Our ‘Save Smithy Wood’ campaign has revealed some of the fascinating history of this wood under threat. Thank you to Melvyn Jones for our latest guest blog -Melvyn is a geographer turned landscape historian and was appointed Visiting Professor at Sheffield Hallam University in 1999. Here he talks about the importance of Smithy Wood:
“Most of you blog readers will be aware of the proposal to build a motorway service station at junction 35 of the M1 motorway in South Yorkshire. This new development, if it goes ahead as planned, will destroy up to 20 acres of an ancient wood. And the wood is not only a designated Local Wildlife Site within Sheffield’s Green Belt and important landscape feature; it is an ancient wood with a long and detailed documentary history.
The surviving fragment of Smithy Wood was part of a 160-acre coppice wood for many centuries. Such woods have the greatest heritage value. It is the inherited characteristics of ancient coppice woods – their sites (often on sloping ground), their locations (on or near parish boundaries, as in this case where Ecclesfield parish abuts onto Rotherham parish), their shapes, their variety of plant life and the animals that inhabit them, their archaeology (in this case, for example, medieval bell pits, sawpits, charcoal hearths, boundary banks and walls and the living archaeology – old worked trees such as ancient coppice stools and stored coppice) and their often long-documented history – that make them so special. They take us back to the roots of our history and are irreplaceable.
The fragment of the wood that has survived in the face of merciless abuse over the last century and a half (a railway, a colliery, a coking plant and the M1 motorway have all devoured parts of the wood) is irreplaceable not least because of the wood’s association with the first recorded documentary evidence of metal working in the Sheffield area.
It has long been believed that the name Smithy Wood relates to the utilisation of the ironstone seam (Clayband Ironstone) that lies beneath it and for the charcoal from the trees growing on the site (they would have been coppiced to ensure a sustainable supply) by the monks of Kirkstead Abbey in Lincolnshire.
The monastery was granted a large site on nearby Thorpe Common (about a mile to the east) on which to establish a grange (an outlying economic unit) by Richard de Busli the Norman lord of the manor in 1161. They were given permission to set up two furnaces and two forges. About the same date they were also granted several hundred acres in the adjoining parish of Ecclesfield by the lord of the manor of Hallamshire, Richard de Lovetot. Significantly, the ancient name for what is now Kirkstead Abbey Grange is the Monks’ Smithy Houses.
From the end of the sixteenth century until almost the end of the nineteenth century detailed documentary and cartographic records have survived of the management of the wood as a spring wood (a coppice-with-standards). The cartographic records include information about the shape and size of the wood nearly 400 years ago with its sinuous and zig-zag shape and surrounded by irregular shaped fields indicating the piecemeal clearance of woodland over many centuries, the location of internal boundaries in the wood when it was managed as a compartmented coppice wood, and the steady and relentless encroachment by industrial undertakings and transport developments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The detailed written records provide a wide range of information about the management of the wood including the lengths of the coppice cycle, the grazing of cattle and horses in the well-grown coppice (called agistment or herbage), the carting of stone to the wood to build boundary walls, the marking of the trees not to be felled with red ochre paint (raddle), the uses to which the felled trees were put (for example, great timber for building, cordwood for charcoal making and oak bark for tanneries) and the precise names of the buyers of the wood and timber.
What all this means is that this wood is the descendant of a medieval working wood, an area of woodland conserved, named and managed, not wildwood, not natural woodland but ancient semi-natural woodland, influenced by human activity over many hundreds of years. A visit to a wood such as this can be as historically significant and as interesting as one to an ancient parish church, manor house or historic sailing ship.
Please sign the Woodland Trust’s petition to save Smithy Wood.”
Professor Melvyn Jones, Woodland Historian
Melvyn Jones is a geographer turned landscape historian. After a career in higher education of over 30 years he retired in 1997. In 1999 he was appointed Visiting Professor at Sheffield Hallam University. His books Sheffield’s Woodland Heritage (first published in 1989 and now in its 4th edition) and Rotherham’s Woodland Heritage were used as the basis of a successful £1.6m HLF bid in 1999 to conserve 35 ancient woodlands in South Yorkshire. In 2008 he co-edited with Ian Rotherham, Lindy Smith and Christine Handley, The Woodland Heritage Manual: A Guide to Investigating Wooded Landscapes, that was trialled in a series of workshops with groups of volunteers across the country from Devon and Sussex in the south to North Yorkshire and Cumbria in the north. He is now closely involved with Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust on the Greno Woods project. His latest books are Trees and Woodland in the South Yorkshire Landscape (Wharncliffe Publishing, 2012) and Gapping, Raddling and Snagging (Wildtrack Publishing, 2013), the latter being an illustrated glossary of woodland management terms used in South Yorkshire over the last 1,000 years. Melvyn and his wife Joan are long standing members of the Woodland Trust.