Thursday, 23 April 2009

Wood Ghosts ?

There’s an intriguing line in John Lloyd’s history of Chorlton (1). He writes that during the 7th Century Anglo-Saxon period and after: “The ancient forest of Arden occupied both sides of the Mersey, the principal trees being oak and willow.” In stating this he appears to have been echoing an earlier writer, Thomas Ellwood, who published a series of articles on Chorlton’s history in a journal called ‘The Manchester Gazette’ in the 1880s (2); and Ellwood was probably echoing an earlier writer, and so on ...

The word ‘forest’ should always be treated with caution. Most people assume that a ‘forest’ is a ‘big wood’ but those people would probably be surprised by Oliver Rackham’s (3) assertion that, “the word Forest does not imply woodland”. In fact, in medieval England, a ‘Forest’ was a hunting reserve and a place for deer. Such hunting reserves could be on moorland, heath or fenland but some could be partly or even heavily wooded.

John Lloyd goes on to state that ‘Ard’ means ‘tree’ and, hence, if “the forest of Arden” existed it may well have been wooded. He also asserts that the ‘Hardy’ in ‘Chorlton-cum-Hardy’ is from ‘Ard-ea’ meaning ‘wood by the water’.

Shakespeare enthusiasts will know that the Bard set his play, ‘As You Like It’ in the Forest of Arden. And there is, of course, a Forest of Arden in the playwright’s own native Warwickshire, although the original work on which the play was based was set in the Forest of Ardennes in what is now Belgium. Perhaps, then, ‘Arden’/’Ardennes’ is just an old, generic name for a wooded forest (?)

The history of woodland in Britain is highly complex and be-devilled by myths. One writer who has done much to sort out this history and dispel these myths is Oliver Rackham and, if you’re interested, I highly recommend his recent book, ‘Woodlands’ (4). What is reasonably certain is that the post-Ice Age landscape with its ‘wildwood’ was heavily modified and reduced by the time Romans and Saxons arrived – even though they are often accused of chopping down all the trees.

In more recent times there certainly seems to have been some woodland in the Mersey Valley – although it couldn’t have been described, in any way, as heavily wooded. Recently, local historian Andrew Simpson (5) has stated that, for example, Chorlton, in 1845, had 680 acres of meadow, 490 acres of arable land, but only 10 acres of woodland. Probably, this 10 acres consisted of Barlow Wood near Barlow Hall, woods along the banks of Chorlton Brook, including Hough End Clough (some of which, at least, was technically in Withington), and a few other scraps, some of which may have been plantations. The last point is important: an ‘ancient wood’ is an ecosystem in which trees predominate but are not the only organisms present; trees, fungi, invertebrates and plants of the woodland floor all interact in a complex web. A ‘plantation’, on the other hand, is just a collection of planted trees – which may never attain the complexity and diversity of a wood that has evolved naturally over a long period of time; you can’t plant an ancient wood!

Given this background it’s surprising, then, that ‘classic’ woodland plants still seem to be present in the Mersey Valley flora. Examples are the beautiful Wood Anenomes (Anenome nemorosa), pictured above, which I photographed a few days ago on the river bank adjacent to Northernden Golf Club. Other examples, which I have found over the years, include Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scriptus), Ramsons (Allium ursinum) and Great Woodrush (Luzula sylvatica).
My romantic imagination likes to picture these plants as ‘ghosts’ of old woodland – persistent and lingering traces of a vanished world – woods from which most of the trees have disappeared. In some cases this may be true. Some of the older hedgerows could be woodland remnants. For example, the north side of Hawthorn Lane (the old boundary between Chorlton and Stretford), although heavily replanted in recent years, contains Bluebells and Wood Sage (Teucrium scorodonia). And hedges by Ford Lane in Northernden and Stenner Lane at Fletcher Moss both contain Dog’s Mercury (Mercurialis perennis), often considered to be an important indicator species of ancient woodland.

Nevertheless, there may be another mechanism at work. One of Richard Buxton’s (6) mid-19th century records for the woodland plant, Wild Daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) reads, “A field near the right bank of the Mersey, a little above Jackson’s Boat”. Similar records in Leo Grindon’s flora (7) read, “Barlow Wood” and “Near Jackson’s Boat”. So, if I read these records correctly, the woodland Wild Daffodil did occur in local woodland but was also found in more open locations – probably meadowland. How did it get there? Its bulbs could have been transplanted from the woods, of course, but I think that a more likely explanation is that the bulbs were flushed out of woods further up the Mersey watershed and deposited in the meadows in winter floods (remember that right into the 20th century local farmers deliberately flooded the riverside meadows in order to deposit rich silt on to them). If this sounds a little far-fetched, it seems to be a mechanism which is still operating today. I often find woodland plants growing on the river banks – particularly Ramsons and Bluebells. And among many different types of cultivated Daffodils I have sometimes found specimens that look very like the N. pseudonarcissus wild species.
I made an interesting find last year (2008) when examining the concrete supports of Barfoot Bridge, which carry the Metro across the river from Stretford to Sale and are often under a couple of feet of water in winter floods. Here I found woodland plants such a Great Woodrush and Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage (Chrysosplenium oppositifolium), but most surprising of all was a strange little plant called Town Hall Clock (Adoxa moschatellina). I have seen no other recent records of this plant from the Mersey Valley (although it was more common in Buxton and Grindon’s day).
This view of the Mersey as a dynamic agent moving plants around when it floods is probably an important, though neglected, aspect of local biodiversity.

Dave Bishop, April 2009


1. ‘The Township of Chorlton cum Hardy’ by John Lloyd, E.J. Morten, 1972.

2. 'Thomas Ellwood's Chorlton History Articles': Personal communication from Andrew Simpson.

3. ‘The History of the Countryside’ by Oliver Rackham, Dent, 1986.

4. ‘Woodlands’ by Oliver Rackham, Collins, 2006.

5. ‘Chorlton's History - From Agricultural Village to Suburb’ by Andrew Simpson, FoCM Blog, 29th September, 2008.

6. ‘A Botanical Guide to the Flowering Plants, Ferns, Mosses and Algae Found Indigenous Within Sixteen Miles of Manchester’ by Richard Buxton, Longman, 1849.

7. ‘The Manchester Flora’ by Leo Grindon, William White, 1859.


bathmate said...

As always an excellent posting.The
way you write is awesome.Thanks. Adding more information will be more useful.


Friends of Chorlton Meadows said...

Dear bathmate,

Sorry, but I've just read your comment and thank you for your kind remarks. I'm glad that you enjoyed the article. I'll try to add more info. when I find it.

Still, spring will be here soon and I'm sure that there are more exciting discoveries to be made!