take my camera. We had a wonderful (and very English) guide – David Shire from the Blean Heritage and Community Group – who tried to tailor his comments to the interests of ethnobotanists (even though 2 of the group were conservation students) and was therefore very interesting. I didn’t take notes, so I am gradually piecing together the bits I remember. Several of my fellow students did take notes, and the idea is that we will pool them – mainly for the benefit of the foreign students who don’t understand expressions such as “a load of old cobblers” and had trouble picking out botanical nuggets from forthright opinions on the aims and successes of conservationists.
The pigs above aren’t local, but pigs are relevant, so we’ll come back to them.
We began our tour on Tile Kiln Hill, where the clay deposits on which the Blean flourishes (overlying the sand that comes from having been under the sea in prehistory) have been used since Roman times to make tiles. And this was where the kiln was :) Although it is now wooded, when it was in use it would have been on the edge of the wood, with the trees nearest to it being felled first for fuel for the kilns.
And, according to David, the name Blean has the same route as Blaenau in Welsh and is Celtic – it means ‘head of the valley’. He points out that local names give you clues about the history of the landscape. Honey Hill would have been where bee hives were placed, on the boundary between the woods and an orchard. The bees would have foraged on wild flowers early in the year, before moving on to pollinate the fruit crop. And Stray Lees is a field in which stray animals were corralled. Locals would have let their pigs (for example) out for pannage (to forage for acorns), and if they strayed into areas of the wood where they were not wanted, they would have been impounded in Stray Lees and their owner would have had to pay a fine for them to be released. Pigs are still used for pannage, for example in the New Forest. Pigs can digest acorns with no problems, and for them they are a useful food. But for other animals (and humans) the tannins they contain are problematic and can lead to poisoning.
Managing the Blean wood involved a certain amount of pollarding – cutting trees at head height. There are also trunks cut much lower, called cant marks. They marked the divisions between cants – a stretch of woodland where the landowner would sell or lease rights to the timber to a woodsman, to manage as he saw fit.
With no tree nurseries, clear cutting and replanting the wood (a very modern management technique) wouldn’t have been possible, and to avoid the problems of very intensive use of woodlands (where a lot of fuel was needed for iron working, or salt panning, or example), Henry the Eighth enshrined in an Act the best practice of the time – coppice with standards. When I first heard that I thought of standards to live up to, but in actual fact it means standard trees. In each acre of woodland to be coppiced, woodsmen were required to leave 12 trees to mature as standards. Those twelve trees then provided enough shade and shelter to allow the coppiced stools to regenerate naturally. If one of those twelve trees was felled, or died, then it was replaced by creating a single – cutting all the shoots from a coppice stool bar one, so that it would develop a new, single trunk. Evidence of this is seen throughout the woods, where a tall trunk has smaller shoots coming from the base, where it has been coppiced. The single trunk suppresses the growth of the other shoots.
There’s more that I can remember, and no doubt plenty that I don’t, so we’ll come back to the Blean in due course :)