"A certain wood called Helewode which contains 80 acres by estimate. Of the underwood of which there can be sold every year, without causing waste or destruction, 11 acres of underwood which are worth 55 shillings at 5 shillings an acre"
- Survey of the Bishop of Ely's Estates, 1356
(occasioned by the Bishop being wanted for murder).
And Hayley Wood is still there today. Would you like to come and see?
To get there we must park on the roadside then walk down this lane. The hedge on the right, as we look at it here, has been in existence for at least 800 years, as is evidenced by many maps that have been drawn down through the centuries. As old hedges mature they come to include more and more hedgerow species and there's a feast of berries here for birds in winter time.
Once within the wood you may be surprised to find it divided up by dead straight "rides" which, though they may look modern, have been here since medieval times and were vital to the life of the wood, as they divided it into separate plots and provided the routes by which the timber could be extracted.
Whereas modern forestry plants trees, lets them grow, then fells the lot of 'em, medieval foresters were (as I've explained before) more subtle, more sustainable. Parts of the wood are still treated in the old way for conservation purposes - some trees are felled, but others are left to grow into fine trees for timber. Where a tree is cut down....
...it re-generates itself by sending up shoots from the old stump. These shoots are the "underwood" mentioned in the quote at the beginning of this post, which were harvested on a seven-year rotation. The light poles thus obtained were used for making hurdles which were used for penning sheep at night, for making the framework for wattle-and-daub cottage walls and all manner of light tasks. And, most importantly, they'd worked out that this harvest could take place "without waste or destruction" of the woodland.
When the wood is opened up in this way, more sunlight reaches the ground and wild flowers benefit tremendously in the next couple of years before the wood grows up again. Hayley Wood has one rather special flower which I can show you several pictures of.
At first sight you might think it's a Cowslip....or maybe a Primrose. You wouldn't be far wrong, but it's actually an Oxlip. They occur in suitable habitat throughout Europe, but in England are restricted to a narrow band stretching through Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire. So here we're at the western extremity of its range.
The Oxlip was first described by John Ray in 1660, but in the following years people began to think that he was mistaken and the Oxlip was just a hybrid between a Cowslip and a Primrose. This state of affairs persisted till 1842 when a naturalist called Henry Doubleday was wandering near the village of Great Bardfield and wondering at the splendour of the fields of Oxlips, as many others must have done.
Doubleday, however, noticed something which everyone else had overlooked - there were no Primroses growing anywhere nearby - and you can't have hybrids of plants which are not present! He therefore concluded that John Ray must have been right all along. And he wrote a letter to Charles Darwin about it. The great man found that a cross between a Cowslip and a Primrose did give a very similar looking plant, one that today is known as a False Oxlip, but those growing around Bardfield were true Oxlips, as are those growing in Hayley Wood.
We met a couple who'd driven down from Birmingham just to see the Oxlips, which makes me feel guilty for all the years when I haven't bothered to make even the short journey from home. There were other flowers there to enjoy as well...
....our friends, the Wood Anemones, growing along with Celandines, though not in such profusion as in the last post...
.... and, of course, plenty of English Bluebells. But I'm told there are even more of them at nearby Gransden Wood. We'll go there just as soon as we find our way back to the car.
Which leaves me just one thing to find out concerning that opening quotation - Was the Bishop of Ely ever tried for his crimes, or did he get away with murder?
Thank you for this truly delightful and informative walk - and I do hope you will update us about the Bishop of Ely's fate.ReplyDelete
PS: I am unsurprised that they were much better conservationists than we are. Much, much better.
Lovely post, as one who has wandered in old woods as well and found the remains of coppicing, sparking thoughts of earlier times, it is marvellous to explore woods at this time of the year. Thanks also to the introduction of the Oxlip, which I have never seen before. It does truly have the colour of the primrose and the legginess of the cowslip but is an original in its own right.ReplyDelete
Beautiful place to walk. Never realised there was an a Oxslip though I have seen plenty of cowslips and primroses. I noticed the bluebells out in the woods near where I live, so much nicer that the Spanish one growing in my garden I dig up and toss in the binReplyDelete
I thought that I found some Oxlips growing on our common a few days ago but didn't have my camera with me. Now I must return and check whether my identification was correct or not as our conditions here are not really to their liking.ReplyDelete
I am also reminded by your post that I too must make time to visit a bluebell wood. I have a new to me place to visit this year. A bluebell wood that sits on top of an Iron Age hill fort.
I can tell you this, John, that to stand and look at a hedge that has been there for at least eight hundred years would fill me with awe, given that there is so little of that kind of habitat left. To contemplate the wildlife that has made a home there, found food and shelter, raised a family would be quite special for me. You really do paint evocative pictures for us.ReplyDelete
Your tree photos are always lovely to see John and the Oxlips shots are really good. Love to see Oxlips.ReplyDelete
Hi John - great information here ... I've always loved knowing about Ray, and presumably Doubleday is the horticulturist (yes he must be). Fascinating place, while your photos and explanations are so useful. Hedges are great aren't they - pity they were grubbed out ... Excellent post - thank you - HilaryReplyDelete
I just re-read the leaflet I downloaded about an Oxlip walk which says that this particular Henry Doubleday was the entomologist from Epping, rather than his cousin, also Henry Doubleday, from Coggeshall who was the horticulturalist. A case of seeing Doubleday!Delete
John, your posts are such a delight. You have the perfect blend of beauty in your photos along with interesting facts and explanations. I downloaded several of your gorgeous pictures which I hope you do not mind. I hope to print them on notecards one day as they are so lovely to share when I need to send a note to a friend. Thank you!ReplyDelete
Yes, of course you can download and print any of my photos.Delete
Forestry dine this way seems so simple. Why is clear cutting done . Clear cutting just destroys everything.ReplyDelete
what a beautiful place to walk and enjoy all the colouful flowers along the way.ReplyDelete
Those oxlips are gorgeous. At first glance I thought of narcissus but realized my mistake. You have such lovely spots to walk. I love tagging along with you.ReplyDelete
We will probably never know about the Bishop, but taking a walk with you through these lovely woods was wonderful. Thank you for this pleasure.ReplyDelete
The Oxslip flowers are beautiful. You introduce me to so many things which I will probably never see in real life.ReplyDelete
That new green of spring is my favourite sight of the year. The blooms on the forest floor are often overlooked but so worth the time.ReplyDelete
I could gaze at that first photo for a long time. Very much like a beautiful painting.ReplyDelete
Aren't spring flowers glorious? One could be forgiven for thinking the oxlip a cross between a primrose and a cowslip. That's just what it looks like.ReplyDelete
Lovely flowers! Odd about the bishop.ReplyDelete
Beautiful woods and flowers!ReplyDelete
Thank you once again John.ReplyDelete
Thank you for the information about the oxslip. I love this time of the year when the primroses and cowslips and bluebells are coming into flower.ReplyDelete
The oxslip was a new one for me. Love exploring woods and wildflowers. Another beautiful walk!ReplyDelete
Superb photographs . So evocative .ReplyDelete
One of my favorites on this blog is to accompany you through ancient woods and I always marvel at how they are preserved nicely. I fell in love with soft yellow Cowslips at first sight. They look like "Kurin-so", Japanese Primrose, or Primula japonica, of which colors are shades of pink.ReplyDelete
I apologize my sheer mistake. (Embarrassed)Delete
I fell in love with Oxlips at first sight.
That blue is stunning.ReplyDelete
It was nice to walk with you through the woods. Here, Oxlips are quite common, I think they are more frequent in mountains.ReplyDelete