History of Cadora Woods

Photo: WTML/J. Langford

Following the last Ice Age animal and plant species re-colonised Britain. In the Wye Valley Mesolithic people had some influence on the landscape, but on the whole the structure and make-up of the woodland that covered most of the area was determined by natural factors.

From the late Mesolithic period onwards – around 5,500 years ago – people cleared woodland to provide space for homes, cultivation and to provide grazing for their livestock. Areas of woodland remained, but they were mainly on the valley’s upper slopes and well away from the Wye floodplain.

The upland woods were probably used as a common resource. They would have provided a source of timber, small wood and foliage which could be fed to animals. Livestock would have been grazed in the woodland too, which would also have offered deer and other wild game.

Metal extraction and processing has long been a feature of the district. It has bequeathed a legacy of quarries and other mining sites throughout the Wye Valley, including at Cadora Woods. The earliest workings are called scowles and are open-cast iron workings in limestone. Some may be of Roman origin.

Metal-working mostly took place in the valley bottoms together with the associated dams and pools. Mill stones were made from quartz conglomerate rock quarried in the woods, and trees now grow over small quarries and heaps, including at Cadora Grove and Bigsweir Wood.

The woods also contain many examples of small marl pits and sand pits. Quarries can rarely be dated, but a few would be Roman.

Early Middle Ages

Offa’s Dyke is Britain’s longest archaeological monument and part of it runs through Cadora and Bigsweir Woods. In all it stretches for 129km (80 miles) through the Welsh borders from Treuddyn, near Wrexham, to Sedbury Cliffs, on the shores of the Severn.

The 8th century earthwork typically consists of a bank, which can be up to 8m (26 feet) tall, and a deep western ditch. It is thought to have been constructed for Offa, the Mercian king, to mark the boundary between his kingdom and Welsh rivals to the west.

Offa’s kingdom covered the area between the Trent and Mersey rivers in the north to the Thames Valley in the south, and from the Welsh border east to the Fens. At the height of his power he also controlled Kent, East Anglia and Lindsay (Lincoln) and had alliances with Northumbria and Wessex, which effectively made him the ruler of England.

The exact purpose of the dyke is not known. It may have been intended as a defensible wall, or may instead have been built to mark a negotiated frontier. Early descriptions talk of the dyke running from sea to sea, but researchers have failed to find evidence of the dyke north of Wrexham. It has also been suggested that the southern end of the earthwork – including the part in Cadora Wood - may not actually be part of Offa’s Dyke.

However, more than 1,200 years later Offa’s Dyke remains a prominent landmark and has political relevance even today as in places it still serves as a national, county or parish boundary. In the lower Wye Valley the dyke was built in a largely wooded landscape. From at least post-Roman times (6th century) woodland became scarcer and was valuable enough to be worth enclosing to define property rights and control grazing animals.

Middle Ages

Mature Woodland at Cadora Woods. (Photo: WTML)

Most woods were managed as coppices, but a minority were enclosed as parklands. Enclosure meant that grazing animals could be kept out, which allowed oaks and other trees to regenerate naturally. In parklands, enclosure confined deer and other stock for private use.

In both coppice woods and parks native trees predominated. Some trees were planted, but they mostly regenerated naturally as seedlings, or from trees stumps.

Two great areas of wood pasture surrounded the Wye gorge. They were open woodlands where livestock could graze, but they also provided local communities with timber and wood for fuel. To the east was the Forest of Dean and on the Trellech plateau to the west was Wyeswood.

The tract of wood pasture extended from north of Monmouth, south to Wentwood. Medieval descriptions described a patchwork of dense groves, tall forest and open woodland where ancient trees stood in open glades. There were also patches of woodland that were coppiced. The land was grazed as commons by deer and domestic animals.

Formal coppices were created when large areas of wooded waste were enclosed. Grazing animals were kept out for up to seven years after felling, which meant coppiced trees could regrow, making coppices more productive.

With so much wooded common land, the enclosure of coppice happened later in the lower Wye Valley than it did elsewhere. In some instances, the wooded waste was enclosed as a park in the Middle Ages and then later converted to coppices.

Early modern times

By the 17th century, grazing by animals must have been seriously inhibiting tree re-growth because much of the woodland was enclosed as coppices. Some of the open woodland was incorporated into deer parks and retained as wood pasture, where some pollarded oaks eventually became gigantic.

18th century

The wooded landscape of the lower Wye Valley became a focus for early tourism in the second half of the 18th century, when visitors travelled to the valley to join the Wye Tour. The two-day journey by boat from Ross-on-Wye to Chepstow gave travellers the opportunity to enjoy the rugged scenery. Many took the opportunity to sketch what they saw, or to capture the landscape in watercolour. Their efforts were guided by rules drawn up by the famous arbiter of the picturesque, the Rev. William Gilpin, of Boldre in the New Forest, who took the tour in 1770.

From the 18th century onwards tree-planting became commonplace and some non-native tree species were introduced. Plantations were left to grow as ‘high forest’, where dense stands of trees grew to full height before being felled.

More trees were planted after felling for timber. Few of the plantations were coppiced. Oak, beech and other native trees were commonly planted, but conifers planted too.

Around 1800 most coppices were cut every 12 to 14 years. Cutting was not always regular and sometimes poorly done; for example, in the 1720s some coppices in Cadora Woods were cut too high and the effects can still be seen as tall lime stools, or ‘stubs’.

19th and 20th century

Good coppice management saw woodland producing timber, poles and brushwood that could be put to a wide variety of uses. By the early 20th century much of the output went for firewood, but other woodland products included ladder rungs, musical instruments, farm implements and barrels.

However, coppice management went into decline during the 20th century and came close to dying out entirely. Most of the coppices were still cut until the 1940s, but after then they were neglected.

As a result, many semi-natural woods have grown tall since they were abandoned, but their coppice history is still obvious. Look out for enlarged, low-level tree trunks from which multi-trunked trees grow, and old standard oaks whose crowns are reduced by the shading of once-coppiced trees that have now grown tall.

During the century the small-scale production of lime for treating farm fields went into decline. Lime kilns were common in the area and good examples survive in Highbury Wood.

Since the mid-19th century the woods have been appreciated for their wildlife and natural features. Naturalist field groups frequently searched the woods for interesting plants, animals and fungi, and investigated the geology of its rocks and land forms.

20th and 21st centuries

The 111ha (275 acre) of woodland that is now known as Cadora Woods is made up of a series of smaller areas of ancient woodland, new planting and grassland. Bigsweir Woods, 45ha (111 acre) of semi-natural ancient woodland, was bought by the Woodland Trust in 1982.

We then added Causeway Grove, a 5ha (12 acre) semi-natural ancient coppiced woodland, which was acquired in 1984. In 1999 we bought 63ha (156 acre) of planted ancient woodland called Cadora Woods, linking Causeway Grove and Bigsweir Woods. The purchase was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Soon after, we took the opportunity to buy land on the upper slopes of the Wye Valley which connected our woodlands to Highbury Woods National Nature Reserve. That area is called Highbury Fields and is unimproved and semi-improved grassland, with scrub and woodland and mature hedgerows.

With the addition of Highbury Fields, Cadora Woods came together to form a block of semi-natural habitats that is managed with nature conservation as a top priority.

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