Mystery in the woods

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Old coppice stool now holds water

“Presently, the track came out into a clearing at a patch of flat ground. In the middle of the clearing was a big circle of black burnt earth.
‘This is where the savages have had a corroborre,’ said Titty. ‘ They cooked their prisoners on a fire and danced round them.’
‘Yelling like mad,’ said Roger.
… Forty or fifty yards away there was a great mound of earth with little jets of blue wood-smoke spirting from it. A man with a spade was patting the mound and putting a spadeful of earth wherever the smoke showed. Sometimes he climbed on the mound itself to smother a jet of smoke near the top of it. As soon as he closed one hole another jet of smoke would show itself somewhere else.”

This was my first glimpse into the world of the charcoal burner, found as I devoured my way through Swallows and Amazons, the first book in the series by Arthur Ransome. (I read every book reverently; something inside them reached out to me. Joe has actually been to Wild Cat Island and is very blasé about it – to me at his age, it would have been like treading on Holy Ground.) For some reason, the charcoal burners stuck in my head; I really wanted to make charcoal.  So I find it very exciting to know that charcoal burners have lived and worked in our woods. There is evidence of them all through it. The most obvious sign is the coppiced trees, mostly hazel, but also ash and sycamore. The trees were cut down to the ground on a 14 year rotation, and in the years in between cutting, the tree would resprout from the base, maturing into trunks of around 10cm. Because a number of trunks sprout from a single tree base, trees have a characteristic shape and are called coppice stools. The trees in our wood have not been coppiced since 1939, so the larger trees (oak, sycamore, birch, small-leaved lime and ash) are growing high, blocking out the light to the understory of hazel coppice. If the wood is not managed for coppicing again, the already knarled, oversized and struggling coppice stools will eventually die away through lack of light, and the wood will take on a different character. We hope we can manage at least some of the woodland as coppice, so maintaining an open woodland habitat.  With the loss of much of our open woodland in Britain, we risk losing the biodiversity associated with it – pollen dependent insects, butterflies, bird species , flowers and tree species.  If we do not coppice any of our woodland, soon we will lose the hawthorn, spindle, crabapple and buckthorn struggling to hang on under the higher canopy.

Above, the photographs show an old, knarled coppice stool dying back as no new shoots are developing and a stool where the trunks are now oversized.  Both are suffering through lack of coppicing.

It is not just the coppicing that shows charcoal burners have been at work. Also obvious in the wood are the flat platforms where the charcoal burns took place, and the tracks used to move wood and charcoal are mostly still very visible. There are a number of stone chimneys and fireplaces too. They stand alone, incongruous in the wood, and are all that remains of the workers huts. The huts were mostly built of poles (usually in a wigwam shape), thatched with turf, and were built or repaired at each visit using materials from the wood. The itinerant workers and their famillies would move into the wood for a season, once every 14 years. They would cut the coppice over the winter, then burn the wood and move out the charcoal. It is thought it took almost a year to complete the process in our wood, maybe more.

We have so many accounts of the presence of charcoal burners in our landscape.  We have photographs of them at work. For centuries, their product was vital to industry such as iron smelting and gunpowder making. So it came as a shock to me when I went on a local charcoal making course last year, to find that no-one really knows for sure how they did it. For example, records talk about sammel being used to cover the mound – but although it is thought to be the burnt earth from previous burns, no one is quite sure what exactly sammel is. Incredibly, no one is quite sure how the charcoal burn was put out. It involved water being injected down into the mound in order to fill the pile with steam and starve the burn of oxygen. That all sounds fine, but practically, how do you do that effectively while not saturating the charcoal itself? There is no one left alive who can pass on the skills of centuries; all that expertise and knowledge built up over time has been lost. It seems a shame that such a vital part of our heritage has become a bit of a mystery to us, even more so because it has been lost so recently. The knowledge is only one or two generations back, but it might as well be a hundred. The children in Arthur Ransome’s stories come to think of the charcoal burner as a medicine man in the book ‘Swallowdale’; Roger sleeps the night in a charcoal burner’s hut because he has hurt his ankle, and he is rather nervous to begin with. Medicine men seem surrounded by an air of mystery, as were the charcoal burners in Arthur Ransome’s books; people who could tame the fire, taking about it as if it were an entity in its own right. The fact that we can’t quite work out how the charcoal burners carried out their ‘magic’ makes them even more mysterious. I have a great respect for those families who worked in our woods, handing down the knowledge of their trade from generation to generation. If only Roger had thought to ask of his medicine man how he put out his fire.

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