The newly emerged sun was penetrating the green canopy above to throw patches of light and shade on the woodland floor, and to silhouette the severely stunted and twisted trunks of the trees around us. We were in a small patch of woodland lying between the 210 and 270 m (690 and 890 ft) contours and clinging to the steep slopes of Buckton Castle hill near Mossley, in Greater Manchester. The trees were sessile oaks Quercus patraea (one of 2 oaks native to Britain) which are able to tolerate the acidic, thin soils on the millstone grit, sandstone and shale rocks of these Pennines hills. Looking at the contorted forms of the trees it was interesting to speculate on the origins of the wood – had it grown naturally or had it been planted? If the latter, what was its purpose?
Prehistorically, the Pennine landscape used to be very different and was much more wooded than today. Following the end of the ice age some 10,000 years ago, a mixed oak forest (that included English and Sessile oak, lime, alder and pine) had grown to cover much of England and Wales (including the Pennines) up to around the 500 m contour. Above that height there was also birch, willow and hazel woodland. The forest reached its maximum extent some 7,000 years ago but after that the scene began to change.
Around 7,500 years ago the climate became much wetter. In addition Mesolithic hunter-gatherers began to fell trees and burn vegetation near their seasonal summer camps high in these hills. This would have encouraged the growth of lush new vegetation, designed to lure wild animals in and so make hunting easier. Unfortunately as a result of more rainfall and vegetation clearance, minerals were gradually washed out of the hillside soils, making them more acidic and much less favourable for deciduous tree and scrub growth. Inevitably therefore the forest “retreated” as it were, away from the hilltops and down the hillsides to lower slopes, along with the hunter-gatherers seasonal camps. Then later use of the uplands by other prehistoric and mediaeval peoples (especially for pasturing sheep and cattle) reinforced the earlier vegetational changes. Today only a few fragments of semi natural oak sessile woods can be found in these Pennine hills.
Was our woodland a semi natural fragment that echoed that prehistoric forest? Its not known whether it is possible scientifically to determine whether woodland has been on a site for thousands of years. However some relatively easily accessible clues to woodland origin are from historic maps. Our stunted oak wood is not shown on the 1841 ordnance survey (OS) map but not on the 18812 OS map. The latter map shows the wood as part of a larger deciduous woodland wrapping around the flank of Bucton Castle hill (a location now largely occupied by a very large quarry). This shows therefore that the wood was planted sometime between 1841 and 18812.
The form of the trees today suggests that the wood was originally planted (see first photo showing trees in a line) as a coppice that has long since been neglected. . A coppice wood is one where after the trees are felled at a relatively young age, they're allowed to grow again from their roots. This new growth is via several new thinner stems rather than by single trunks. After reaching the required thickness these new stems are then cut down. The process can be repeated after a set number of years, again and again. If the trees are not harvested at regular intervals the multiple stems can become quite thick and ungainly. Some of the oaks did have several thick trunks growing from their roots – see second photo.
The purpose of the coppiced oaks is unclear. Historically their bark has been used in the tanning of leather, and their wood as charcoal in the smelting of iron, and for fencing. More interestingly their tannin has been used as a fixing agent for dyes, and with various salts to produce different colour dyes. Perhaps therefore our wood had some connection with the textile trade! Its a pity that its not included as part of the nearby Cowbury Dale Local Nature Reserve, which centres around the carr woodland along the Carrbrook Valley.
Whatever its origins and flora though, the wood should be valued for its character alone. With the warmth and light of the sun and someone beside you, it was easy to view the scene with wonder and delight, but come back alone on a darker, gloomy evening and I think your mind might be turning to hobgoblins and witches.