Some years ago we were fortunate enough to be able to stop making the traditional Christmas treks hither and thither across southern Britain to see and be seen at various family celebrations. No more do we join the thousands of other motorists forced to sit patiently in tailbacks and traffic jams, worrying about whether the Aged Relation will be worrying because we're late for tea (no mobile phones in those days, at least not that we could afford). Now we rise at Dyson-shout, our domestic equivalent of sparrow-fart, breakfast (and lunch, and dinner) on whatever we fancy, and open our gifts when we choose. There is also a Compulsory Walk, to justify eating too much when we eat our main meal in the early evening. The heavy snow that fell about a week ago began thawing yesterday, so we dredged our memories for a route that avoids cross-field paths, where sticky clay would be slippery underfoot and add pounds to the weight of our boots. I remembered promising someone an introduction to traditional woodland management as practiced here, and voted we go to Hayley Wood.
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We followed farm tracks across the fields south of the wood. This part of West Cambridgeshire is a plateau covered with till, a reminder that an ice sheet covered this area about 500,000 years ago. Frozen into the ice were rocks and pebbles and ground-up rock 'flour' from all the rocks the ice flowed over on its way south across Britain. When the ice melted, its rock collection became the deposit we call till or boulder clay. We didn't need the clay to remind us of Ice Ages this morning...
The plateau is relatively well-wooded because ploughing the sticky, heavy clay was hard work for horses and oxen; the lighter soils in the river valleys and on the chalk were cleared first. By the time people needed to farm the heavier soils, the woods that remained here had become valuable in their own right as a source of timber for building and wood for everything from building materials through to treen and firewood. The history of Hayley Wood is unusually well-documented, and there are written records showing that Hayley Wood was being carefully managed to produce sustainable crops of timber and wood more than 600 years ago. It is mentioned by name in the Ely Coucher Book, a survey of the estates of Hugo de Northwald, Bishop of Ely in 1251.
De Bosco. Est ibi vnus boscus qui vocatur heyle qui continet quat'uiginti acras...
The Wood. There is there one wood which is called Heyle which contains fourscore acres.
Item, there is there one other wood that is called Litlelund, which contains thirty-two acres. The total of all the wood is fivescore and twelve acres, by the aforesaid perch [a perch was a unit of measurement, in this case 15.5 ft].
Litlelund Wood became known as Littlehound Wood. It was felled in the late 17th century, but its ghost survives in the shape of the field boundaries northwest of Hayley. The one that curves up and out, westward, just south of the B1046 road marks what was the western boundary of Litlelund in 1251.
You can just see Hayley Wood in the distance. The fields in this part of England are edged with hedges growing on low banks of soil excavated from ditches. I can still remember my astonishment when I realised that in large areas of the UK, ditches are not simply boundary markers: they are functional drains, taking water from perforated pipes and channels of stones that have been set into the fields and channeling it (eventually) into rivers to go to the sea. To someone who grew up on the Prairies, this is a novel and surprising idea, and every time I see a field drain actively discharging into a ditch I gaze at it with astonishment.
The hedge beside the path to the wood shows the traditional hedgerow trees standing above the hedge itself. Note the way their branches spread sideways: hedgerow trees have more space to grow than woodland trees, which generally have to grow up to reach the sun as quickly as possible. The ladder in the middle of the picture is a 'high seat', used by deer hunters. There are more deer in England today than ever before, and they wreak havoc on crops and in woodlands.
Look down and see the tracks of other walkers on the path. I've sketched a pheasant track because they're not as clear as the others.
The path enters the wood, or rather, the wood has grown to enclose this path, which was once a minor road.
At the northern end of the wood, just before the old railway line that forms the straight northern boundary of the wood, we turn left/west and enter the large exclosure that protects this half of the wood from deer. Most of Hayley is ancient woodland, an area that has probably been woodland since trees recolonised after the retreat of the last ice sheet, but this top corner was cut off from the surrounding farmland when the railway line was built in 1863. In 1922 it was grassland, but soon after that it was abandoned. The snow highlights the parallel lines of ridge-and-furrow that indicate medieval ploughing, still visible under the trees that now cover the area. He's standing on one of the ridges.
The rides, roads cut through the woodland, give a clear view for driving or shooting game as well as access for woodland management.
Traditionally managed woods produced sustainable crops of timber and wood by coppicing, which takes advantage of the fact that most British hardwoods will send up new shoots from the stump or roots if the main trunk is felled. It's an ancient technique: the Sweet Track was built of poles that may indicate coppice management nearly 6000 years ago.
Some trees such as ash and bushes such as hazel are cut at regular intervals to produce crops of poles used for many purposes. Over successive cycles of cut and regrowth the stumps grow wider, becoming characteristic coppice stools. Some other trees (usually oak) are left as standards to grow to full height before being felled for timber. Timber was much more valuable than coppice poles, but too many standards would lower the quality and number of the poles that provided a more regular income. Hayley had been coppiced for many centuries, but this form of woodland management declined in importance over time. In that photo, the area on the left was coppiced last winter; the area to the right shows about 10–15 years of regrowth. On both sides you can see both coppice (in the sense of stools being managed by coppicing) and standards.
That's one of the new ash stools from the area on the left, with his boot for scale.That's what the area looked like before it was coppiced, and these are the poles that are being cut this winter.
Coppicing is hard work, and neither wood nor timber are as valuable as they used to be, so only one acre of the wood is coppiced each year. A series of coppice compartments was marked out in the area where the oxlips for which the wood is famous would benefit most. Over the centuries many woodland plants that would once have thrived in patches of sunlight when giant trees crashed to earth in unmanaged forests came to rely on coppicing to provide clear access to sunlight every decade or so. In the second spring after coppicing, the ground around the stools is carpeted with wildflowers, a display that gradually declines as the coppice regrows. If left uncut, previously coppiced ash grows into a multi-stemmed tree; the large number of stems indicates that it was once cut and allowed to grow again.The rest of the wood is 'left to nature'. What modern foresters might call 'over-mature' trees, fallen trees and other deadwood provide valuable habitats for some of the very rarest plants and animals in this well-managed countryside, those that live only in dead and dying trees.
The path out of the wood passes over the woodbank and ditch that have marked the boundary of this wood since at least 1251. The effort needed to raise the high, wide bank by hand is a measure of the value of the wood it enclosed.
And look, there's water flowing in the drainage ditch! How exciting!!