how to read a woodland

WG Hoskins wrote “The English landscape itself, to those who know how to read it aright, is the richest historical record we possess.” (p14, ‘The Making of the English Landscape’, 1955). 

Few people know how to read landscape but it is a wonderful thing with layer upon layer upon layer of history. I was recently sent this picture as part of the launch of the New Craftsmen in Mayfair.
It was whilst discussing landscape history and landscape painting with a friend at the V&A that I realised how few folk can read a picture like this but to me it tells a fascinating story with at least 500 years of very varied management practices clearly visible. Since the image says we will come to understand that everything we see has a story I wrote the story out for the folk at the new Craftsmen and am sharing it here.
In the centre ground is an oak, no ordinary oak, this is an ancient pollard, that means it was cut just above head height when young and then every 10 years or so it would have it’s branches removed again as a source of fuel and browse for animals. The oak is 4-500 years old and is part of a land management system called wood pasture. Animals grazed beneath it in an open park like landscape. Around 120 years ago pollarding trees became uneconomic and unpopular as a practice, cheap coal was partly responsible. The other aspect is that wood pasture and pollarding tend to indicate multiple land ownership, typically the landowner owns the ground and trees but there will be separate commoners grazing rights, rights to pannage and woodcutting rights. By 120 years ago most land came under single ownership with commoners rights bought out. Our oak now started to grow huge limbs where for most of it’s life it had a small bushy crown it still had animals grazing below and this still paid until the 19050s. Now the sheep or cattle were taken away and the grass grew long and birch seeded in all around, 60 years later we have the picture we see before us. Woodland historians would call this secondary birch woodland, as you look at the picture you can not see a single tree over 60 years old other than the pollard. This is a transitory stage, birch colonises grass and heathland but the second generation woodland will be more mixed. There will be young oaks and ash growing under the shelter of the birch. The oak will be shaded out and die, we can see it has already shed several of it’s huge limbs, it will probably hang on in there another 30-50 years. With better management it could have done another 3-400.
The academic study of landscape history was started by Hoskins and taken further by Oliver Rackham, his “History of the Countryside” should be required reading for everyone.

3 Responses to how to read a woodland

  1. stephenzmetal June 7, 2013 at 11:09 am #

    That was fascinating Robin. I love old wood and think of the things it has seen in its life. Just think of the people who sat under that tree 400 years ago. What a great story.Steve

  2. manuelinor June 7, 2013 at 11:34 pm #

    Very interesting post, thank you. Ian Lunt has done some similar posts on woodland history in Australia:'s a fascinating thing to contemplate, especially when you turn the wood into something beautiful and useful – imagine the secrets it holds!

  3. david baker March 8, 2015 at 12:43 pm #

    Woodlands, Oliver Rackham