Many years ago most of the UK was covered in woodland. As humans began to settle they made clearings in the wood. The settlements got bigger and the clearings got bigger. Agriculture developed and land was cleared for animals to graze and to grow crops, they left thin strips of woodland between fields. As time went by land use changed from woodland to agriculture and back to woodland. Urban areas developed. The Kings took back land to form the Royal Chases. Cannock Chase and the New Forest are just two of these areas still largely clear of both agriculture and settlements. Instead of Royal playgrounds they have become important leisure land for ordinary people to walk, picnic, bicycle and ride horses over.
When we see a wood today, there is no easy way to tell how long it has been a wood. There are a very few areas of ancient woodlands left. In Somerset we have the remains of Selwood Forest, thought to be part of the original forest, but only recorded as such since the middle ages. Many of our small country churches predate those records. There are also scraps of forest are in Scotland, the remains of the Caledonian forest, which is thought to have been continuous forest from about 7000BC.
In Britain today woods exist where they do because Man wants them there. Whilst providing habitat for nature and wildlife they are not entirely natural. They provide good shelter belts for farmsteads and livestock, they provide wood and nuts. Coppicing, the practice of cutting trees down an allowing them to grow again from the mature roots provides heavy crops of wood for fuel or fencing and nuts from a tree of a manageable size.
Edible wildlife, deer and rabbits live in them. They may be left to grow on ground too wet or rocky for crops. The shooting industry manages large amounts of woodland to rear and release pheasants, the woods will have been planted to provide good lines of flight for the birds to fly over the guns on a shoot day. Some woods will have been planted simply for aesthetic reasons, they look nice. Near Stonehenge in Wiltshire a landowner is alleged to have planted small areas of woodland in his large fields to show the position of ships in one of Nelson’s battles.
On the map woodland is shaded green.
If the wood contains coniferous trees then the green is overlaid with a simplified Christmas tree symbol. Coniferous trees generally produce cones and have needle shaped leaves which they keep in the winter. Conifers include Scots Pine, Juniper and Yew and there are plantations of Larch, Douglas Fir and Spruce (Christmas trees) amongst others.
If the wood contains non coniferous trees then in a darker green there is a simplified outline of an oak tree. Non coniferous trees lose their flat shaped leaves in winter and include oak, ash, sycamore, birch, beech and many more.
Coppice is shown again with green shading but with the symbol of two tall sticks and two short sticks in a row.
Orchards, of which there are many in our area are shown by the symbol for a non coniferous tree, in a regular pattern, on white background. Orchards are associated with apples and other fruits but nuts are also grown in ‘nut orchards’ which also have the lovely name ‘nutterys’
For navigating, it’s best to keep out of the woods, they can be totally disorientating as you lose sight of a horizon. There are usually lots of little paths not marked on the map. You start by following one which appears to go in the right direcion, but slowly it changes direction and you leave the wood in a completely different place to where you had hoped. Only very competent compass users can pinpoint exactly where they are within a forest. On a large D of E expedition I saw twelve teams set out from a car park in the middle of a large wood near Marlborough. Only two came out of the wood in the correct place, they were following the line of a large earthwork, a bit of the Wansdyke.
But woods can be useful, they are big, have distinctive shapes, and different types of trees in them. The woods behind my house are mostly non coniferous, but have two huge scots pines, visible from miles away and clearly marked on the map.
Woods make good handrails, to walk along or to align your map with. Do beware, unlike churches woodland is easily cut down, although not removed. On the last but one day of walking The Pennine Way and battling Storm Ali’s 80mph winds, I was looking forward to walking in the lee of a large area of woodland. To my dismay when I got there it had been almost clear felled with just a few odd trees bending down to the ground and threatening to fall onto us.