We know quite a lot about the history of our woods. We are pretty sure the area has been wooded since Domesday, and that they were included in the original land grant to Alvecote Priory in the 13th Century. We also know that its unusual shape dates from at least as far back as 1805, from the sketches for the first Ordnance Survey made at that time.
Recently, I was put in touch with a gentleman in Australia, who was researching the history of villages in and around Shuttington and Alvecote. One of the documents he had been researching was the deed of sale of the Priory holdings dated 1650. This was interesting because it gave quite a lot of verbal detail about the fields, meadows, lanes, coppices and woodlands in the Alvecote and Shuttington area, including their relative geographic locations, and their acreages.
This information filled in some of the gaps, and had the potential to give me information about the size and shape and location of the woods in 1650, so I decided to research this further. As well as the deed of sale of the Priory holdings, I also consulted the “Green Book”, old maps including the original Ordnance Survey sketches of 1805 as well as the first series OS maps themselves, a book on Woodlands in Warwickshire and a book on the Domesday geography of the counties of England, including Warwickshire. Finally, I sought a copy from the National Archive of the original enclosure map of 1805 detailing the 19th Century enclosures, but which also named some of the fields from the original mediaeval enclosures that were also named on the 1650 deed of sale, although did not extend as far as Alvecote Wood.
Then I had to attempt to work out the geography of the Alvecote area in 1650. Geographic reconstruction was not easy: the deed of sale did not distinguish between East, South-East and North-East, for example, so I had to allow some licence to translate the four point compass to eight points. In addition, it is very easy to get quite confused because of the 19th and 20th century modifications to the geography of the area, and in particular by the West Coast Mainline railway and the Coventry Canal, which run through the area, and which obviously weren’t there in 1650. It is hard to train your eyes to see past these features as if they were not present.
Eventually, I decided to tabulate all the fields, pastures, meadows (leasons) and woodland with its geographical neighbours and size in acres where mentioned in the 1650 deed of sale. I then added things onto a sketch map in the following order:
- Put onto the map the roads and lanes, including those that no longer exist but which were present in 1805.
- Put in what I would term to be “hard” geographic features: the River Anker has not changed course substantially since 1650; the Parish boundary is a hard boundary, since fields, woodlands, meadows and pastures and indeed, land holdings very rarely crossed this boundary.
- Put in other water courses that are known or marked on older maps: this includes a water course running along the Parish boundary on the West of Robey’s Lane. These may have been canalised or placed in a culvert during subsequent years, but their course will have changed little.
- Considered what I know about the quality of the landscape: whether it is damp or dry (from my own experience, and reports from farmers); whether it is high or low-lying; whether it is marked on early land-use maps as woodland, meadow, arable or pasture, and any other information I could find.
- Considered modern place and field names: Priory Park, for example, is a go-karting track, but was it the same as the Park marked in the 1650 sale document? The answer is no. Likewise the Green Lane south of the B5000 is on a Parish boundary, and likely to be a very ancient feature because of both name and location. Anything name Wood House or Wood Lane would be a clue as to the land type at the time.
- Finally, I placed the field names and sizes mentioned in the 1650 deed of sale on a sketch map of the area that did not have the Canal, railway and other modern developments in place (such as the diversion of the B5000 which took place in the 1970’s). I took account of the relative field sizes and did not try and put something into a space that was either too small or large.
What I ended up with was more-or-less the only possible map that fit with the geography of the area. This has a number of interesting features.
First of all, Alvecote Wood (that is the portion we own on the East of Robey’s Lane) was almost certainly its peculiar shape a lot earlier than we thought. It was already a strange shape in 1805, when the Ordnance Survey sketches were made, but we thought this shape had been forced by the location of the canal that was built in the late 18th Century. However, from the description of Hill Field and Wood Field (Close) it must have been close to its existing shape at the time of its sale, the shape forced by the Parish Boundary rather than the canal. It pushes its history as a known and continuously wooded area back to 1650. In the UK, woodland is defined as ancient if it has been wooded since 1601, so this pushes documented woodland on the site very close to its definition as Ancient Woodland which would require it to be wooded since 1601. It is unlikely it was clear-felled between 1601 and 1650, particularly with the unrest of the Civil War, therefore it is very likely to be true ancient woodland by documentation as well as by inference from the trees and flora, its location on a parish boundary, and the mention in Domesday of substantially greater wooded areas than are currently present in the parish of Shuttington.
It has been heavily modified by grazing through the 20th Century that we know of, but is likely to have been grazed before that, resulting in the modified flora, and absence of some ancient woodland indicator species. Most of the oak trees date from 1800 to 1900, being between 100 and 200 years in age: it is likely that mature trees were felled for timber during the 19th Century, probably for pit timbers given the expanding local coal industry during that time. Oak trees that were saplings at that time are now mature, but there is little oak regeneration due to grazing through the 20th Century – most of the younger oak trees are now 15-20 years old, dating from the cessation of grazing on the site. There are few stumps on site, but this is not surprising, since they will have rotted away over 100-200 years since they were cut. The documentation, together with residual flora and trees on site, do support the assertion that Alvecote Wood is true ancient woodland, and that the site has probably been wooded since Domesday (11th Century).
The whole area was historically much more wooded at that time than it is now – hardly surprising, but this provides evidence. The woods as described clearly extended on both sides of what is now known as Robey’s Lane, but which must have had another name at that time, and it is easy to imagine walking up this heavily-wooded lane in an enclosed tunnel of trees towards the road between Tamworth and Polesworth (Hermitage Hill, now the B5000), connecting with a track to Wilnecote that is now a Green Lane. This is supported by modern names Woodhouse Farm and Wood Barn. These woods probably joined up with woods in Amington to form a larger wooded area, as indicated by residual woodland in early Ordnance Survey maps (Amington Frith, Glascote Coppice).
Some areas that were pasture were also probably at least partially wooded (wood-pasture) rather than completely devoid of trees. In addition, the fields were smaller, and their boundaries are likely to have been hedges, possibly with some emergent trees, so the whole area would have looked much more wooded than it does currently, where only isolated trees exist to mark the former woodlands, and hedge boundaries of fields that have now been merged.
There are some inconsistencies in the information that I was able to obtain. For example, the Gostells Leason in the 1650 sale was only 4 acres, a small piece of land, but the Gostells in 1805 enclosure map were a large tract of land, probably 20 or more acres, although located more or less in the same place. Bridge Close, from the description in 1650, cannot be north of the River Anker, and yet in the 1805 map it is placed north of the river. However the correspondence between the 1650 descriptions and the 1805 enclosure map is generally very good. Unfortunately the map does not extend far enough south along Robey’s Lane to include the area that is currently Alvecote Wood.
Researching the history has been extremely interesting. I may have got some things slightly misplaced on the map, but it gives a very good feel of what the area looked like in 1650, and gives us, and our woodland, a connection with times much further in the past than we had previously been able to go. These tracts of ancient woodland are precious. It is becoming harder and harder to walk in the footsteps of people who lived here hundreds of years ago yet still be in a landscape that is the same as the one they walked through. Our woods are one of those few remaining places in the area, and it behoves us to look after them very carefully indeed.
- P Edden and H Jones The History of Alvecote Pub Warwick 1968
- Cassini Maps: Past & Present Maps series – Tamworth – 1834 to Present Day. Cassini Publishing Ltd 2007
- Sale of Alvecote PRO State Papers SP 320/74 1650
- 1805 Enclosure Map of Shuttington – from National Archive E13/1187
- Ordnance Survey Drawings – from online collection at The British Library http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/ordsurvdraw/l/002osd000000024u00218000.html
- Wager, Sarah J. 1998. Woods, Wolds and Groves: the woodland of medieval Warwickshire (British Archaeological Reports British Series 269).
- Darby, H. C. & Terrett, I.B. 1971. The Domesday Geography of Midland England (Cambridge University Press, London).
- Old Maps Online: Maps of Tamworth from 1805 onwards available to browse on this site including Boundary Commission maps 1832 and 1868, first edition OS maps, Land utilisation survey of Great Britain 1937: See http://www.oldmapsonline.org/#bbox=-1.735814,52.604502,-1.638139,52.651599&q=&datefrom=1000&dateto=2010