An important aspect of the rural landscape, particularly for those who live, work and play in it, are trees and hedges. In Memory hold the Door John Buchan writes “Our ridge was old forest land and it provided one of the two types of landscape which have always had a special charm for me. These types are the mountain meadow and the woodland clearing. “He says, “Elsfield was rich in those secret glades, sometimes only an acre wide, but all ancient clearings whose turf had been cropped for centuries.”
This is no longer the case, of course, since the turf which had been cropped for centuries was dug up during the Second World War to grow potatoes, restored to pasture only to be given over to arable crops in the 21st century. The many hedges which parcelled out the land in Buchan’s time had to be dug up in the second half of the 20th century to accommodate the giant combine harvesters, grain trucks, sprayers and tractors which are now used in farming.
At the present time, spurred on by European Union initiatives and private anxieties about global warming, an increase in awareness of the importance of trees and hedges in the environment has led to much replanting.
There are three main pieces of woodland in Elsfield: Long Wood, Pennywell Wood and Woodeaton Wood. There are also much smaller narrow strips of woodland: The Ridings and Jubilee Wood. They are managed by the Brown family on behalf of Christchurch.
In earlier times the woods were always a source of firewood for villagers, and the trees were coppiced and pollarded to this end (Coppicing is cutting trees such as hazel down to the ground and allowing them to sprout again. Pollarding is cutting off the lower branches to provide browsing for animals and firewood). Many examples of coppiced hazel can be seen in Woodeaton Wood, which is the only substantial woodland accessible to the general public.
In the wake of the Second World War woodland was often managed to make money for the owner. The woods which had been used for recreation by the first Lord Tweedsmuir were considered as a possible way of raising revenue for the estate.
An assessment of the work needed on the woodland in Elsfield was made in 1946, a joint venture between Lord Tweedsmuir (the second Lord Tweedsmuir, Johnny, son of John Buchan) and Christ Church. The letter from Christ Church discusses who shall supervise the work: it is suggested that Mr G.G. Brown’s offer to do that be accepted and that there is too much work for one worker. Because of the neglect of the woods, where nothing has been felled since 1919, it will take at least two men, backed up from time to time with a bigger gang, to make the woodland profitable again. The Christ Church treasurer suggests that Lord Tweedsmuir takes onto his payroll the two men to work on both Christ Church woodland and his own, with Christ Church reimbursing Lord Tweedsmuir for the hours spent working on the college’s behalf. The proceeds, firewood and poles, would belong to whoever owned the land. Mr Brown, though offering to do the work for nothing, should be paid.
The scheme suggested shows the care with which woodland management was approached. There are 77.802 acres of woods in four blocks and Lord Tweedsmuir owns another 40 acres of his own. This would occupy two men working two-thirds of their time for Christ Church.
There should be a five year coppice. They would first of all make all fences cattle proof. They would clear out the main ditches, cut coppice in Pennywell, leaving all promising young hard woods to grow into forest trees. They would do the same in Long Wood and the top of Long Wood. They would fell and prepare for planting the top end of Woodeaton Wood, and cut coppicing and take out half the large oaks from the bottom of Long Wood, choosing those with the shortest boles and worst crowns. They would do the same at the bottom of Woodeaton Wood.
They note that any action should be timed to take place in the early autumn following the first really good fall of acorns, to keep the ground shaded so as to prevent the growth of weeds until there is a fall of acorns, in order to give a clear start to the young oak trees.
They suggest ordering in November 1946 enough trees to plant up 15 acres, half the site, and suggest two year oaks, one year ash, one year sycamore, one year larch, two year Norway pine, one year Scots pine and one year Lawson cypress. The Landowners Forestry Co-operative Society of Scotland is suggested as a source for the larch and Scots pine, and Magdalen might be able to supply the ash trees from Lincolnshire.
Unfortunately we do not know if this scheme was implemented. We do know that in 1953 Lord Tweedsmuir employed on a very part-time basis Alf Sumner, who lived in Beckley, to look after Noke Wood, since there is a letter from Alf rebuking his lordship for not planting trees in the autumn but delaying till the Spring when the ground was too dry. Alf also tried to negotiate longer hours, but was told this was not possible as his lordship could not afford. Alf did have the use of the wood, however, going shooting there and cutting wood for his own use, and relations were very cordial between the two, the Tweedsmuirs sending chocolates and hampers of food at Christmas, which were well received by the Sumners.
In a rural landscape trees have always been important markers and feature in people’s accounts of their lives in the village. Tree Cottage, for example, had an old tree near the gate which was hollow and was used as a village notice board. The children also used it for hiding in. It was the place designated for meeting the evacuees from London at the beginning of the second world war and Helena Deneke describes it as a ‘trysting place’.
King Charles Oak
Scoring a six in cricket when the village team was playing in Home Close was marked by hitting the ball beyond the horsechestnut. An old oak marks the path down to Woodeaton and what until 1991 was the parish boundary. This is often called the ‘King Charles Oak’ and in November 2008 the village held a competition to guess the age of the tree. When the oak was measured its girth was found to be 5m. 25 cm. so using Forestry Commission guidelines we calculated it was 334 years old (dating to 1674 when Charles II was on the throne.)
The Women’s Institute banner embroidered in 1920 shows elm trees, because it is a feature of the village. Their explanation for the logo embroidered on the banner is ‘that Elsfield is a hill -top crowned with elm trees and with a rookery’.
The elm trees in question lined either side of the road from Home Close to the end of the village in front of Forest Farm. This stretch of road was known as ‘Under Elms’. It had claimed one victim, who was killed in the mid 1920s by a branch falling off as he cycled under the trees. A stone in the banking opposite Post Box Cottages is reputed to mark the place where he was fatally injured. The trees themselves fell victim to Dutch Elm disease in the 1970s and were cut down. The tree stumps can still be seen in some places, and new growth keeps sprouting from the bases, but succumbs to the same disease when it attains a reasonable height. The trunks of the elms along the verge from Country View to Rose Cottage were up to 5 ft in diameter. Smaller trees growing as suckers from the originals grew to be quite substantial: 6 to 9 inches in . diameter but then died. Nich Butler, who has lived in Elsfield since the 1970s, cut them down and sprayed the re-growth.
Present day planting
The site of Under Elms was replanted by Nich Butler, using a variety of trees donated by friends , neighbours and relatives. They include oak, ash, horsechestnut and a walnut. He has also planted up the site of what are marked as allotments on OS maps with a more exotic collection including Giant sequoia and a meta sequoia glypto-stroboides, a plant discovered in China in 1949 and known in the fossil record
At Dove House (formerly Home Farm) in the field above the house in what was in 1703 called Cherry Piece 268 trees have been planted, mainly mixed deciduous English hardwoods: oak, ash, beech, maple, alder, hazel and poplar. There are in addition 160 Scots pine, castinea and Cedar of Lebanon.
THE BROWN FAMILY:
Since about 1990 the Browns too have been planting native woodland species such as oak and ash. This has been in the land nearest to Sescut Farm, outside the actual parish boundary but within the land farmed by them. So corners of Cow Ground, Cross Ground, Big Field, Island, Cherwell and along the parish boundary at Orchard have all had trees planted there.
The family living there provide their own account of the establishment of their small wood. Andrew and Wendy Wilson write:
David Rees of the Oxfordshire Woodland Group has provided encouragement and advice on the project to turn our field from a dull old paddock into a sustainable coppicing wood made up of species native to the area. It should in time provide a modest supply of firewood, with ten percent harvested in rotation starting in about ten years. We hope that this low-maintenance woodland garden, complete with glades (so as to retain the view of Oxford) and paths will also grow into a natural habitat to attract varieties of wildlife.
We’ve put in 1,800 trees in all and have used only those native to the area, predominantly Ash, with sizable drifts of Oak and Field Maple. For fillers we’ve planted Wild Cherry, Sweet chestnut, Walnut, Hornbeam, Crab Apple, Birch and Alder as well as shrubs – dogwood, Hazel, Spindle, Dog rose, Wayfaring tree and Guelder rose. This year we got as far as starting a mixed Saxon hedge along our boundary fence facing on to the fields, but in time the plan is to run it down the full length of the field. More potential habitat for bird life, at least that’s the idea. What a learning curve this project has been – we’ve learnt that there is more than one way to plant a tree and that everyone’s an expert each with a special tip! It’s been good fun and great exercise!
Wendy and Andrew Wilson. March 2009.
In his book In his book, Ancient Trees, Living Landscapes Muir says that hedgerows today are essentially of two types. There are those which result from 18th century enclosure acts and there are other older ones. Those planted as a result of the enclosure acts were generally monocultures of nursery-grown quickthorn, about seven to the yard with trees sometimes interspersed: oak, ash or elm.
The older hedgerows had a variety of origins. Some might be boundary features of pre-Norman or even prehistoric vintage. Some might be the result of people exchanging or selling their pieces of land to make small fields which could be enclosed to hold cattle or sheep. We know that much of the land in Elsfield was enclosed by 1703, which suggests that some of the hedges now in place may be of older vintage. However Muir makes the point very forcefully that one should not confuse the age of the boundary with the age of the hedge.
It has been thought that the number of species counted in a 30 foot stretch of hedging can indicate the age of the hedge. To this end in 1996 Ann Cole produced a map of Elsfield parish showing the species count of each hedge. Muir pours scorn on this, saying that this is analogous to saying that the age of a bus can be deduced from the number of people travelling in it. Muir, however, is a geographer turned landscape archaeologist, not a botanist.
Hedges laying by farmers
Within the parish itself since 2000 many hedges have been replaced by the Browns with what is known as Saxon hedging, made up of a mixture of native shrubs such as blackthorn, hawthorn, guelder rose, field maple and spindle. On the western side of the parish hedges in Clements Piece, Rough Ground, Collets, Hangers and Burnhams have all been replanted. To the north, Green Pastures, Tin Shed and Drun Hill have all seen hedges renewed.To the east of the road through the village Brierley Furlong, Vicars Field, Lousy Mead, Carrot Hill and Barley Close have also seen part of their hedging replaced.
Whether Muir’s criticism of the method of species counting to determine the age of a hedge is valid or not, some of Ann Cole’s hedgerow count of 1996, which showed the difference in number of species, and by correlation the age of the hedges, is rendered invalid by the recent planting of Saxon hedging. On her map, the oldest stretch of hedge appears to be the southern edge of Hill Farm Cow Ground bordering Gurdons Ground, where the hedge has 8.6 different species in a thirty yard stretch. Similarly diverse is the hedge between Stretchfield and Headington parish, again with a count of eight. Neither of these has been replaced. Another old stretch of hedging in Lyme Hill has been replaced, however. Much of the other planting is of boundaries which Cole found impossible to date, suggesting that the renewal of hedging has greatly increased the variety of species though making it difficult to date the hedges other than by reference to the farmer.