Week two of the survey began and ended in High Wood, which extends north from Arklid Great Wood. The topography of High Wood has presented some challenges, as it is situated on the hillside above Nibthwaite and is so steep in places (not least the slope on which we concluded Tuesday’s survey!) that it has required a flexible approach to covering the ground at times. One things has not changed, and that is the archaeology encountered. With nearly 50 features currently recorded, it has generated over half the total survey data gathered in weeks 1 & 2. The wood offers lovely views across Lake Coniston from it’s elevated position, and when visiting on Friday morning John from the National Park suggested it may have been one of the locations that inspired Arthur Ransome, writing in ‘Swallows and Amazons’, to describe the woods twinkling at night with the all the lights from the charcoal burners stacks. This is a delightful image, quite fitting for what has proved to be a delightful little wood. All is peaceful and serene in High Wood these days, with only the melody of birdsong and the whisper of the wind disturbing the soothing silence, but what a different place it must have been when Ransome was writing.
The 1850 OS map records several tracks entering and crossing the wood. Interestingly not all feature on the 1890s edition which might suggest they were no longer being used. The surveys have detected these tracks following the alignment shown on the mid 19th C map, and in places scored deeply into the bank through the passage of many people and pack animals into the wood. They take a sinuous course to counter the slope, zig-zagging back and forth in a series of switchbacks perhaps suggesting packhorse transport methods rather than carts. In addition to those recorded on the early OS, the survey has detected other unrecorded tracks creating quite a network in total. The tracks invariably lead to pitsteads as they wind through the trees. Some pitsteads are located on the line of the track itself raising the possibility the tracks were being extended as one pitstead ceased to be used and was replaced by another further into the wood.
The 1850 map also records an area on the highest ground that appears to be moorland scrub rather than woodland. The boundary wall can be traced and just outside it was found the hearth structure and footprint of a woodsman’s hut near a charcoal pitstead. Interestingly, further walls, at times only visible as moss-covered lines of low tumbled stones have been found that are not shown on any historic maps. Is it possible whatever boundary or division they de-marked may have ceased to function even before the 1st edition was made? It will be very interesting to see how the line of these walls sub-divide the wood and how they relate to the pitstead and hut distribution. Might we see a picture of the divisions within the wood from a time prior to comprehensive mapping!
The northern boundary of High Wood follows the line of the burn which lies in a small but steep-sided gorge - much too perilous to survey! During lunch near the stream on Friday the distinct level top of a pitstead seemed distantly visible through the trees on the far bank. With a reasonable place to cross identified, and a promise extorted that if she didn’t return her lunch could be divided between the remainder of the crew, Clare made a rapid walkover that put GPS points on 3 further pitsteads, a wall and track in this small area.
What a hive of activity this wood must have been! It requires only a small leap of imagination to conjure how numerous those ‘twinkling lights’ must have been to Ransome, and countless others, who glanced up at the dark wooded slopes from the valley below.