Andrew Hoaen ‘Hidden Heritage of Veteran Trees and ancient woods: A pilot project in the Forest of Dean.



The concept of “Hidden Heritage” is a relatively new one that this paper will aim to explore. This paper will discuss that there is not so much a hidden heritage rather that there is an everyday heritage that is largely ignored until it is lost and gone. Modern European human beings spend most of their lives inside, staring at one kind of a screen or another. Because people spend so little time outdoors they lack observational skills or have developed very specific skills. This combination of focus on specific items in the world or lack of focus means that as a society and as individuals we are not always able to correctly identify and observe interesting phenomena.

As an archaeologist with a particular interest in the landscape I tend to walk around looking at the ground because that is where my sensibility lies. I am interested in observing the pattern of the ground as it rises and falls, the distribution of soil and stones and artefacts as that is my business. This project and my research in trees came about when I was conducting surveys in the Lake District nearly twenty years ago, and occasionally I couldn’t help looking up and noticing that I was surrounded by big old trees. I wasn’t sure what the historical and archaeological value of these trees was, but I felt I should be collecting data on them.

As my interests shifted towards the archaeology of trees and nature reserves I became aware of a degree of disconnect at all levels between how cultural and natural heritage are organized, managed, protected and recorded.

My current project in the Forest of Dean is at a preliminary phase and so I only aim to outline it here.

Archaeology and heritage of Veteran Trees

At last year’s Hay festival (2015) there was a roundtable discussion about why trees and woodlands have so little protection. Recently the National Trust voted to set up a tree register, and the Woodland Trust has argued for the establishment of a Very Important Tree register (2016). But what is an important tree and why is it heritage? Britain is unique in Europe in the number, size and distribution of ancient trees; ancient trees are one of the most striking features of our landscapes and townscapes (Rackham 1990).

The life of a tree is conventionally divided into youth, maturity and senescence. If matters were simple, practitioners would record those trees, that have reached the senescent phase and such trees are clearly recognizable (Natural England 1999). However, there are two further categories of interest both to the botanist and the historian, these are mature specimens which are still healthy but have reached a good size and notable trees which have some cultural significance because of graffiti, offerings or for some other reason.

The guidelines from Natural England and the Ancient Tree Hunt suggest that forest dominants such as oaks, ashes and sweet chestnuts are considered to be mature or interesting if their circumference when measured at breast height or 1.3m is greater than 3.2m (Natural England 1999). Such trees depending on their position and species may be older than a hundred years. Any tree with a girth of 4.7m is considered valuable for conservation, and a tree with a girth great than 6.25m is considered of great conservation value, understory trees such as holly and hawthorn, may be of interest at much smaller girths than these.

Trees although living things have a long history of use and interaction with both past and present communities and therefore can help to inform present generations about past human behavior. There is a consensus, which is open to challenge, that the present day landscape and environments that we wish to preserve are largely the result of human activity. This is thought to be particularly true of trees and woodland with authors such as Rackham (1990) and Peterken (1984) holding that the floristic diversity of English ancient woodlands, hedgerows and parklands is the result of long term patterns of management. These authors have largely focused on woodland whereas this research is mainly interested in individual trees (cf. Barnes and Williamson 2011).

If it is accepted that most trees in the landscape are the result of phases of management and relaxation of management then it is possible to look for patterns in the kinds of trees that are planted or which have grown in abandoned plots, the kind of species that are grown or allowed to remain, and the types of management, pollarding, coppicing, maidens that the trees have been subjected to. For this project trees are treated as if they were monuments and their distribution is examined from the perspective of an archaeologist. Trees give us a broadly dateable chronology and if dendrochronology is used a highly accurate dated record of landscape change and utilization (e.g. Mills 2013).

Trees however, unlike other monuments do not leave a record in the ground of their passing. When a thousand year old oak falls over and dies, it rots away and unless it has been recorded nothing remains to indicate its presence. Unfortunately, in the present day because of the increase in environmental stress many of our ancient trees are in poor condition or are already dead. There is therefore an urgent need for more recording, which presently is being led by the Woodland Trust, through the Ancient Tree Hunt (2016).

This need is not recognized by cultural heritage bodies due to the long standing division in England between the recording and care of Cultural and Natural Heritage assets; trees despite their clear cultural value are seldom included in cultural heritage recording projects e.g. Historic Environment Records, and are not protected as Scheduled Ancient Monuments.  Whilst the study of trees in the landscape has been promoted by figures such as Rackham (1990), Peterken (1984) and Rotherham (2011), they have not received the same degree of attention by archaeologists (though see RCAHMS 2015). As a part of nature ancient veteran trees are largely the responsibility of Natural England and various state aided voluntary groups such as the Wildlife Trusts and the Woodland Trust. There is currently no statutory record for trees, and no requirement to collect information on their presence. Natural England hold an inventory on ancient woodland (MAGIC 2016) as do the Woodland Trust through the Ancient Tree Hunt (Woodland Trust 2016). Some council’s may have a Tree Protection Officer and Tree Preservation Orders have been made since the introduction of the Town and Country Planning Act in 1947.


However, these orders rarely include rural trees, and are collected in an ad-hoc and informal fashion. They can be easily rescinded and often are if there are sufficient economic reasons.


Woodlands may be designated as either as Sites of Special Scientific Interest or as National Nature Reserves but this in practicality gives little protection to these places around 117,000 hectares of woodland is protected in this way, mostly, ancient semi-natural broadleaved woodland. Under the most recent guidance (Natural England and Forestry Commission 2016) ancient woodland and veteran trees should not be developed and have equal protection under the most recent National Planning Policy Framework unless the benefits of the development outweigh the loss (DCLG 2012). This has not reassured wildlife groups, and although the recent changes to legislation including the adoption of biodiversity offsetting has been recognized as not being appropriate for ancient woodland and veteran trees (DEFRA 2013), this is still part of the mitigation strategy proposed by the department, as part of the National Planning Policy Framework (DCLG 2012). The increased threat both to ancient trees, woodlands and the archaeology within them; for example, the development of HS2 sees over fifty ancient woodlands at risk of destruction or severe damage, is currently the cause of some controversy (Telegraph 2015).

The lack of integration of approach to woodland conservation by cultural and natural heritage bodies was perhaps most clearly illustrated by the controversy over Oaken Wood (Guardian 2013). Oaken Wood was an ancient woodland threatened by quarrying for Ragstone.


There is a heritage demand for Ragstone for use in older buildings, and unfortunately when the planning application was first made there was little coordination between Natural England and English Heritage (now Historic England). As a SSSI Natural England and the Woodland Trust argued for a rejection of the planning application. English Heritage, unfortunately supported the application on the grounds that the need for the stone outweighed the conservation requirements of the woodland. “A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said: “This planning application for an extension of an existing quarry was supported by Kent County Council, local MPs and English Heritage.” (DCLG 2013). English Heritage did not consider the floristic diversity at the wood to be a significant element of the historic or cultural environment.











Pilot study: Veteran Trees in the Forest of Dean

This project is an attempt to use archaeological techniques to study the distribution

of a  “Natural Heritage” asset, to aid our understanding of past and present woodland management in the Forest of Dean (Fig 1.).

The partner project is being managed by the charity Plantlife, and their aim is to provide a baseline of the veteran trees in the Forest in order to establish a series of ecological networks. This work is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund through the Foresters Forest project.

There are several databases of veteran trees in the Forest of Dean, the one the project is working with currently working is that held by the Forestry Commission for their own estate. This database holds nearly 1300 records of trees. Most are trees of special interest either species endemic to the forest, or parts of rides, or specimen trees.


The record suggests that only around 400 are old having girths greater than 3.2m, with less than 100 having girths larger than 6m. It is worth bearing in mind that an oak tree around 250 years in age may range in girth from around 3.5m to 5.35m depending on their position in the forest (Moir 2014). We are building on work carried out in the Forest estate and its environs by Ben Lennon (Lennon 2011) who investigated the ‘Lime Tree ride’, Ian Standing (1986, 1987) who has recorded numerous veteran trees, Brian Jones the Woodland Trust recorder and Peter Kensall of the Forestry Commission and his predecessors who established and maintain the database of veteran and notable trees. It is hoped to integrate the tree data with archaeological data derived from the LIDAR survey carried out by Gloucester County Council (Hoyle 2008).

Examples of hidden woodland heritage abound in the Forest of Dean, but because of its wooded nature, these can be hard to find and relocate. The Lime Tree ride is a case in point this is a long c. 10 miles path cutting diagonally through the forest SW to NE.


Re-discovered and researched several years ago (Lennon 2011). It was planted with common limes sometime in the mid- nineteenth century and quickly forgotten (Lennon 2011). The three veteran oaks near New Fancy are another case in point, one of these the ‘Shaden Tuft’ oak is wrongly located by the Ordnance Survey at 625 092 instead of its true location at 630 092. The nearby Forest Giant and King Charles Oaks are not marked by the Ordnance Survey, and are difficult to find within the woods. In recent years the conifer plantation surrounding the Forest Giant has been thinned so it is possible to see it now

In addition to these arboreal features, there is a whole hidden heritage around Speech House of memorials to various plantings and personages that are becoming lost and forgotten



Using this database the project has identified two pilot areas, one in the heart of the forest near Speech House and a further one nearby in the valley of the Brookwater Ditch.

Both of these pilot areas represent ‘gaps’ of common land between ‘inclosures’ (areas of plantations). The original hypothesis based on experience elsewhere that it was in these locations that were most likely to contain new veteran trees to record.  In addition to the pilot areas the project sought (and continues to seek) crowd sourced donations of tree records from volunteers: after a day of training the volunteers collect data on their own time and return the information to the project, or they take part in led survey days with one or another of the project leaders. In the initial development the project worked with around 50 people and has recruited 17 volunteers who have returned information to us.

Survey Methodology

The survey methodology consists of volunteers working either alone in allocated kilometre squares or as groups recording information onto pro-forma’s. Maintenance of spatial control is done in the field via handheld GPS devices which when corrected are accurate to around 5-10m. Spatial control of crowd sourced data is more complex and is achieved by ground truthing a sample of each volunteers data recording. This data is then added to a copy of the GIS and made available to the Gloucester centre for environmental records and the Forestry Commission.


The project has to date recorded over 100 veteran trees increasing the known resource of veteran trees on the Forestry Commissions estate by around 25%. Trees have been found by volunteers throughout the forest, it is too early to draw any conclusions from the crowd sourced data based on individual kilometer square work by volunteers. Within the two pilot areas however we do appear to be seeing a pattern of increased presence of veteran trees.

In both pilot areas the project found significant numbers of veteran trees. The current work in the valley of the Brookwater ditch has increased the record of ancient trees in this location from 3 to 20, these were mainly oaks, but also several beeches (including some graffiti trees) and several veteran hollies. It is planned to return to record the associated rich archaeological landscape of this valley (Fig 5).

At Speech House the area was surveyed by the author and volunteers during a survey day, subsequently the volunteer Brian Jones and the author recorded 50 new veteran trees to add to the considerable number already known. These were mainly hollies which had been noted during earlier surveys but not mapped. In addition we also recorded several archaeological features including four woodland memorials, relict enclosure boundaries, pits, charcoal burning hearths and bottle dumps (Hoaen 2016).


This preliminary study, indicates that a crowd funded approach to veteran survey will work in the Forest of Dean. The initial results suggest that there is a hidden heritage of woodland management that is not presently well understood. Because conventional archaeological work especially in woodlands concentrates on ground truthing ‘lumps and bumps’ picked up on LIDAR surveys e.g. Hoyle 2008,  while a standard archaeological approach is adequate for most archaeological purposes such an approach to Forest Archaeology can result in ignoring the historical and archaeological resource that is the trees and plants that grow in the forest. The preliminary results at Speech House and Brookways ditch suggest that we can begin to see a difference in the preservation and management of veteran trees between enclosures which have a high level of management and the interstitial areas between them which have a lower level of management. While very provisional this is important as these interstitial areas are less likely to be part of the forest plan which in turn means they are not likely to be visited by foresters who are the main source of data within the Forestry Commission database.

The types and disposition of the trees in these areas suggest that some of the woodland at Brookways ditch is largely the result of regenerated woodland that has grown up in between two enclosures. However, the largest trees in this location are c. 5.65m in girth and are potentially 2-300 years old and form a line parallel to the road. These trees all demonstrate a straight form and do not appear to have been pollarded or have undergone self pollarding (Fig. 6), this suggests that they have grown up in a closed canopy forest as opposed to a park land environment where a more extensive canopy would have developed. This may be contrasted with the large trees away from the road which have more open canopies indicative of open grown trees (Fig. 7). These are preliminary results and need to be integrated with other sources such as archaeological evidence and historical data, but the use of tree form as a guide to previous land use has potential application in understanding the pattern of usage in the forest.

The situation at Speech House is more complex, although an open area exists around the site of the Hotel, and this is likely to have been a common, the density of ancient trees, trees of special interest, tree memorials, industrial and other archaeological sites is such that any interpretation at this stage of the investigation would be premature. However, it is clear that there is a hidden woodland heritage of both trees and archaeological remains at Speech House that needs to be understood and explicated.





It is out of the reach of this paper to consider the reasons behind the split between cultural and natural heritage management in England other than to say that it is long standing.  We cannot expect English Nature to take into account the archaeological and heritage significance of veteran trees, equally we cannot expect Historic England to influence the protection of Natural Heritage assets. It would be beneficial if these bodies took a more integrated approach to landscape preservation. The use of Historic Landuse analysis by the Royal Commission of Ancient and Historic Monumets in Scotland and Historic Scotland perhaps suggests a possible way forward (Land use consultants 2003). It is worth noting that the recent POST note on Ancient woodland draws attention to the archaeological significance of both ancient woodland and veteran trees as follows “Ancient woods are a rich historical, cultural and symbolic resource. They often contain archaeological relicts of previous ways of life, such as hearths or kilns. Veteran trees are also archaeological relicts, as their age and structure are often a result of past human use.” (POST 2014:1)

It is arguable that this recognition that veteran trees are archaeological relicts is a significant change in emphasis on the part of archaeologists the failure of many archaeologists to consider trees as monuments has several possible causes. Within the discipline there is an anthropocentric and monument focus in our study of landscapes. As a discipline there has been uneven development of expertise in historical geography and biogeography and a tendency to ignore recent periods.



When there is a concern with recent landscapes it is often project focussed on elite or state behaviours such as the “Defence of Britain Project”, or the development of landscaped gardens by elites (Watkins and Wright 2007). More mundane archaeology and heritage of the recent past is often overlooked unless associated with individuals from humble origins, or industries, which have particular significance. In our study of landscapes there is a need to start including ecological information, such as the distribution of plants and animals into our understanding of the cultural landscape. The living element of the landscape in terms of its ecology and biodiversity has a great deal to tell us about landscape history. In the same way that archaeologists employ palaeoecological techniques to inform our understanding of the deep past there is an argument for employing ecological techniques to understand landscape development in the post medieval period.


Acknowledgements: Funding for elements of this research was received from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Partners include Plantlife, the Forestry Commisson and Natural England. Thanks are due to the volunteers who have supported the survey and the University of Worcester for technical support. Thanks are also due to Rob Jarman, Zoe Hazell, Ian Standing, Dave Storey, and John Dutton.



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Heritage Matters both now and in the future !

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