King's Wood - sketches from a history

In King's Wood, Stour Valley Arts, 2005

Trees clothed the Kentish downs long before humankind walked there. There is something ancient in the woodland's beauty, the sunlight through the canopy, the bluebells and foxgloves, the moon drawing the sap as it pulls the tides around our shores. King's Wood, near Challock in Kent has no early wildwood or hoary oaks like the Blean nearby, but the yews in the north-eastern section take us back a thousand years, echoed by the avenue that the artist Lukasz Skapski created for the new millennium, planted by local people to frame the Midsummer sunset.

The early settlers followed the river we now call the Stour. Over millennia they made clearings on the chalk uplands, and shallow pits in King's Wood tell of Neolithic people digging flints to make knives, arrowheads and axes as good as metal for felling small trees. The Wye gap through the downs was an important settlement, and if you climb from Boughton Aluph into the trees, a grassy barrow makes a resting place before the stile into Jacket's Field, with its old dewpond. The path passes near two more mounds, following the footsteps of stone- and bronze-age people who walked the long trackway from Stonehenge to the Channel coast.

Centuries passed. The Celtic tribes of the Belgae settled here in the third century BC. Then came the Romans, building villas by the river, driving their road across the side of the downs to the iron-workings of the Weald, and introducing the sweet chestnut that thrives across the region. After the Romans came the Jutes. From about 455 AD Kent was an independent kingdom and the 'lathe' of Wye grew rich from its farms: many woods along the North Downs took the name 'cyningswode' - King's Wood - when the Jutish kings divided control of the land between themselves and their warriors, the ceorls. (As their Saxon name suggests, these royal woods are far older than the noble forests - forets - created by the Normans.) As recompense for favours, the early kings granted 'pannage' - the right for pigs to forage - and 'estovers', the right to collect wood. Jutish and Saxon ox-carts wore the drove-roads deep into the chalk, creating the 'hollow ways' that lead up from the valley to Challock and Molash, whose name suggests the sacred ash planted at a common meeting place.

The trees offered refuge when the Danes raided Canterbury and the coast, and slowly the forest acquired a written history. In 823, Beornwulf, King of Mercia, gave Godmersham to Christ-Church, Canterbury, and it still belonged to the priors at the time of Domesday in 1085, when its woodland was measured in time-honoured way as 'the pannage of forty hogs'. But William the Conqueror gave the main part of the wood, with the rest of the manor of Wye, to Battle Abbey in Sussex, the great Benedictine monastery founded to mark his victory at Hastings. Around 1200, Abbot Odo, Bishop of Battle, granted ten acres each to the larger tenants to be 'assarted', cleared and reclaimed from the forest, in return for labour in carting wood and making and carting malt, to keep the monks in beer.

Wye was a royal settlement, visited by several kings, especially Edward I and II, while Chilham was the chief manor for the powerful Barony of Fulbert. With its clearings free of dense trees King's Wood was good hunting country and the kings and barons now pursued its fallow deer, introduced by the Normans. A fifteenth century rental survey shows that several tenants, including the Master of Wye College, had substantial holdings in the wood, although Battle Abbey remained the landlord until the Dissolution of the monasteries in 1536. After this, it belonged to the Crown until Elizabeth I granted the manor to her kinsman, Henry Carey, whose grandson sold it to Sir Thomas Finch of Eastwell in 1628: for nearly four centuries the Finches, Earls of Winchelsea, were the forest's principal owners. (In 1769 the Finches gave way to a collateral branch, the Finch-Hattons, who also held the title of Dukes of Aylesford). It was good land to have since the wood was free from tithes, 'from time immemorial'. But it wasn't entirely free - after the Poor Law of 1601 the overseers had to raise a rate from all landholders, and in the mid-eighteenth century a Mr Goatley of Molash stubbornly witheld his dues for his plots in King's Wood, and so did his heirs after him. But other local folk were more generous: in 1606 Richard Dryland gave a two acre strip, still marked clearly on the map made by Michael Moon in 1762, to supply the poor with firewood, a boon that continued for almost two hundred years.

The art of woodland management had been fully-developed since the thirteenth century, including pollarding and coppicing, cutting the stems near ground level in a ten to fifteen-year cycle to provide regular crops of new poles. In the early days hazel, hornbeam, ash and maple were the main coppice trees, and all the timber had special uses: oak for building houses and ships, coppice for poles, split hazel for wattle and daub and thatching spars, ash for tool-handles, holly for veneer and inlay and the hard hornbeam for wooden gearings and charcoal. The brushwood was bundled into faggots for firewood, and the bracken was cut for litter in cowsheds. The boundaries were marked by individual trees, sometimes cut down to a stub or marked with a white slash across the bark.

The wood's prosperity was linked to the local hops, introduced by Flemish refugees in the sixteenth century. For three hundred years hops were not grown on strings and wires as they are now, but up 'hills' of three poles with two or three 'bines' to each pole. The ideal coppice tree for the long, clean poles that the hop-farmers needed was chestnut, since it grows rapidly and straight and the timber is very durable in the ground (intriguingly, the chestnut from the top half of King's Wood is far harder and spits less when burned - local woodsmen have argued for years over why this should be and exactly where the dividing-line lies). In the late eighteenth century large areas of hazel and oaks were replaced by sweet chestnut in a planting drive peculiar to the area: in 1771 Arthur Young noted that Mr Jacobs of Faversham had 'formed several very fine plantations of chestnuts'. Buying stock at 5s a hundred and planting them at 650 to an acre, Jacobs could raise 3000 poles, selling them at 40s a hundred - a huge profit.

When Edward Hasted made his great survey of Kent in the 1790s, he found King's Wood a wild patch: 'a drear barren country, where the soil is much addicted to chalk', but he noticed abundant coppice wood 'in the south west part of it towards Molash, where it becomes, among the hills, which are bold and romantic, a barren and flinty country'. The coppices were money in the bank, and King's Wood was a veritable factory. The wood rang to the clatter of axes, the crackle of brush fires, the rattle of wagons and shouts of men at work. Other traders followed: the tool-makers who forged the felling-axes and curved edge-tools and the hurdle-makers who cut palings and made fences and gates - ancient crafts, now almost lost. And although the Earl of Winchelsea was chief landowner, other local people were here too. In the mid-eighteenth century John Sawbridge of Olantigh owned several plots, while the Tithe Map of 1841 shows that Sir Edward Knatchbull had holdings along the Molash boundary. Other major owners were Sir Edmund Filmer, Thomas Brett, and Edward Knight of Godmersham, who held 'shaves' all along the southern edge. Indeed there used to be two cottages side by side in Jacket's Field, one for Eastwell Park tenants, the other for Godmersham Park.

Forty years on, the 1881 Census reveals the same families living as tenants in the shelter of the wood: the Amos family at Perry Court Farm and the Hayho clan at Tower Farm. We begin to see the working people too: the gamekeeper Thomas Hayward at Rattle Hall; Henry and Sarah Vane with their seven children, at Soakham farm; the labourers George Tabrett and son Frederick at Frogbrook. Woodland trades were strong in nearby villages: at Halfway House lived Richard Wood, aged 65, a wattle gate-maker; the wood dealer Stephen Swan lived in Pested Lane; the woodsmen Pilcher Black and his son George were established in Chilham; the Wills, father and son, worked as coopers and turners in Dane Street. In Goodmersham, 'Hoare the wood-reeve' made birch brooms, while the Park gardener raided the woods for briars to take back for rose standards, and village children like Charles Wills set off with nets to help the smart shooting parties, and sat down amid the trees to picnics of 'fat pork - bread - cheese - all for the men and boys, cold pies, tarts, with other delicacies for the gentry'. In 1893 'Lord Gerard's new planting' laid down today's wood: most of the chestnut coppice and hornbeam pollards date from that time. But two decades later the First World War brought a desperate need for timber and many trees were felled with no time to replant. In reaction to such losses the Forestry Commission was born, and in 1934 the Commission bought the western part of King's Wood, acquiring the rest from the Lister-Kaye family of Godmersham Park the following year. The wood was still mostly oak and beech standards over chestnut coppice, half of which had been regularly cut, but many rough areas of oak, hazel, hornbeam and ash were long-neglected and overgrown. In the Second World War, under the Ministry of Supply, the Women's Timber Corps felled chestnut for pit-props (disliked by the miners because they creaked ominously), and cleared acres to make charcoal for gas-masks and filters. The charcoal workers were Hastings fishermen whose boats had been requisitioned for minesweeping: in yellowing photos, they pose morosely before their huge kilns. King's Wood palings were used for a temporary air-strip while an old chalk pit on the ridge - used as a launching pit for a tethered airship during World War I, keeping lookout to the coast - was roofed over as a huge hideout for a secret resistance force if invasion came.

The bunker was bulldozed: walkers on the North Downs Way never guess how close they are to this hidden history. When peace returned the Forestry Commission brought in landscape designers like Sylvia Crowe, whose vision of woodland looked back to the great parks of Capability Brown and who emphasised the importance of public access. As late as the early 1990s the old system of selling chestnut coppice at auction, the Underwood Sale, prevailed. The wood was marked in areas, then divided into 'cants' to be auctioned: the tradition was that a man and a boy could fell a cant between November and 25 March (Lady Day) before the sap rose, tie up the timber by Mayday, and clear it all by 1 June. On old hand-coloured felling maps the lots are carefully numbered and often named: Ashen Carpet; Peck Gate, Gunning Field, and so on.

In the mid-twentieth century quick-growing conifers such as Corsican pine, Larch and Douglas fir were planted, together with the ornamental Western Red Cedar with its strange park-like look. But with the loss of local hop-gardens, paper-mills and paling work the forest economy slowly declined. In 1992, Martin Hall, who was then working with Kentish Stour Countryside Project, saw that King's Wood could thrive instead as a natural resource, where people could enjoy the rare nightjar and the fallow deer (with luck you can glimpse white deer, strange reversals after black deer escaped from Chilham Park and most of the herd, it was said, briefly turned black). In this woodland haven, it was hoped, artists could even work among the trees - and soon Stour Valley Arts was born.

In Kent, the Forestry Commission now tends not to replant with conifer but to allow the natural regeneration of native broadleaved trees, with the coppicing creating rich and varied wildlife habitats. Biodiversity is a priority and the latest artistic project, by Rosie Leverton, has this at its heart. The British have been drawn to the power of trees and forests since the time of the Druids: today, the Stour Valley artists summon a new magic. And in 2004, under the new Countryside and Rights of Way Act, the Forestry Commission dedicated three woods in England as a first step toward safeguarding open access for all time - and one of these three is King's Wood.

----------- Notes

I am grateful for conversations with Sandra Drew, Martin Hall, Fred Hams, Lee Smith, and Norman Day and Steve MacCarthy of the Forestry Commission.
Archives consulted include: Canterbury Cathedral Library and Archives, (Tithe Map 1835 and Roll of Apportionment, 1841); The Centre for Kentish Studies, Maidstone (Copy of Map of King's Wood by Michael Moon, 1762; Map of the County of Kent, by Andrews and Drury, 1780); Bedgebury Pinetum, Goudhurst (typed notes); Fred Hams, Millway, Challock (1957 transcript of 'Notes on his boyhood At Godmersham', by Charles Wills, b. 1863; Eastwell Park Estate Maps, 1920s; 'Chestnut Working-Circle Maps', Eastwell Underwood Sale, 4 November 1966, and many documents and phtographs).
Useful general books are Oliver Rackham, Trees and Woodlands in the British Landscape (1990) and Ancient Woodland (2003), N.DG.James, History of Forestry in England (1981), Geoffrey Roberts, Woodlands of Kent (1999), K.P.Witney, The Jutish Forest: A Study of the Weald of Kent from 450-1380 AD (1976). For historical background see Arthur Young , The Farmer's Tour through the East of England, 1771, and Edward Hasted, History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent, (1797-1801).
Local studies include Helen Elizabeth Muhlfeld, A Survey of the Manor of Wye, (1933); Bryan Keith-Lucas, Wye in the Eighteenth Century,(nd); Paul Cobb, 'Under Fire', Wye Local History, IV, no 2, 1989-90; Alan Armstrong, ed. The Economy of Kent 1640-1914 (1995); Nicola R.Bannister & Trudy A.Watt, Wye: 10,000 years of a Kentish Community and its Landscape, (1997); Paul Burnham and Maureen de Saxe, ed. A New History of Wye (2003).

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