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Discovering Rockingham Forest    19 January 2018

Fineshade Wood is a remnant of what was once Rockingham Forest, which was created by William the Conqueror so that he could hunt when in the area – a forest means an enclosure or hunting ground.  It was on a similar scale to the New and Sherwood Forests, occupying two thirds of today’s Northamptonshire. This forest included both the wooded areas and the villages and towns.


This is why Fineshade Wood is in part classified as Ancient Woodland, meaning that the wood has existed continuously since 1600. Fineshade has a beech and ash dating back at least 400 years.


Rockingham Forest was slowly broken down and sold off over the centuries. 1832 marked the end of the overall forest and the Forestry Commission took over many of the remaining woodland parcels between 1922-23.


Many thanks to local historian Peter Hill for this information. His publications include Rockingham Forest: Then and Now and Rockingham Forest Revisited

Food for thought.   25 January 2018

The artist Paul Klee once described an artist as being like a tree, drawing the minerals of experience from its roots - things observed, read, told and felt - and slowly processing them into new leaves. A tree is a great metaphor for what artists can do.

The poet W.H. Auden wrote that ‘A culture is no better than its woods’ in his poem Bucolics II: Woods (for Nicholas Nabakov)

Hailstones near as big as walnuts (1690 to today)    30 January 2018

How did we come to be preoccupied with measuring weather, particularly in the UK?


Galileo was the first person to develop the principles behind the thermometer. His pupil Evangelista Torricello developed the first barometer in the 1640s, a device which operates by weighing air. It is an extraordinary thought that the weight of the air around us is in constant flux.


Torricello’s barometer was refined by Englishman Robert Hooke in 1664. Weather watching was now officially an English pursuit – not simply an opening gambit for a conversation. Hooke suggested that people all over the UK should adopt a standard practice of weather observation, recorded on a special chart showing the position of the moon and sun, direction and strength of the wind, the temperature, air pressure, appearance of the sky and ‘notable effects’ (including large hailstones from 1690).


The Central England Temperature record- now held by the Met Office- started in 1659. This record is cross-referenced with the dendrochronology tree cores.

The (re)introduction of the weathervane    4 February 2018

‘Legend has it that in the ninth century Pope Nicholas sent out a decree that churches across all Christendom should bear the cock as a reminder of how Peter denied Christ. The evidence is extremely thin, but it is a plausible explanation for the sudden profusion of roosters. Across Europe they were hoisted onto towers and steeples…they were eye catching reminders of denial and repentance…(revealing) the linked histories of faith and meteorology.’

Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies by Alexandra Harris


This created an association in the Christian world between God and God’s weather: bad weather that was sent as a punishment for humans behaving badly. It is noteworthy that so many effects of climate change: tempests, flooding, tsunamis, thunderbolts, and extreme temperatures echo these biblical punishments. So whilst climate changes effect's are scary enough, the idea of it is also profoundly culturally unsettling.

Edges and boundaries of the Forest    9 February 2018

As Rockingham Forest isn’t simply made up of trees, its edges and boundaries were always going to be blurry. To quote local historian Peter Hill, ‘Both man (managing or clearing woodland, and using land and water for agricultural, domestic and industrial purposes) and nature (especially in the form of soil erosion, storms, climatic changes and disease), have had an effect on the eventual composition and size of the forest.’

Rockingham Forest Revisited. Peter Hill


Rockingham Forest was a designated royal hunting ground. Whilst these boundaries had to be respected by the human species, other species such as deer had no such concerns. In the Forest‘s early days, there were Foresters and Wardens engaged to police both boundaries and local poaching. They made several official 'perambulations' (1286, 1299, 1641), to identify the edges of the forest with natural or permanent markers. A few of these old boundary trees still exist in Fineshade Wood. (See right)


The boundaries fixed by the 1299 perambulation remained unchanged for 300 years. However by the 1641 perambulation, the Forest had significantly shrunk, having being sold off to local nobles. An 1817 Act of Parliament placed UK forests under a special commission, and as mentioned earlier, a large part of Rockingham Forest was disafforested in 1832. More areas were sold off in 1850. 


The Forestry Commission took over Fineshade Wood as part of the UK Government's attempts to afforest swathes of England following the significant depletion of forests during WW1. 

Victorian Climate Change?    12 February 2018

In his 1884 essay, The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century,  the writer and art critic,  John Ruskin complained of a new type of weather in the UK. It had steadily emerged over previous forty years and therefore wasn’t caused by the global ash cloud caused by  Indonesia's  Krakatoa volcano's eruption in 1883.


Ruskin reported that our weather system has changed from being that of extremes - either glorious or rainy, with little in between - to a volatile scenarios of strange unsettling winds, grey skies, fogs and storms. 


‘And everywhere the leaves of the trees are shaking fitfully, as they do before a thunderstorm, only not violently, but enough to show the strange passing to and fro of a strange bitter biting wind… but I would care much and give much if I could be told where this bitter wind comes from’.

John Ruskin, The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century from his Selected Writings


He went on to say that these clouds look toxic. He’s very probably right. The UK’s growing conurbations of factories and homes pumped out increasing amounts of carbon monoxide.


It is interesting to hear a Victorian discussing the emotional affects of climate change and bemoaning the lack of a good old-fashioned sunset (last seen in 1876). Ruskin was a fan of J.M.V Turner’s paintings – particularly his skies and sunsets. The florid sunsets were probably caused by pollution.

Human presence in Fineshade.   19 February 2018

1100s Castle Hymel was built by the Engayne family sometime in the 12th Century.


1200 Richard Engayne had Castle Hymel demolished, he then founded the Augustinian Priory of St Mary a small distance to the north east of the castle site. Fineshade (or Fynshed) Priory remained for over 300 years.


1534 With Henry VIII’s  Dissolution of the Monasteries, the prior Christopher Harringworth subscribed with six fellow canons to the acknowledgement of the king's supremacy on the 26th August.  The site and demesne of the priory were in granted to John, Lord Russell, in exchange for lands in Devonshire. 


1546 Sir Robert Kirkham purchased Fineshade Priory and turned it into his family seat and residence, adapting and adding to the original buildings.


1632 Robert Kirkham’s great grandson Walter obtained a license to enclose a 400-acre park. 


1748 Charles Kirkham sold Fineshade Priory to William Payne King, who demolished the house and surviving monastic remains, replacing it with a Georgian mansion (ironically called Fineshade Abbey), complete with gatehouse, landscaped gardens and farmhouses.


1759 William Payne King died and left the estate to his widow, who remarried the Hon. Edwin Sandys. 


1769 Sandys sold it to the Hon. John Monckton.


1928 The Moncktons sold the Abbey to Charles R. d’Anyers Willis. From 1928 to 1955 the history of the house is uncertain.


1955 There was a demolition sale for unknown reasons.


1956 The Georgian mansion was demolished.


Many thanks to Caroline Lloyd, whose much more extensive history of Fineshade Abbey is available at

Many thanks also to Niall Rudd for these images (see right)

Dendrochronology part 1    12/13 March 2018

We spent two days taking tree cores from a range of trees around Fineshade Wood - please see the tree archive section for information about each tree. Together these will create a trail around the Wood. Some trees are on well frequented routes, others are more remote. Some trees are native. others have been introduced so it will be interesting to see if they have coped with changing weather conditions differently. 

Edwina would like to thank Neil Loader and Iain Robertson from the Department of Geography at Swansea University and Phil Aldous from the Forestry Commission. Please see their UK Oak Project.


Many thanks also to James Steventon (Fermynwoods Contemporary Art) for some of the still images of the coring.

The relationship between sky and being in a forest?    26 March 2018

According to Robert Pogue Harrison, in his book Forest:The Shadow of Civilisation, early humans living in dense forests rarely saw the sky.


When they did it was often caused by lightening strikes suddenly opening up views of the heavens.  They were probably read as “Acts of God”.  


Letting in the sky created light in the forest – it accessed sunshine, winds, rain and snow.  It also created space for new seeds, thereby changing each forest’s biodiversity.  By doing this, it changed how - and particularly how quickly - humans could traverse woodlands.

Today, seeing more sky in woodlands often relates to tree felling. Sometimes, in Forestry Commission owned woodlands, this is due to planned harvesting trees as crops, on other occasions this relates to unplanned felling because of tree diseases.  

Signs of Spring in Fineshade Wood?    27 March 2018

There might finally signs of Spring emerging in the woods - a very noticeable change from 13 March, despite the "Beast from the East". 

So many people from the Fineshade Wood area are speaking about 2017-18 being a very long winter.

The forest as a place for trade, disputes and affinity    30 March 2018

Woodlands are, and always have been a fusion of power, pragmatic trade and something more spiritual.


Historically, Gypsies have had a strong relationship with Fineshade Wood and the nearby village of (what is currently named as) King’s Cliffe. Some of them gave up their itinerant lives, settling in the area because of their relationship to these very old trees as places of celebration and possibly healing.


Until fairly recently, there was an old oak in Fineshade Wood called the Fair Tree, located on a current forest path, which was originally called Justice Riding.  It is uncertain why it had this name. It may have been where the Gypsies traded the wooden objects turned by the King’s Cliffe’s wood turners, or perhaps it was where they gathered before coming to the annual Cliffe Fair, which took place in the village. It may also have been a place where earlier hunting related disputes were settled.


Many thanks to Sue Trow-Smith from King’s Cliffe Heritage.  The carved wood objects (see right) are in their amazing collection. They range from wooden spoons and beer taps, to incredibly sophisticated objects such a rattled and butter pats. Many thanks also to Barrie and Trish from Friends of Fineshade and local historian Peter Hill for their information about the Fair Tree.  

The rise and decline of the wildwood    3 April 2018

According to farmer and writer John Lewis-Stempel, the Silver Birch was the first tree to colonize Britain after the last Ice Age (see example that we cored left).  He considers how woods came into being as the ice receded and the arboreal invasion started. Apparently, the birch’s successors were juniper, willow and Scots Pine. This opens up the intriguing thought about how these forests returned and the varying dormancies of tree seeds. What species never came back? 


So the wildwoods became established and humans started ‘managing’ them. Pollen counts from prehistoric peat show a sudden decline in elm from about 3000 BC and a corresponding increase in nettles. The dismantling of the wildwood by Neolithic farmers had begun… then came the Celts with their iron tools...The Romans turned much of lowland Britain into an imperial bread basket’

The Wood. The Life & Times of Cockshutt Wood. John Lewis-Stempel


The 1086 Domesday book, written shortly after Fineshade Wood became a designated part of Rockingham Forest, stated that only 15% of England’s land was recorded as being woodland or wooded pasture. 

Re-wildwooding today     12 April 2018

In the UK, we are clearly used to the idea of woodlands being managed spaces. Many of our forests have had non-native species introduced, well before the Forestry Commission came into existence.


The desire to grow new species (and also test their ability to cope with our weather), was fed by colonial plant hunters bringing living plants and seeds to the UK. Whilst the prime specimens often went to botanical institutions, the remaining ones were sold to the landed gentry, possibly including Fineshade Abbey (by this time a mansion with landscaped grounds).  Many of these new trees (even when grown from seed) quickly proliferated, including the  Japanese Cedar and  Norway Spruce that we cored at Fineshade Wood, although this was planted much later. The project explores species introductions - be they animal (including humans( and plant life.


So instead of humans stewarding the landscape, how might forests “manage” themselves, particularly when tree disease on on the rise?  This is  being tested by re-wilding projects such as Wild Ennerdale in Cumbria, in partnership with the Forestry Commission. Even over a relatively short period (in woodland terms), there has been a huge positive impact to all areas of the Forest’s biodiversity and disease resistance.


Whilst we’ll never fully understand how forests came (back) into existence after the Ice Age, rewilded woods might give us insights into how our trees might cope with future changes.

2017 was a mast year    13 April 2018

A mast year is a natural phenomenon, in which certain tree species such as chestnut, English Oak and beech produce a glut of seeds. They occur every five to ten years. 


Mast years are not just one off events occurring with one specific tree - the vast majority of woodland trees across the UK will have a fantastic seed crop. So how do trees seemingly miles apart communicate with one another?


This is a mystery. However, it is thought that it is probably to do with the weather. The right combination of temperature and rainfall in the spring is thought to trigger this response. So, how might changing climate affect the occurrence of mast years in the future?

Dendrochronology part 2    30 April 2018

How does a tree grow? Colin Tudge is his book The Secret Life of Trees… answers this question.


‘A tree may grow to be as big as a church and yet must be fully functional (apart from the business of reproducing) from the moment it germinates. It must fashion and refashion itself as it grows, for as it increases in size so the stresses alter – the tension and compression on each part. To achieve hugeness and yet be self building – no scaffolding or outside agencies required – and to operate for good measure as an independent living creature through all phases of growth is beyond anything that human engineers have achieved.'

Where does tree growth come from? How does the tree’s truck increase in thickness and still be continuously functional? Xylem is the answer. 


Xylem is the tree’s vascular tissue, which moves water and minerals from the roots to the rest of the plant. In trees, xylem builds another ring of new xylem around itself. Dead xylem becomes heartwood, which acts as the tree’s backbone. The newer xylem (the sapwood) serves as the tree’s plumbing system. Along with the creation of chlorophyll, this overall process is called transpiration. (More about this below)


Traditionally, the age of the trees was determined by cutting through the base of the tree, but this of course kills it. This is why we used dendrochronology for the archive of the trees.

Winter into summer    5 May 2018

Talk of spring emerging in March was premature.


Our seasons are different each year - it is one of the pleasures of living in the UK - but it is unusual that the transition out of winter seems to bypass spring. Plants and trees normally budding or blossoming  weeks apart are on display together. The same happened in 2013.

Fineshade Wood is virtually unrecognisable from a few weeks ago. The bluebells are beginning to create their blue carpets, but it is the cowslips, whilst not yet in full flower, that are abundant in sunny areas of Fineshade.  Violets are in full bloom and orchids are beginning to emerge.

And the cuckoos were calling.

Dendrochronology part 3    22 May 2018

Forest trees grow much more slowly than those in parks and gardens, where they are likely to be tended.  There are several elements that affect a tree’s well being:  


The soil quality. The Forestry Commission often grows trees on land that can’t be used for arable farming. Despite being part of Rockingham Forest for over 1000 years, the predominantly clay soil at Fineshade means that growing wheat (for example) is going to be inefficient in today’s farming terms. This means that there are not many nutrients in the soil to support tree growth.

The amount of soil. When you see first see a fallen tree, it is surprising about how little soil a large tree can actually grow on. This  tree is still alive (in that it is still transpiring) for several years even when it has toppled over. It is just growing more slowly than it would do if it was still rooted in soil.

The amount of water. If the tree dehydrates too much it can’t fully transpire so  it shuts down in order to survive. Too much water can wash away the soil.

The seasonal temperature. This is the big game changer for three reasons. As temperatures rise the lack of water affects the trees transpiration – its internal dialogue between creating chlorophyll , xylem and hardwood is compromised. Sunshine is great for chlorophyll production, but requires water to support this process. The second problem is that as temperatures rise, new insects can prey on trees. This has happened with the Processionary Oak moth, previously found much further south. Really cold weather also impact a tree's growth. A week of really dry or cold weather won't affect a mature tree (although it might with a sapling), but a month or two of it certainly will.

The origin of trees. The trees that are familiar to us have moved around the world through humans moving saplings or seeds. For example, there are now about 600 species of oak around the world. However importing any plant brings risk of disease, hence ash dieback (Chalara Fraxinea). By tracing back these migration routes, it may be possible to study trees that have built up a resistance to a disease.

Tree density. This means that each tree is competing for light, nutrients and water, although high tree density can offer tree's protection from strong winds if they are growing in very little soil.


Swansea University have analysed the Fineshade tree cores and it is mostly really good news.  Please see the tree archive pages.

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