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Trees and Woodland in the South Yorkshire Landscape: A Natural, Economic & Social History

Trees and Woodland in the South Yorkshire Landscape: A Natural, Economic & Social History

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Trees and Woodland in the South Yorkshire Landscape: A Natural, Economic & Social History

383 pages
4 heures
Jul 9, 2012


If you stop and look around you will see trees everywhere: not only in woods and plantations, in parks and gardens and in hedges but also along streets, beside motorways, on old colliery sites, around reservoirs, in the centre of villages and larger urban settlements and standing alone or in small groups in such diverse places as churchyards, in the middle of fields or on high moorlands.This authoritative and copiously illustrated book guides the reader to an understanding of the natural, economic and social history of the woodlands, semi-natural and planted, and the trees, native and introduced, that grace the South Yorkshire landscape and give it much of its beauty and character.
Jul 9, 2012

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Trees and Woodland in the South Yorkshire Landscape - Melvyn Jones





Five ‘landscape character areas’ have been identified in South Yorkshire: the Dark Peak, the Southern Pennine Fringe, the Yorkshire Coalfield, the Southern Magnesian Limestone and the Humberhead Levels (see Figure 1.1).¹ In the extreme west beyond Penistone and Bradfield are bleak uninhabited moorlands developed on the gritstones and shales of the Millstone Grit series. This is the Dark Peak landscape character zone. Here the skyline is periodically dominated by westward facing edges at their highest approaching 1,800 ft (c.550 m) above sea level and cut through by the headwaters of the Derwent and the Don and its tributaries. Large stretches are covered with heather moorland and blanket bog, without a sign of habitation. Deep narrow valleys fringe the area. Settlement is largely dispersed. To the east of this moorland country is the narrow Southern Pennine Fringe character area that embraces both the lower eastern fringes of the Millstone Grit country and the higher western parts of the Coal Measure country and includes the western half of the modern city of Sheffield. It is crossed by the steep-sided valleys of the Upper Don and by its tributaries the Little Don, Loxley and Rivelin. The altitude decreases eastwards when the exposed Coal Measures are reached (the Yorkshire Coalfield landscape character zone), and the country takes on a more rolling appearance and drops from about 800 ft (c.245 m) to less than 130 ft (c.40 m) in a dozen miles (19 km) between Grenoside and Thurnscoe. Another distinct but lower edge made of Magnesian Limestone is then met with rising to nearly 360 ft (c.110 m) at Hickleton, beyond which is a low plateau of fertile agricultural country. This gives way at Doncaster and beyond to a flat lowland, part of the Humberhead Levels, floored by Triassic rocks (Sherwood Sandstone and Mercia Mudstone) covered with glacial and post-glacial gravels, clays and silts, in places only a few metres above sea level.

Figure 1.1. South Yorkshire: landscape character zones


This very varied physical environment has had an immense influence on the way in which human beings over thousands of years have created the complex human landscape of the region. And much of the complex modern landscape has resulted from the relentless clearing for six millennia of the primeval woodland that once covered the region. The rest of the chapter deals with the character and the clearance of the woodland cover across the region from the end of the last Ice Age until the end of the eleventh century; with the concept of an ancient wood; and with myth, legend and tradition of trees and woods.


The woodland history of the British Isles in general and South Yorkshire in particular began about 12,000 years ago when the glaciers and ice sheets melted as the last Ice Age ended. Frozen ground thawed and climatic conditions improved to the point where trees could move in again from those parts of Europe that had lain beyond the grip of ice and freezing conditions. Seeds borne on the wind or spread in the droppings of birds and mammals enabled a wave of colonisation to make its way across the British Isles from the south-east. The progress of this arboreal colonisation has been reconstructed using the pollen grains produced by the trees and which are very resistant to decay, that accumulated in bogs, lakes and ponds. Using this evidence it has been possible to show that the first trees to colonise post-glacial Britain were Arctic trees such as aspen, birch and willow, the last two of which are usually still the first trees to colonise waste ground in the twenty-first century. Later came pine and hazel, then alder and oak. Later still came elm and lime and finally ash, beech, holly, hornbeam and maple. The later trees found it more difficult to spread because much of the bare ground had been occupied by the early colonisers. There then followed a long period of adjustment as particular species consolidated their dominance and others were pushed out by more invasive species. By about 4000 BC, unaltered by human interference, the so-called ‘wildwood’, a term invented by the woodland historian, Oliver Rackham, was fully developed.

In South Yorkshire we know something of the character of the wildwood from scientific research that has been undertaken over the last seventy years. Studies of the pollen record, the tree ring sequences of buried oaks and pines, and of fossil insects tell us much about the development and composition of the wildwood on Thorne and Hatfield Moors in the Humberhead Levels. Radiocarbon dating from the base of the peats has shown that peat began to develop about 2500 BC and this led to the drowning of the wildwood and the development of a raised mire. On Thorne Moors which was underlain by clay silts before peat development, a mosaic of mixed deciduous wildwood containing oak, wet ‘carr’ woodland and pine woodland had developed. In contrast, on Hatfield Moors, which was underlain by fluvio-glacial sands and gravels topped by wind-blown sand, almost the entire land surface was covered either by heath or a wildwood of native pines with occasional oaks. The fossils of at least sixteen extinct species of beetle, mostly associated with pine forest, have been preserved in the peats.² There are many records of bog oaks and pines surviving in the peat. The biggest one ever recorded in the Humberhead Levels was at the southern end of Thorne Moors. It was 120 ft long (36.5 m) and had a girth of 36 ft (11 m) at the bottom end, 30 ft (9 m) in the middle and 18 ft (5.5 m) at top where the trunk was broken off.³ It is not certain whether the fallen trees were felled by humans or simply died. There is also evidence of woodland fires. Again it is not certain whether the fires were natural (by lightning strikes) or were set by humans. It is not clear whether the wildwood on Thorne and Hatfield Moors was ‘managed’ by early peoples, i.e., partially cleared by setting fires by Mesolithic groups to attract game to grassy clearings or by felling and burning by early Neolithic groups to create pasture land. Some writers certainly believe that fires were set deliberately by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers to change the vegetation to attract grazing game, for example, in a study of the North York Moors in the 1980s the authors concluded that Mesolithic hunter-gatherers had had a more influential impact on the wildwood than had previously been believed⁴ and Oliver Rackham has written about the way that native Americans created ‘prairies’ in the forests of eastern North America in order to attract the wild animals which they hunted, although he does acknowledge that it was easier there than in Britain to create forest fires, because pine is our only combustible native tree.⁵

Studies of the pollen record on the gritstone moors in the west of the region have also revealed the composition of the wildwood there. A detailed study of three sites on Ringinglow Bog, a peat bog, near Sheffield, lying at an altitude of 1,300 ft (400 m), was carried out during the 1940s. The study showed that until the onset of peat development about 6000 BC the area was wooded with native pine dominant. As climate became wetter one part of the site became an alder-birch wood and other parts of the site became heather moorland.

Until very recently the theory was that the wildwood stretched as a closed canopy forest without gaps virtually across the whole of Great Britain. This long-held theory has now been seriously challenged by the work of Dr Frans Vera (2000) who has put forward the theory that the wildwood consisted of a patchwork of woodland and large tracts of grassland with open-grown solitary trees, the natural or man-made large clearings being maintained by large herbivores such as deer and wild cattle. The Vera hypothesis is the subject of much debate.⁷ What is clear is that the wildwood probably varied enormously in its composition, its density and its continuity. And that within the wildwood there must have been some very old, very large trees and, where these had crashed down, grassy clearings or thickets of young growth. There must also have been many dead trees, standing, leaning against neighbours, and lying on the woodland floor in various stages of decomposition (Figure 1.2).

The first settlers of the wildwood were the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) peoples, nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived on animals that they hunted, fish that they caught and berries and other fruits, nuts and roots that they gathered. The bow and arrow had been invented by this time, perfectly fitted for silent and patient hunting in dense woodland. Mammals hunted included wild cattle, red deer, roe deer, horse, wild pig and beaver. And the rivers would have been teeming with fish including trout and salmon.

Figure 1.2. No-one knows exactly what the wildwood would have looked like. There must have been very old, very large trees and where these had crashed down, thickets of young trees. There must also have been many dead trees. Scattered throughout the wildwood there would also have been permanent glades kept treeless by grazing animals


Their impact on the environment until lately was thought to have been negligible, but as noted above they may have had an influential effect on the wildwood through burning to attract game to newly regenerated grassland dotted with palatable trees and shrubs. Virtually all they have left behind are their tools and their weapons. The largest number of finds has occurred on the moorlands in the western part of the region where they have been preserved beneath peat deposits and then revealed as the peat has eroded. Further east on the Coal Measures important finds have been made at Wincobank, Hooton Roberts, Canklow and Hail Mary Hill. The latter site, for example, was on a hill rising to 275 ft above the River Rother near the village of Treeton, six kilometres south of Rotherham. 233 pieces of flint and chert (flint-like quartz) were found at the site, of which 188 pieces were classified as waste. Only thirty-two of the finds were recognisable tools or weapon heads.

The most amazing local archaeological discovery of the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers was made at Deepcar in 1962. It was a camp site that dated from somewhere between 8,000 and 3000 BC and was the first of its kind discovered in England.⁹ The site is located on a small hill overlooking the River Don, on the east side of the river opposite where Deepcar later grew up. It consisted of the stone footings of a tent or hut that would have been covered with tree branches and skins and beyond the hut there are what appear to be the footings of a windbreak (Figure 1.3). Such an elaborate arrangement suggests that the hut was occupied for some time, possibly months at a time and on more than one occasion. This is emphasised by the remains of three separate hearths for fires. What is more remarkable is that the site yielded more than 23,000 artefacts including the debris from working flint into weapons and tools. The characteristic artefact of the Mesolithic period is the microlith, i.e., a very small worked stone, most commonly of flint or chert. A microlith is in the shape of a very small arrowhead or barb and a number of these would have been glued into a wooden shaft with birch resin to make a multi-faceted arrowhead, harpoon or spear suitable for hunting prey. Other flint artefacts were broader and rounder and these were scrapers for cleaning the flesh off skins. Small saws were also made as were awls for piercing holes in leather, wood or bone.


Figure 1.3. Mesolithic camp at Deepcar

In the late Mesolithic period hunting became even more intensive and the wildwood environment appears to have been managed in places by felling and burning the wildwood to entice deer into areas of new, highly palatable growth on the woodland floor. This development foreshadowed the later domestication of pigs, sheep and cattle.


Deliberate large-scale clearance of the wildwood by humans has been taking place for the last 6,000 years, first by the Neolithic peoples, the first agriculturalists, who entered Britain about 3800 BC and then by the successive expansion of agricultural settlement and land use in the Bronze Age (2000–750 BC), the Iron Age (750 BC–40 AD), the Roman period (40–400 AD) and in the succeeding 600 years during which time Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian colonists settled widely. By Domesday (1086) it has been estimated that only 15 per cent of England was still wooded. By the end of the medieval period only fragments of the original wildwood remained, but by then much changed by human interference, with each surviving wood known by a specific name and in many cases surrounded by a stock-proof fence to keep out foraging farmstock.

Woodland clearance continued throughout the Middle Ages and into the modern period, at first for agricultural land as before but later accompanied on a large scale by mining activity and industrial and urban expansion.


It was the Anglo-Saxon (from the fifth century), Scandinavian (from the ninth century) and the later medieval occupants who left behind, in the names they gave to farms, hamlets and villages, widespread evidence of a countryside once covered by and gradually cleared of woodland. Some of these names tell us about the composition of the woods, names such as Lindrick (Old English for ‘lime-tree ridge’), the name of a district that straddles the South Yorkshire-Nottinghamshire border and where there was a wood called bosco de lyndric first recorded in 1199. There is also Lindholme which means lime-tree island. In the west in Bradfield parish there are Ewden and Agden, both deep valleys first recorded as Udene (yew valley) in 1290 and Aykeden (oak valley) in 1329. Other tree species recorded in early South Yorkshire place-names include alder, elm, hazel, holly, maple, hawthorn and willow.

But it is the woodland clearance names that are most instructive. Many of these must indicate large clearings that had existed for many generations before the Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians entered the region and they were merely renaming them in their own languages. The Old English leah (woodland clearing) which gives us names such as Heeley, Tankersley and Cantley is the most widely distributed, with forty occurrences on the 1:50,000 OS sheets (110 and 111) covering South Yorkshire alone. Another widely distributed Old English element is feld (ten occurrences in South Yorkshire) which means a treeless area in an otherwise well-wooded landscape, as in Sheffield, Darfield and Hatfield. The Old Norse element for clearing is thweit (twelve occurrences across South Yorkshire) as in Ouslethwaite, Butterthwaite and Hangthwaite. Woodland clearance names are most densely located in the exposed coalfield and significantly the Magnesian Limestone belt, long thought to be the most attractive area in South Yorkshire for early settlement, has only three names indicative of a wooded countryside (Woolthwaite, Firbeck and Woodsetts) suggesting much woodland clearance had already taken place there before the appearance of the Anglo-Saxon and Danish Viking name-givers (Figure 1.4).

Old place-names in the modern English landscape are derived from four old languages, Celtic, Old English (Anglo-Saxon), Old Norse (Danish and Norwegian Viking) and Norman-French. It is wrong to try to come to conclusions based on the modern spelling of a place-name. It is necessary to study old maps and surveys and to consult place-name dictionaries in order to ascertain early spellings and meanings. It is also important to ensure that what appears to be an old name is not a modern invention.

Figure 1.4. Distribution of woodland and woodland clearance names in South Yorkshire


The following is a list of place-name elements with a connection to woodland, woodland clearance and the names of specific trees that occur in place-names in South Yorkshire. The date after each example is the first date that the name was recorded in a document.


ced or coid (modern Welsh coed) means ‘wood’ and occurs only rarely in England. Cat Wood in the Gleadless valley in Sheffield may be derived from this Celtic name for a wood.

Old English

ac (oak tree): as in Agden, 1290, Aughton, 1086, (oak tree farmstead) and Acomb (an earlier spelling is Akeholme = oak tree island).

alor (alder): as in Owlerton, 1310, (farmstead by the alders).

bearu (grove): as in Barrow, 1284, (near Wentworth) and Hazelbarrow (hazel wood).

denu (a long curving narrow valley): as in the South Yorkshire names of Dearden (deer valley) and Swinden, 1190–1208, (swine valley). Denu names are often associated with woodland as in Agden, 1329, (oak valley) and Ewden, 1290, (yew-tree valley).

feld (field): a treeless area in a well-wooded landscape as in Sheffield, 1086, (treeless area in an otherwise well-wooded landscape beside the River Sheaf), Ravenfield ,1086, (treeless area in an otherwise well-wooded landscape frequented by ravens) and Austerfield, 715, (treeless area with a sheep fold in an otherwise well-wooded landscape). The name Ecclesfield, 1086, means a treeless area in an otherwide well-wooded landscape containing a Christian church. This would have been a name given by the early Anglo-Saxon settlers to a native British (Celtic) shrine. The field element occurs in every English county with the exception of Cornwall.

fyrth (firth): as in Firbeck, 1171–79, (woodland stream). ‘Firth’ is an old name for a wood and beck is from bekkr the Old Norse word for a stream.

graefe (grove or coppiced wood): as in Burngreave, 1440, (Byron’s wood) and Leaveygreave, 1558, (leafy grove).

hesel (Old English and hesli Old Norse for hazel) as in Hazelhead, 1342.

holegn (holly): as in Hollings, 1385, and Hollin Hill, 1385.

hyrst (a wooded hill): as in Kilnhurst, 1331, (wooded hill with a kiln).

leah (ley): a woodland clearing as in Heeley, 1277, (high clearing), Barnsley, 1086, (Beorn’s clearing), Woolley, 1259, (clearing frequented by wolves) and the less obvious Gleadless, 1512, (clearing frequented by kites) and Wheatley, 1086, (clearing used for growing wheat). This is the most widespread woodland settlement name. There are forty-three–leah place-names in South Yorkshire.

lind (Old English and Old Norse for a lime tree): as in Lindrick (lime-tree ridge), 1199, and Lindholme (lime-tree island), 1190–1202.

rod (a clearing): as in Armroyd and Gilroyd.

ryd and rydding (clearing): as in Herdings (high clearing). This is the word that has given us the modern word for a wide track through a wood–a ride.

sceaga (shaw): a wood, sometimes a narrow wood: as in Earnshaw, 1379, (eagle wood) and Crawshaw,1379, (crow wood).

stubbing (clearing where tree stumps have been cleared): as in Stubbin, 1344.

thorn (Old English and Old Norse for hawthorn): as in Thorne, 1086, Thorninghurst, 1483, and Cawthorne, 1086, (exposed thorn tree).

wilig (willow): as in Wilsick, 1086, (willow stream).

wudu (wood): as in Eastwood, 1379, Woodhall, 1253, (hall near the wood) and Woodsetts, 1324, (folds in the wood).

Old Norse

elmr (elm tree): as in Almholme (elm tree island).

elri (alder tree): as in High Ellers, 1210.

kjarr (carr, a wooded marsh): as in Elsecar, 1259–66, (Elsi’s wooded marsh) and Deepcar, 1771.

lundr (wood): as in Lundwood, 1145–59, Lound Hill, 1379, and Lound Side, 1200–10.

skogr (a wood): as in Thurnscoe, 1086, (thorn wood).

storth (wood): as in Storrs, 1284, and the farm Rainstorth (boundary wood).

thveit (thwaite): a woodland clearing as in Butterthwaite, 1297, (clearing with rich pasture), Ouselthwaite, 1392, (blackbird clearing) and Hangthwaite, 1190, (Hagni’s clearing).


If we take the results of William the Conqueror’s great national survey of 1086 at face value then woodland cover had been drastically reduced by the late eleventh century and the countryside was not covered by the boundless woodland of people’s imagination. Rackham has calculated that the Domesday survey of 1086 covered 27 million acres of land of which 4.1 million were wooded, that is 15 per cent of the surveyed area. His figure for the West Riding of Yorkshire is 16 per cent.¹⁰ My own calculation for South Yorkshire is just under 13 per cent. By way of comparison, woods today, including plantations, cover just over six per cent of the region. What this means is that in the eleventh century, South Yorkshire was relatively sparsely wooded even by today’s standards.

The Domesday surveyors in South Yorkshire in 1086 gave woodland measurements for each manor in almost every case in leagues (12 furlongs or 1.5 miles) and furlongs (220 yards or one-eighth of a mile) and in most cases recorded how woods were utilised. When the data are mapped (Figure 1.5) noticeable variations in the distribution and types of woodland are clearly discernible. In the western half of the region, in the Dark Peak, Southern Pennine Fringe and in the Coalfield landscape character zones, woodland was relatively extensive with a substantial number of communities having more than 1,000 acres of woodland. In contrast, in the Magnesian Limestone belt and in the Humberhead Levels further east, the

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