Who’s been sleeping in my bed?

Who’s been sleeping in my bed?

A question the woodsmen of Rusland may well have asked in days gone by!

The survey has so far recorded numerous pitstead structures, but there is something very evocative about finding the modest, temporary homesteads of those who made their living from the resources of the wood.

To date the survey has discovered five hut structures, which are generally attributed to woodsman either employed in the manufacture of charcoal or the peeling of oak bark for its tannins, used in the treating of leather. The bark peelers spent longer periods in the wood and their dwellings are generally considered more robust as a consequence, often with evidence of not only a stone constructed hearth but also stone wall foundations. One of the Park’s regular volunteers Mervyn Cooper told us that the bark peelers spent such periods of time in the wood that often their families lived there along with them, engaged themselves in cottage industries such as peg and basket-making. Inevitably the question of whether the hut we had found was more likely to be that of a barkpeeler or charcoal burner gave rise to much lunchtime pondering!

Volunteers sitting in the huts of the Rusland survey

Of the five huts found so far, all have had the distinct stone chimney structure. Two have had a circular footprint with stone or earth banks, two had sub-rectangular footprints and one had no visible footprint.

Whatever the shape, atop the foundations, the huts where of temporary wooden construction that leaves no permanent trace. Those familiar with Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Jemima Puddleduck may recall her illustration of the hut into which the fox Mr Todd leads Jemima – certain to be Potter contemporaneously painting the hut of a woodsman, the tumbledown remains of which we have found in Arklid Great Wood, High Wood and Quaker’s Wood. Often an oval or circular shape is attributed to charcoal burners where rectangular is considered that of a bark peeler. It was noted however that the two used the woods at different times of year – spring for the barkpeelers and autumn for the charcoal colliers – and an available hut was an available hut and thus may have been occupied by either or both in any given year.

The celebrated Lakeland artist Alfred Heaton-Cooper painted the charcoal burners of Bouth in Rusland, the print dated 1908. The beautiful watercolour also depicts a typical woodsmans hut and gives a vivid insight into how the woods would have appeared over 100 years ago. I’m sure the volunteers would agree that the past, however far away in time, never appears less distant than when enjoying lunch in an old coppiced wood, sitting in the remnants of the place the woodsmen and their families called home.

Alfred Heaton-Cooper 'Charcoal Burners at Bouth' 1908


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