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History

Over the centuries Chiltern woodlands have provided a home and a living to all sorts of people. In this section you can journey backwards and forwards in time and meet characters who’ll tell you what the woods mean to them. Find out what William the medieval pig herder has to bring home from the wood and meet Fred Turner, the chatty bodger who made thousands of chair legs in a Chiltern woodland. Take a peek at the future to see how our woods may look 50 years from now.

Visit the different historical periods: Medieval | 18th Century | 19th Century | Today | Tomorrow's Wood

Magnifying glass iconClick on any of the magnifying glass symbols on the woodland pictures below to find out more information.

Medieval

In medieval times, from 1000 – 1400AD, woodlands were the biggest natural resource of the Chilterns. They provided construction materials for houses, carts and fences, as well as all the fuel and heating needed by peasants and their feudal lords. Wood was not the only valuable product – woodlands provided clay for bricks and tiles and food for livestock. Many woodlands were more open than they are today, with trees of different sizes and ages. The most open areas contained grassland and were used for grazing.

Medieval woodland Beech Pollard Pig Herder Pigs Quarrying

Beech pollard / John MorrisBeech Pollard

Some trees in the wood like this beech were pollarded. This involved cutting off the branches above the height of browsing animals. The cut branches were used for fuel and if cut in summer the leaves and bark on the branches provided animals with fodder. The tree re-grew its branches which would eventually be cut again.
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Quarrying

Penn tiles / Eddie MortonDigging clay out of the woods for use in local kilns was a popular activity, particularly around Penn and Tylers Green in Buckinghamshire. Here there was an important local industry producing tiles made out of clay and fired in wood fuel kilns. Penn tiles were decorative flooring tiles with a white slip clay over red clay, that were used in churches, manor houses and other grand buildings all over England. Roofing tiles were also made here during this period.
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Pig Herder

As well as herding animals through the wood local people collected fallen wood and cut branches to use as fuel at home and also in local industries such as tile kilns. Bracken and gorse were also collected for burning.
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Pigs / John MorrisPigs

Pigs were herded through the wood in autumn to feed on acorns and beech mast to fatten them up for slaughter. This herding of pigs in the wood was known as pannage. They would provide meat at feasts through the winter. The meat was preserved by smoking and salting it. Pigs at this time resembled the Tamworth breed that we know today, covered in hair and with an orange look to the skin.

Listen to William the pig herder describing his life in the woods:

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18th Century

By the 18th century Chiltern woodlands had grown in economic importance and were being managed more closely. They were an important source of firewood for London and local towns. Firewood was cut from the smaller trees, while other trees were allowed to grow tall to provide timber for construction. Beech was more prevalent than before, but oak, ash and cherry were also grown for timber.

Some people like sawyers and charcoal-makers made their living entirely from the woods.

18th century woodland Coppicing Charcoal kiln Sawpit

Coppicing

Coppicing / Natural England, Tina StallardCoppicing was the traditional method of producing firewood. Trees were cut down at ground level, and the stumps then re-grew, sending up new shoots. A regular cycle of cutting the shoots every 5-8 years then began. The timber was used as firewood and also for fencing. In the Chilterns beech was traditionally coppiced for firewood. Coppicing is still carried out today on a small scale. Coppiced areas contain many flowers in spring, because of the good amount of light that reaches the woodland floor. As coppiced trees re-grow, they can provide homes for birds such as the rare nightingale.
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Charcoal hearth in present-day wood / John MorrisCharcoal kiln

Charcoal kilns contained a pile of wood which was covered in bracken and then a layer of clay. Blazing coals were dropped in to a hole on the top to ignite the wood and the smouldering pile was then carefully controlled for 2–3 days. The wood was cooked rather than burnt, all that remained after water and other gases were heated off was carbon in the form of charcoal. Charcoal burns at 1100°C and was widely used in forges, provided a hotter burning fuel than wood. About five tonnes of wood was needed to make one tonne of charcoal. In the woods today you can find charcoal hearths – the level platforms on which the kilns were built. Under the leaf litter the soil is full of bits of charcoal.
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Sawpit

Pit sawing demo / Chiltern Open Air MuseumTree trunks were cut up lengthwise by placing them over pits, known as sawpits. They were balanced on smaller logs and attached to them with iron hooks called dogs. The cutting was done with a two-man saw – the man on top of the trunk (the ‘top dog’) held one end while the ‘under dog’ stood in the pit with the other end. Being under dog was definitely the worse deal because of all the sawdust falling down! The trunk was sawn up into planks which were used in the construction of houses and barns, or perhaps to make tools like shovels. Sawpits were in use from the 18th to the early 20th century. Nowadays you can find the remains of them in quite a few Chiltern woodlands – look for oval depressions in the ground.

Listen to Jacob Sawyer describing how he and his friends make a living in the wood:

Watch a modern day demonstration of pit sawing at the Chiltern Open Air Museum:

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19th Century

By the 1800s the demand for firewood from Chiltern woodlands had fallen because more and more people were using coal for fuel in their homes. At the same time though the local furniture-making industry was taking off, and this required a regular supply of wood. Chair-making became an important industry, especially around High Wycombe. The woods began to change in appearance as tall, narrow trees were grown to produce timber which could be handled easily by woodland workers. Some areas were planted with beech, which were often felled when they reached 40 years old. The high beech forest that we know today began to appear.

Chairs were assembled in factories but some of their components like legs, spindles and back supports were made in the woods by craftsmen known as bodgers. These men worked in the woods every day, building small huts for shelter. The chair industry thrived for over a hundred years but declined at the end of the Victorian era as foreign timber began to be imported in large quantities. A few bodgers continued working in the woods, some could be found on the Hampden Estate near Great Missenden into the 1950s.

19th century woodland Billets Sharpening Wheel Chair Legs Shave Horse Pole Lathe

Billets

Splitting logs into billets / Chilterns Woodlands ProjectThe first job in producing a chair leg was to split logs into smaller pieces called billets, about the length of a chair leg.
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Sharpening Wheel

The bodgers used a large sandstone sharpening wheel to sharpen their tools.
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Chair legsChair Legs

Chilterns bodgers had to make at least 144 chair legs per day to make a living. They stacked up the finished legs and would periodically transport them to the chair factories to sell them.
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Shave Horse

The second process in producing a chair leg was to shave the billets into a rough leg shape using a shave horse and a drawknife.
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Pole Lathe

Windsor chair / Joanna MorrisPolelatheThe third and most skilled part of producing a chair leg was using a polelathe to rapidly turn the leg while carving the shape of the leg using a chisel. The polelathe was a fairly simple bit of equipment. The long pole had a cord tied to its top end which was wrapped around the leg and then attached to a treadle at the bottom. The bodger pressed the treadle down with his foot and as he released it the pole rose, and the cord would cause the leg to rotate. Bodgers would produced hundreds of turned chair legs, spindles and back supports every week. These were stacked up and then transported to the factories to be assembled into chairs.

The Windsor chair was the most common type of chair produced, and was sent all over the world.

Listen to Fred Turner describing his life as a Chilterns bodger:

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Today

During the 20th century conifers became a lot more commonplace in Chiltern woodlands because they grow quickly. In the last few years though a trend has begun to remove conifers from sites which are considered to be ancient woodland (areas which have been continuously wooded since at least 1600).

The economic value of timber from Chiltern woodlands has fallen greatly in recent decades, as the majority of timber in the UK is now imported from abroad and the local furniture industry has declined. Woodlands have become important as places for people to enjoy green spaces, fresh air and exercise and to re-connect with the natural world. Woods are still managed, but as much for their amenity and wildlife value as for timber production. Use the interactive map to find great woods to visit for recreation.

The great beechwoods of the Chilterns are ageing, and the decline in the timber industry means that there is little re-planting. Species such as grey squirrels and deer are also causing damage in woods and are proving a challenge to control.

Woodlands today Grey Squirrel Machinery Sawpit Family Deer Browsing

Machinery

Machinery / John MorrisToday modern forestry equipment is used to harvest trees and to carry out thinning. There are very few markets for Chilterns timber now as nearly all the local sawmills have become housing estates. Felled timber has to travel long distances to be used and with high labour costs it is not very economic. Imported timber from eastern Europe and other parts of the world supply over 80% of our needs. There is growing interest in managing local woods to provide wood fuel for wood-fired boilers. This form of heating is low in its impact on carbon emissions since the wood comes from trees which absorbed carbon as they grew.
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Bark stripped off by squirrels / John MorrisGrey Squirrel

The grey squirrel is not native to Britain but was introduced from North America between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They cause a lot of damage in woods by stripping the bark of young trees, particularly beech and sycamore. They also eat the entire crop of hazel nuts before they are ripe which makes it hard for hazel trees to spread.
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Sawpit

Remains of sawpit in present-day wood / John MorrisMany oval depressions in today’s woods are the remains of sawpits used in the 18th and 19th centuries. Over the years they have become partly filled in by leaf litter but they are still reminders of the past activities of woodsmen. They are a very important part of our local heritage and deserve to be protected. Other historic features in local woods include linear banks, built to show parish boundaries or to mark the edge of a landowner’s property.
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Family

Woods are very popular places for recreation in the Chilterns. Many have footpaths and bridleways making them good for walking, cycling and horse-riding. Some sites such as Wendover Woods in Buckinghamshire and the Ashridge Estate near Tring have easy access trails and nature trails.

Hear the young boy Ben explain why he enjoys visiting the woods:

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Deer browsing / John MorrisDeer Browsing

The number of deer in Chiltern woodlands, as in many woodlands in England, has been increasing in recent decades. Deer browse on young shoots and leaves of trees and wildflowers. They can make a major impact in a wood by damaging young saplings, destroying many ground plants and creating a ‘browse line’ on mature trees. Fallow, roe and muntjac deer are all found in Chiltern woods. In some areas, such as the Ashridge Estate near Tring, deer are culled on an annual basis to reduce their impact on the woods.
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Tomorrow's Wood

The illustration shows what a Chiltern woodland might look like in 2057. It is speculation of course, but it is clear that factors like climate change are going to have quite an effect on our woodlands and their wildlife over the next few decades. The prediction of hotter, drier summers, wetter winters and more extreme weather in the future will influence what types of trees, plants and animals do well in our woods and what may become less common or disappear. Despite these possible changes, Chiltern woods should still be tranquil, green spaces in which to relax and get close to nature.

Woodlands tomorrow Swallowtail Butterfly Spanish Bluebell Ben Storm Damage Cherry Tree Hoopoe

Cherry in blossom / John MorrisCherry Tree

Our woods may change in appearance as the changing climate affects trees in different ways. Beech trees are vulnerable to drought and may become less common. Oak, ash and cherry can cope better with drier conditions and could make up most of the trees in the woods.
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Hoopoe

Hoopoe / Phil FarrerBee-eaters / Phil Farrer

 

 

 

 

 

 


Increasing temperatures could mean that bird species from the Mediterranean like hoopoe and bee-eater may be seen more frequently in the UK and may start to breed here. Our summer migrants like swallows and chiffchaffs may arrive earlier, or may abandon migration altogether and stay in the UK all year round.
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Storm Damage

Storm damage / Chilterns Conservation BoardStorm damage in woods may increase with a more extreme climate. Summer heat and drought causes stress and disease to old trees and can also harm very young trees that have not developed a strong root system. This will make them more vulnerable to being damaged or blown over in the storms that are likely to be more frequent in the future.
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Ben

Our young boy Ben, who was visiting Today’s Wood with his parents, has returned to the same wood as an adult in 2057.

Listen to Ben’s thoughts as he sees the changes in one of his favourite places in the Chilterns:

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Swallowtail Butterfly

Scarce swallowtail / Allen BeecheyLike birds, we may start to see some more unusual butterflies in our woods. The European race of the swallowtail, for example, might move northwards and take up residence in the southern UK. Some of our more familiar butterflies like the red admiral may be active throughout the winter.
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Spanish bluebell / John MorrisSpanish Bluebell

The English bluebells, so characteristic of Chiltern woods in spring, will suffer with rising temperatures and increasing drought. They may give way to the Spanish bluebell, which has been planted in gardens for years and has already started to hybridise with our native bluebell. Spanish bluebells can cope better with drier conditions. The flowers are more upright, a paler blue than English bluebells and with much less scent. If we want to continue enjoying carpets of bluebells in the spring we may have to learn to love the Spanish bluebell.
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