History of Woodland in Essex

With the retreat of the ice-sheets at the end of the last Glaciation in some 10,000 years ago woodland returned to Essex. First came the cold resistant trees, dwarf willow, juniper and birch, and then the trees associated with warmer climates, oak, elm, lime and yew. There are still surviving remnants of the original wildwood visible in the inter-tidal zone along the Thames between Dagenham and Rainham.

Over the following millennia the woodland of Essex was both extensively managed for its timber and cleared for agriculture. With the result that by 1066 AD only about 20% of the land cover was woodland.

There are large and remarkable examples of medieval woodland surviving in Essex at Epping, Writtle and particularly Hatfield Forest. Woodlands were valuable commodities and protected with banks and hedges, good examples of these survive at Chalkney Wood. Much of the woodland in Essex was managed wood-pasture, that is, areas of grass for grazing with free-standing trees, many of which would have been pollarded, while most of the remainder was coppiced, Garnetts Wood and Chalkney Woods are particularly good examples of coppiced woodland. Parks have existed in the landscape since late Saxon times. Their use then was for hunting and woodland management.

The Georgian period saw the re-modelling of many parks and woods to create new idealised landscapes. At Thorndon Park an elaborate plan in the French style was devised in the 1730s, but only partially undertaken, this was in turn succeeded by a re-modelling of the landscape in a more informal style by Capability Brown in the 1760s. A similar process also took place in neighbouring South Weald where the lord on the manor Hugh Smith, was said to `much beautified it in the modern taste', including an octagonal belvedere and avenues of trees. By 1788 the park was much less formal in appearance and included two new irregular lakes, which still exist, and a herd of fallow deer established. Belhus Woods Country Park was also an area of ancient wood and parkland that was remodelled by Capability Brown. This period also saw the deliberate re-modelling and managing of woodland as sporting estates particularly pheasant-shooting and fox-hunting. This was particularly a feature of the woodland in the south of Essex, around Lambourne and Abridge.

The late 19th and 20th century saw the creation of palantation woodlands, these may have been planted as commercial concerns or as ornamental woodland in association with informal parkland. Sometimes they replaced existing woodland, or took the form of interplanting in existing woodland, and some was new planting within former fields. Examples of this include the 1950-60s planting of coniferous plantations in Chalkney Woods by the Forestry Commission. 

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