Ancient carpentry and ancient woodland

This is Professor Oliver Rackham talking in the Cressing Temple Barley barn (built c 1205-1235)

Prof Rackham is an acknowledged expert on woodland history and he talked us through the timbers of this great barn, 600 individual timbers which he calculated came from 480 mostly quite small oak trees. In the UK today we have lost the connection between woodworkers, foresters and woodland and there is a great deal of misunderstanding and misinformation. We often hear our woodlands were decimated by the iron industry (cutting for charcoal, or by boatbuilding in Tudor times or by felling during the great wars. It is often said there are few really big trees now but in fact there are far more big trees now than there ever were historically.

The huge Barley barn was built 800 years ago and of those 480 oaks the vast majority were 6″ 12″ diameter. At the time the Knights Templar who owned the site struggled to find oaks big enough for the job, Rackham remarked that if we attempted a reconstruction today we would struggle to find that many oaks small enough. From Tudor times onwards we started growing bigger trees and cutting them into smaller pieces, in medieval times they grew trees to the size of timber they wanted. The largest timbers in the barn are 16″ square which would come from a 2 foot diameter tree. Rackham calculated that a 10 acre woodland of coppice with standards would produce this much timber every 50 years and the Templars had a 110 acre woodland nearby. The vast majority of woodland in the UK at this time was managed as coppice for fuel, that is it was cut every ten years which makes for easy conversion to firewood with hand tools.  UK woodland was already down to around 12% coverage not much more than today. In each acre of coppice a certain number of larger trees were allowed to grow on for 3 or 4 rotations to produce timber trees for housebuilding. The timber though was almost a by product of the woodland having a lesser value than the fuel wood.

I was at Cressing for the weekend meeting of the Carpenters Fellowship. This is the annual meeting of the UK timber framers and as well as Oliver Rackham we had talks by Peter McCurdy who built the Globe Theatre amongst many other projects, Damian Goodburn, ancient woodworking expert and occasional Time Team specialist. I did talks on the Japanese Kesurokai  project and the Heritage Crafts Association as well as a hands on session of carving with knives. So here are a few more pictures of the site and event, the evening in the Barley Barn.

Timbers in the roof of the wheat barn (built 1257-1280)

and what carpenters get up to just for fun, flinging balloons full of water 150 yards.

It was a fun and inspiring weekend. On the way home yesterday I spent a few hours walking round Hatfield Forest, Oliver Rackham said “Hatfield is of supreme interest in that all the elements of a medieval Forest survive: deer, cattle, coppice woods, pollards, scrub, timber trees, grassland and fen,…… As such it is almost certainly unique in England and possibly in the world …….The Forest owes very little to the last 250 years ….. Hatfield is the only place where one can step back into the Middle Ages to see, with only a small effort of the imagination, what a Forest looked like in use.” , 1976, The Last Forest (Dent Books).

I spent a very happy 3 1/2 years working as a National Trust warden at Hatfield from 1991 and wanted to see how things had changed in 20 years, so pictures of some of the biggest and oldest trees in Britain in the next post.

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5 Responses to Ancient carpentry and ancient woodland

  1. Tico September 6, 2010 at 12:06 pm #

    Fantastic! Can't wait for more pictures. Thanks.

  2. Jeff September 7, 2010 at 1:00 am #

    Your post certainly shattered my understanding of the history of Britain's Woodlands. Have you read any of Prof. Rackman's works, and if so, could you make a recommendation?

  3. Jeff September 7, 2010 at 1:06 am #

    I'm sorry… "Rackham".

  4. Robin Wood September 7, 2010 at 6:55 am #

    Hi Jeff,Yes there are a lot of popular misconceptions though Rackham's position is thoughroughly backed up with detailed research, accepted and built upon by many other woodland historians and ecologists. Some will question individual detail, for instance I was sat with Damian Goodburn who points out that they find quantities of cleft wood large timbers in the medieval waterfronts of London. I would most highly recommend "the history of the English countryside" which covers fields and towns as well as woodlands. If you are purely interested in woodland then Trees and Woodland in the English landscape is the one. And if you want to go back to source Hoskins "the making of the English landscape" is the guy who invented the science of lanscape history though not so big on woodlands.

  5. dan August 14, 2012 at 3:03 pm #

    buiding rades-building code

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