Diminishing Wychwood Forest, U/K.
The timber in the Wychwoods.
by Derek Willis.
The three villages of the Wychwoods, so called because they were originally populated by the Hwicce Tribe, which spread over the majority of the south midlands in early Iron Age, and Anglo Saxon times, are called Ascott-Under Wychwood, Shipton-Under-Wychwood and Milton-under-Wychwood these villages would have been either contained within or on the edges of the Wychwood Forest, one must bear in mind that a forest consisted of dense woodland, coppices, grazing land and agricultural land all contained within the forest, with sporadic clumps of standing timber scattered everywhere.
The Wychwood Forest was a Royal forest, used by the king and his court for sport including hunting of the deer which abounded, these deer are still abundant and one can come across them traversing the road very often, groups may be seen in the forest and adjoining fields in the wintertime when there is very little vegetation. The remains of the forest are now concentrated around the village of Leafield, a few miles from the Wychwood villages, see map.
Deforestation began at a very early time and continued until the advent of the Dutch Elm Disease of the early 1980s, evidence of the Dutch Elm disease was everwhere during the early 1980’s and when driving on an open road, looking at the surrounding countryside one could see in the hedgerows many stark trees in mid-summer that were victims of the disease.
Records show timber from the forest being used for building, and shipbuilding throughout the ages.
The natural resources of the Royal Forest, as it was designated, had been systematically conserved and managed throughout the medieval and early modern period. The quality of timber produced was very high. There are records of grants by the Crown of beams to buildings of Oxford and elsewhere. In 1648 it was ordered that the "great trees" of the forest were to be reserved for the Navy for shipbuilding. In 1778 the navy bought 500 trees from Wychwood and later Nelson's ship "Victory" was built from oaks felled on Charlbury Commons.
As time passed the royal coppices were leased out and by the late seventeenth century there was no overall management of the Forest to ensure that growth of timber in the coppices was encouraged. In consequence the quality of the timber declined so markedly that in 1807 Arthur Young reported that "I did not see one very fine tree of navy oak in a ride of 16 or 17 miles". Nevertheless, between 1807 and 1833, nearly 3,000 loads of timber, probably the equivalent of 1,500 trees, were taken from Wychwood Forest to the Royal Dockyards.
n.b. Arthur Young was appointed secretary to the Board of Agriculture in 1792 and surveyed parts of the country for the government.
By this time, the Wychwood region had also gained an evil reputation, as it provided hiding and protection for vagabonds and wrongdoers. Arthur Young commented that "The vicinity is filled with poachers, deer-stealers, thieves and pilferers of every kind: offences of almost every description abound so much, that the offenders are a terror to all quiet and well disposed persons; and Oxford gaol would be uninhabited, were it not for this fertile source of crimes." In consequence, an act of parliament was passed in 1854 to clear the forest for agricultural land. In a period of only 18 months, thousands of trees were cut down, areas of woodland and heath cleared, leaving only the present rump of woodland round Cornbury Park to the north east of Leafield.
The loss of the trees dramatically altered the landscape, a change still regretted by many. In 1997 the Wychwood Project was established, with the aim of conserving the Wychwood landscape and increasing the levels of new woodland planting, both for its scenic qualities and as a haven for wildlife. Leafield participated in this by setting up its own Field Town Tree Planting Project, which has proved highly successful. Several farmers and other landowners in Leafield and Langley have planted areas of native woodland and the Leafield Community Woodland has been established with trees grown from seed and planted by the children of Leafield School, another planting project is at The Dog Kennel plantation in Milton-U-Wychwood, being quite large and entirely voluntary. For more information on this, see the Wychwood Project's web site.
As has been touched on before, a major destination for the timber, be it Oak, Elm, Beech, or Ash, would have been for the British naval construction and would have been reserved for such. A tree was considered to be not worth cutting until it had been growing for 100 years, when cut, it would normally take 2 wagon loads to transport it, the timber for Naval construction was taken about 20 miles by horse and cart to Eynsham, (shown on map) then loaded onto barges on the river Thames, then hence to The Port of London and the naval shipbuilding docks there, some would be then sent by ship to other shipyards, in just under 30 years during the early part of the 19th. Century it is on record that about 1500 trees of this stature had been cut and treated this way.
It is believed that each of the Wychwood villages grew around a woodcutters cottage and was the start of the growth of the timber industry in the area, one of the greatest, if not the greatest, timber millers was Alfred Groves and Co. Ltd, who are to this day a building company specialising in restoration work, and can be traced back to there onset in 1660, still to this day, owned by the original family descendants, together with several stone quarries and of course, the timber mill. Among their more recent projects have been the restoration of Gatcome House for H.R.H. The Princess Anne and Burford Priory which sold recently for many millions, much of the exquisite joinery, made at A.G.S. Joinery shop and using local timber where possible, was installed. Tony Robinson had his Time Team there at Burford Priory recently, doing one of their excavations and no doubt will be seen on T.V. soon.
It is on record that Alfred Groves and sons ltd. Had the greatest stock of English Oak in the country at one time, and all being sourced locally along with the Elm and other hardwoods. (See pictures of the storage yard adjacent to the mill.)
One later nearly disastrous offshoot of this milling was the sawdust, this was dumped anywhere and everywhere, there is an area not far from the mill that was excavated for sand at one period and then backfilled with tons and tons of sawdust, this land was later used for construction and piles or rafts had to be employed because of the unstable ground.
.Another aspect of the timber milling was off cuts; some would have been used for weatherboarding etc. And the villagers could collect for a few pence, firewood from this source.
Photographs show the large piece of land that was in use for timber storage along with the many buildings contained on the site.
This company would have been the largest employer of men in the area.
Surrounding farms would have cut down trees for land clearance and the timber mill would have purchased these and processed them.
Some timber was used as Rubbing Strakes at the cross channel ports on the south coast, i.e. Newhaven Folkestone and Dover to name a few, these were timbers of hardwood primarily Elm, cross section of about 12 to 15 inches square and took the brunt of ships when docking and quite a long journey for the early Lorries on the road in transportation.
A vast amount of Elm was cut into coffin boards for distribution around the country, and one picture shows a fully loaded lorry with what is expected to be these.
A lot of replanting was undertaken by the Government, but as the timber built ships would eventually fade out before the maturity of the trees it was to no avail except to leave behind a lot of trees, no bad thing.
When the larger trees became a bit difficult to get hold of, towards the end of the 19th. century and at the beginning of the 20th. century, they had to go further to find timber to keep the mill going.
The grandfather of a friend drove a traction engine for Groves Timber Mill, and made trips, together with, I expect others, to Wales, each trip took a week, one of the pictures you have on disc shows a traction engine with a tandem load behind, and it is believed that this is the result of one of those trips, and standing beside it are what may be believed to be, the crew of three, being the driver and two trailer brake men, brake levers may be seen protruding at a high angle above the load, these would have been needed with some of the steep hills negotiated on a trip.
With the advent of over stripping of the best timber, nearly all Oak, they had to go further and further afield for their needs and to keep the Timber Mill going at full capacity.
Below is a modern day map showing how the forest has diminished since the domes day times.
A friend is a good egg even if they are slightly cracked! Derek