Introduction To Britain’s Lost Wildwood


‘The Wildwood’ is the scholarly though dramatic name introduced by Oliver Rackham, author of the History Of The Countryside, and today used by historical geographers to refer to Britain’s dominant type of landscape when there were as yet no separate, named (and soon to be ‘managed’) pockets of ‘greenwood’ like Robin Hood’s refuge, Sherwood Forest. There was only one great uncultivated, completely wild mass of trees and bushes, stretching almost from coast to coast, which was, in a famous historian’s remark, enveloped in a silence broken only by the singing of innumerable birds. Early travel and exploration was mostly by sea, with land travel restricted to the seaboard, due to one over-riding factor: the omnipresent Wildwood. To quote Julius Caesar on Britain, the whole island was “one horrible forest.”

Although feared by early writers such as Caesar who had to journey through it, it has since been adopted as a favourite literary landscape of British literature, from the mediaeval Arthurian Romances and tales of Robin Hood, to modern works like The Wind In The Willows, The Lord Of The Rings, and Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood. It has become the British counterpart of other great wilderness types elsewhere – the tropical jungle, the American prairie.

The treeline advanced northward after the Ice Ages.

The Wildwood existed for about 7000 years, from the post-Ice Age warm-up right through mediaeval times, when it was said a squirrel could cross England without touching ground. It is a major setting in the first popular written pan-European literature, the Arthurian romances, especially in the Grail Quest, where it is simply ‘The Waste Forest.’ The name, as in “waste ground’, means it is not being used for any human purposes. In the stories there are no people it apart from the occasional hermit in a wayside chapel to offer shelter and advice to the weary grail knight. There are also few real animals in it, only occasional visionary beasts, such as white harts and the odd lion or unicorn. In some versions the lack of towns or people is part of a curse on the kingdom as a Waste Land, to be cured by finding the Grail….

Originally, the whole island of Britain and much of northern Europe was barren after the ice-wall retreated c8000 BC, trees gradually taking root as the climate slowly improved. Forest replaced the tundra after 5500 BC. At first, only the hardy conifers grew, establishing Scots Pine woods of the sort that still survives in pockets in central Scotland (where once stood the "Great Wood Of Caledon"), plus some birch, aspen, sycamore and alder. The climate actually then became warmer than in historical times, deciduous species creeping northward to supplant conifers such as yew and juniper: poplar, rowan, beeches, the now nearly-extinct lime and elm, holly, then the more familiar oaks, plus hawthorn, ash, maple, willow, hornbeam, hazel, cherry, crab-apple. A remark by Caesar indicates the coniferous forest had vanished by the time the Romans arrived in 55 BC: "in Britain ... as in Gaul, there is timber of every description, except beech and fir." (Some versions translate this as "beech and pine.")


Coniferous Treeline

forest at night


At night, the forest could conjure up frightening shapes in man's imagination.

In the original Arthurian Romances, the knights wander through an immense forest.

By the time the climate warmup slowed, virtually the whole island was covered by Wildwood, with lime, hazel, oak and elm dominating. In the Neolithic or New Stone Age, when farming was introduced, Stone Age man began to chop clearings for farm small-holdings. The wild aurochs of forest and bog was penned up and bred. (The closest surviving ancestor of the ancient aurochs is an all-white breed at Chillingham.) Some historical geographers suggest the great Elm Decline of 4000 BC on was due to domesticated cattle or pigs eating the tender shoots of the young trees, just as today the Scottish deer herds kept for big-game shooting maintain the complete deforestation of Western Scotland.

Early inhabitants of course did not see the surrounding forest with the same nostalgia as today. The early settlers would fear such endless forest in which one could easily become lost, and at night fantasize about what lay hidden in its depths. Real wildwood had an Underwood of bushes, concealing who knew what? The mosquito-ridden fens or swamps were a particular menace, with delirium-inducing diseases such as malaria (“the ague”) reported there from the Roman period through the Middle Ages. Such a wariness is noted by Ralph Whitlock’s 1979 study The Shaping Of The Countryside: “The secret, twilight world beneath the trees is a place to be avoided. Better to stay in the open, where a man’s eyes can give warning of danger.” Richard Barber in King Arthur And The Grail offers the most complete analysis of the wildwood’s “strange dream-countries and eerie landscapes of the mind” as a traditional story setting:

“the forest is the scene of many strange adventures in tales of the Round Table. It harbours witches, fays, monsters, enchanted castles and magic springs.... It is an area of mystery and danger, of things that are not what they seem. In the forest you are far from home, from fireside warmth and security. In the forest you hear rustlings, like whispers and stealthy footsteps. In the forest you are lost. This is part of the lore of childhood now, but in the past dense forests covered much of Europe and faced grown men and women with the menace of the unknown.
The forest is an otherworld, a realm which man has not tamed. It is not always evil, by any means, for it can be green and beautiful, a place of freedom from the shackles of society and convention, a leafy bower for lovemaking, the arena of the hunting of boar or stag. Yet there is something uncanny about it. The forest is the territory of wild nature in both its life—giving and its destructive aspects... there is no straight path through the forest and distractions and entanglements are legion.
One strand in both the magnetic attraction and the terror of the forest is the feeling of antiquity. It was there before man came. It conceals beings and secrets older, wiser and infinitely more powerful than man.”

Subtropical plants appeared in warmer phases

Even in cool climates, woods could form in sheltered areas such as this undercliff.

The earliest human settlements were actually on hills, where the limestone and like pervious soils were easier to cultivate. Thus the pattern of settlement was away from the eastern lowlands, towards the hillier west — what would become the Celtic fringe. The forest was burnt off perhaps out of fear as well as farming purposes, the hill becoming an island overlooking a sea of surrounding ‘hostile’ wildwood. But then the climate cooled again after 700 BC, and the now-barren high ground was quickly eroded by winter rains washing away the fertile soil the trees had previously protected. Man had learned his first ecological lesson. He was forced down into the surrounding wildwood.
By around 400 BC, the Celts had introduced the first heavy plough capable of clearing forest for planting, but the forest’s becoming an essential part of Celtic life was recognised in Celtic mythology. The Wildwood soon had its own personification figure in ancient Celtic rituals still honoured today. This was named in pre-mediaeval times the Wudewose, (from Anglo-Saxon Wuduwasa). He is associated (or perhaps confused) with the Green Man, a pagan fertility symbol who was the personification of the evergreen Wildwood. (Xmas holly is originally his personal emblem.) The Green Man passed into mediaeval romance as the Green Knight, whose head can be cut off without killing him, since he regenerates himself just as trees do.
  The Green Man
Another dimension or interpretation of the Wudewose or Wild Man Of The Woods is the ordinary man driven mad by civilisation, and taking refuge in an animalistic existence in the woods, as happens to both Lancelot and the original Merlin. Shakespeare uses the fact ‘wude’ also meant mad as a pun in his pastoral plays. The Penguin Classics edition of “Sir Gawaine And The Green Knight” explains “The wild man of the woods, the ‘woodwose’, was often an outlaw who had taken to the woods and then developed sub-human habits and the fierce unpredictable behaviour of a wild beast. The green man, on the other hand, was a personification of spring, a mythological supernatural being who persists to this day in English folk dances and in the names of many pubs.”
Many commentators on Robin Hood argue he is at least in part a mediaeval humanisation (to avoid offending Church censors) of this earlier pagan deity the Green Man, as well as another, Celtic deity, the stag-antlered Herne the Hunter.
The Wild Man may on the other hand have been the British and European equivalent to the yeti or bigfoot. As the climate grew cooler and wetter, bogs and pools proliferated, and these in particular were thought to be the haunt of demons and trolls like the humanoid giant Grendel in the 7th-century Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf.
The Wildwood was certainly a fearful place in ancient times, believed to have its own spirits. Something of this also survives in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which has a wood full of English nature spirits like Puck alias Robin Goodfellow, who prey on humans who trespass their domain. The oak trees themselves became part of the Celtic religion organized by the Druids (from draoi, oak-seer), whose oak groves would be sought out for destruction by the invading Romans. Julius Caesar, calling Britain 'one horrible forest', said the Celts built their fortified settlements in the midst of 'tangled thickets'.
  Deciduous trees carried their own undergrowth, offering concealed vantage points for man and beast.
As well as the supernatural beings, there were of course real animals in the Wildwood. Some species like the above-mentioned lion, had gone the way of the mammoth, such as the giant elk. Nevertheless many major mammals survived into the Celtic period. One of the Celtic Triads, on the naming of Britain, says that before the Cymry or Welsh-Cornish folk arrived in Britain, "no men lived therein, but it was full of bears, wolves, beavers and bisons." The brown bear was exterminated in Britain during the Viking period as a matter of deliberate policy. The beaver was killed off in the Tudor period, while the bison's departure was too early to be dated. The elk (moose) was gone from the north by 1300. The evidence of folk-tales suggests the great wild ox or Urus (Bos taurus primigenius) may have lasted as late as the 15th century. In any case, as well as the deer which still generally survive in 3 species (red, roe and fallow), there were also wild boars in the north as late as c1850. The most-feared species seems to have been the wolves, who managed to survive into the 18th century. Early versions of Little Red Riding Hood still evoke this ancient sense of menace omnipresent in all-surrounding woods which became the basis of folk-tales to frighten children.
The claim that a squirrel could travel at treetop from the Severn to the Wash is classed by Ralph Whitlock as early mediaeval. This would not be the familiar grey squirrel, but the rare native red squirrel with the distinctive tufted ears -- these surviving only in small offshore reserves (e.g. on Brownsea Island in Dorset's Poole Harbour.) It was also said that the pilgrims like those in The Canterbury Tales could ride all the way from the old capital of Winchester to Canterbury in the shade. In fact, they travelled together largely out of fear of the brigands in the surrounding woods. 
In the Middle Ages, large-scale tree feeling is recorded at the time of the building of the great cathedrals. A thousand oaks are said to have been felled for the timber framework for Salisbury Cathedral. In the Tudor period, with the need to build enough ships for Britain to ‘rule the waves’ and dominate the world’s oceans for trade purposes, the trees began to be felled on an even larger scale. To build one of Henry Tudor’s warships like the Mary Rose required felling a small forest. With the forest habitat went entire species, such as the beaver, which died out in the mediaeval period. Other small animals managed just to survive in the wildwood, like the dormouse, which also travels the treetops but of which the Romans were very fond — roasted.
The Wildwood was deliberately broken up and burnt off also to get rid of outlaws and wolves. The very last known British wolf was killed in Scotland in 1745, about the time of Culloden. All forest cover has disappeared from vast areas due to clearance projects done for one reason or another, as in the Highland Clearances, in which the woods were first burnt off to drive out wolf and outlaw alike, the land unable to return to forest because of the Great Cheviot Sheep and later the deer herds kept for stag-shooting. While trees such as oak can live for centuries, and seed countless generations of descendants, uncounted numbers of trees were flattened in the Great Storm of 1703 which Defoe wrote of.
The spruce, pine, and fir woods sometimes seen today are not remnants of post Ice Age wildwood but postwar commercial plantations of conifers which are alien North American and Norwegian species that also destroy the underwood of bushes and plants.

Hercynian Wood

The word forest did not mean a woodland, but was a legal term for an exclusive royal hunting preserve, where the king and his friends could hunt deer and boar.
Caledonian Pine


Caledonian Pines

Deer in a forest glade


Every surviving forest in Britain has apparently been at some time ‘managed’ by forestry officials planting and clearing, and so strictly speaking cannot be officially classed as wildwood. “Today no wildwood survives in Britain,” says Thomas Hinde’s Forests Of Britain. Today, the closest approximation of the old wildwood in which one could lose oneself, in terms of size at least, has been for 900 years the New Forest in Hampshire, and even that has changed a great deal. (An a-v show, “The Changing Forest’ is shown at the Visitor Centre.) Many bird species do survive here. The last of the British ‘big-game’ species, the wild boar which died out elsewhere in England by late mediaeval times, here interbred with domestic pigs in the New Forest, and the hybrid can still be seen in the Tamworth breed.
The survival of the Wildwood in such small pockets meant that for a long time few understand it had existed everywhere. In his Victorian novel The Return Of The Native, Thomas Hardy turned his beloved home ground of Egdon Heath into a world-famous symbol of Nature’s permanence, whereas it is now realised the heath was, as elsewhere, once part of the Wildwood. The Wildwood remains a distinctive feature of ‘lost’ Britain, a mythic symbol which lives on in literature as the symbol of a lost natural paradise.


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