Back to Cumbria

My first job in 1977 after college was working for the Lake District Special Planning Board on a woodland survey. I don’t think I did it very well with hindsight, but it was a fantastic experience and introduced me to the woods of Cumbria. A recent trip took me back for a few days to the oakwoods of Borrowdale and the mixed woods and plantations between Coniston and Windermere.

The Nature Conservation Review (Ratcliffe, 1977) describes Borrowdale as having a greater extent of native woodland than any other Lakeland valley. There are key sites in our internationally important series of western woods with rich Atlantic moss, liverwort and lichen communities. The NCR refers to  ‘fine stands of high-forest, sessile oakwood in Great Wood, Johnny’s Wood and Seatoller Wood’ but Peterken (1981) pointed out that in 1587 the coppices had more birch, ash, holly and thorns. Further back in time, Johnny’s Wood appears to have been a mixed deciduous woodland with oak, ash, birch, alder, lime, elm and yew (Birks, 1996).

Many oakwoods in western Britain, including parts of Borrowdale, were formerly managed as coppice for charcoal and oakbark for tanning. Evidence for this past use may survive as multi-stemmed trees or the remains of charcoal hearths. On my walks through Borrowdale I was surprised how few of both of these I saw. What did catch my eye were the occasional larches scattered through the woods. On the mid-19th century maps Great Wood, Johnny’s Wood and parts of Seatoller all have a multitude of conifer symbols in them. It looks like some of the current oak stands may have more of a planted origin than often acknowledged.

Borrowdale oak woodland with scattered larch in background

Elsewhere in the valley more mixed stands do occur. These include old pollarded ash, unfortunately now often showing severe ash dieback, elm and even a few yew. These woods are often rather more open stands – closer to wood-pasture – although with quite dense hazel coppice below. Up past Stonethwaite on my way to Grasmere, via Easdale, there was what in Wales would be called ffridd, the scattered hawthorn savanna between the enclosed valley bottoms and open hill. Surprisingly though in the two days wandering through the woods, sheep, and signs of sheep, were scarce. Some of the woods have clearly had the stock fenced out, but I think also my visit coincided with flocks being gathered off the hill.

The second part of the trip started in the more enclosed rolling landscape above Coniston Water. My path ran alongside a wall, with oak, holly and hazel regenerating at its base. Seeds may accumulate more there through being blown against the stones, or through secondarily dispersal by small mammals that take shelter in the wall. There may also be a bit more protection against grazing. Just below the crest of the slope there were a lot of windblown trees. From the size of the regrowth on those that were still alive (‘phoenix’ trees) I suspect these came down in the bad storm of 2005.

The oaks at Dodgson Wood showed more signs of past coppice working than in Borrowdale and many charcoal hearths have been mapped, but as in Borrowdale the woodland was once more mixed (Barker, 1998). Lime and elm occur in gullies and occasionally elsewhere through the woods.

Then on through the vastness of Grizedale Forest. At my walking pace much of the forest is still rather uniform, despite the felling and replanting that is taking place. However for the mountain bikers whizzing by on the tracks the scale of variation is more appropriate.

Somewhat weary I dropped down past Far Sawrey to pick up the ferry across to Windermere and a bus to my B&B. Except the ferry was closed! The chain was damaged during the day and they could not take vehicles onboard. Fortunately, they ran one last trip for us otherwise-stranded pedestrians. At which point, after four hot sunny days, the rain began. Some things about the Lake District have not changed since 1977.

BARKER, S. The history of the Coniston woodlands, Cumbria, UK. 1998 Wallingford. CAB INTERNATIONAL, 167-183.

BIRKS, H. J. B. 1996. Contributions of Quaternary Palaeoecology to Nature Conservation. Journal of Vegetation Science, 7, 89-98.

PETERKEN, G. F. 1981. Woodland conservation and management., London, Chapman and Hall.

RATCLIFFE, D. A. 1977. A nature conservation review, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

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