As I stand on the edge of our wood, I look out across an estuary. It can be crossed by boat when the tide is in. Local churchyards bear testament to the dangers of crossing it when the tide is out, but it can be done, and in past times the nearby priory paid for a guide to bring people safely across the sand. We could have stood where I am standing to watch the procession carefully picking its way from one side of the estuary to the other. I was unaware of this history when we bought the wood, though it was this view that made the woodland stand out; it was the reason it had to be this bit of woodland and no other. And as I have looked further into the history of our woods, I am even more thrilled by the amazing place we have had the fortune to stumble upon.
The first thing to really catch my eye was a record of our woodland and its surrounding land dating from 1184. It seems the land was owned by one Orm, son of Thore.
“He sounds like a Viking,” I joked to Joe.
It turns out, it was no joke. Our wood is in an area that was occupied by Norse settlers and their descendants. The name of our wood is Old Norse, and so, in part, is the name of the nearby settlement. I find this fascinating – Vikings in our wood. How come I hadn’t heard of this before? Watching the Blue Peter reports from the Yorvik dig when I was younger had really captured my imagination – I was in their children’s ‘Toki’ club for years. I have books about the Vikings and have spent time looking at the Viking history of York, Lindesfarne and Northumbria – I just hadn’t really thought of Norse Settlement in our area.
When I started to look back I realised we live in an area of the country that has been particularly unstable in its past; even when the rest of the country could be considered under the rule of Romans, Kings, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, our county has ricocheted between rulers, even backwards and forwards between Scotland and England. I was delighted to learn that one of the Kings of Scotland writing sometime in the early 1100’s said the area encompassed ‘different people of different nations from different regions’ and that there were a number of different languages spoken. Although most of my friends consider me to live ‘out in the sticks’, this place was once a truly multicultural landscape. It seems that in the centuries before the Norman’s arrived, our county was populated by Celts, Anglosaxon’s, and Vikings arriving from both West (Ireland) and the East (York/Northumberland), each carrying traditions picked up and combined with theirs along the way. And while Kings fought and kingdoms were being rearranged around them, these people had to live. What is emerging from the evidence so far is that they did live, several different cultures co-existing and intermingling, relatively unimpeded by the political changes that were weaving around them, relatively unaffected by who actually claimed the role of sovereign over the land they lived in.
That is, until the arrival of the Norman’s in 1066 – except even here, our wood is an exception to the rule. The Norman’s effectively stopped, on the other side of the estuary. It took them another twenty six years to take the land I stand on. So I look out from the wood and wonder about the ancestors of Thore and Orm. Did they stand here in 1070 looking across the estuary, assuming that Norman rule was just another of those inconsequential changes they were used to, or were they uneasy when they heard, from people crossing the sand, of how the Norman’s were changing the lives of the people just miles to the South. Did our cosmopolitan Vikings realise change was coming as they glimpsed the Norman’s across the sand, did they watch anxiously for hostile armies approaching? Was there a stand-off, Vikings one side, Norman’s the other? Who knows? One thing is certain: as little bits of this wood’s history unfold, it becomes more and more special. It makes me even more determined that it, and its place in history, should be preserved and celebrated.