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History of Bisham Woods

Bisham Woods was originally nine separate woods: Quarry Wood, High Wood, Fultness Wood, Inkydown Wood, Park Wood, Goulding’s Wood, Bradnam Wood, Dungrovehill Wood and Carpenter’s Wood.

The site was purchased by the Woodland Trust in 1990 from a private owner with the help of the Nature Conservancy Council, the Countryside Commission, the Royal Borough of Windsor and Chilterns AONB

The woods are believed to be at least 500 years old but may date back much further and could have once been part of Britain’s original wild wood – a diverse, patchy, woodland habitat providing its feudal communities with timber, fuel, minerals, game and coppice rods and valuable grazing.

Pigs were kept and pannaged (grazed on acorns and beech mast) throughout the woods by the many local cottagers, and wood banks marking out the component wood boundaries portioned off the forest between its different users. A band of pigmen working the woods from Cookham Dean formed the infamous Kaffir lads, a group of mysterious fellows who’d take mischievous retribution for injustices within the community. 

Bisham Woods 

Layout of Bisham Woods.

Bisham Woods was once part of the great Bisham Estate, owned by the powerful Knights Templars of Bisham Abbey in the 13th century, before passing into the private ownership of the Earls of Salisbury in 1308, and then the Hoby family 200 years later. Part of the site was once in the Royal Forest of Windsor – one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite rides – and Lady Hoby often accompanied the Queen in the woods between Bisham and Windsor. It was towards the end of the Hoby’s occupancy that the ice house was constructed in the 1760s.

This could have stored winter-gathered ice for up to three years, so reducing dependency on successive cold winters. Food wasn’t kept in it though as constant opening would have compromised its efficiency. Instead, blocks of ice were transferred to the abbey’s kitchens and cellars or a nearer food store as required. The impure ice was not used directly, but aided in preparing desserts, chilling wine and preserving meat and dairy produce.

The storage chamber was designed to maintain the constant temperature and dry atmosphere, essential for preserving ice. Egg-shaped and lined with bricks, it forms a perfect dome over a sharply tapering shaft. At the bottom a well-like sump disappears to unknown depths, allowing meltwater, which would have speeded the thawing process, to escape. The end of a barrel supported by solid timber beams probably sat over the well’s entrance with the chamber's shape helping to support the enormous weight. Blocks of ice, collected from the river or abbey moat were pounded into fragments, thrown into the ice well and beaten back into one solid lump. Saltwater poured over the mass made it firm as rock and kept it up to three times longer, salted ice having less capacity for heat. Barley straw stuffed in the entrance passage lining the chamber, and layering the ice, further improved insulation from summer heat.

This grade 2 listed building was restored in 1984 by Christopher Wallis who also donated the doorway’s keystone from Effingham Manor’s ice house. The old man’s face represents an ‘effigy of good living’. 

Old Wool Way

Photo: WTML/A. Caswell

The bridleway leading down through the woods follows the old wool way, a hollow way (flanked by woodbanks) originally used to carry fleeces by horse and cart from the monks’ flocks at Cookham. In places this beautifully preserved hollow way is three metres deep. In times of trouble, it provided monks with a route of escape to concealed horses stabled near Cookham Dean. 

‘Miracle’ Spring 

Quarry Wood stream arises from a nearby spring. Water from the ‘miracle’ spring was reputed to have had magical curative properties, and as its reputation grew, the Bishop of Salisbury– concerned about people becoming “bewitched by the ways of the crooked serpent” had the spring blocked with stone. Locals from Cookham and Marlow restored its flow shortly afterwards. 

Bisham Quarry 

The site is also home to the now abandoned Bisham Quarry, an important source of stone throughout medieval times and where the stone for Windsor Castle was sourced. Several depressions where clay has been removed for the brick-making industry have now formed ponds rich in wildlife. 

Other history 

During the last 100 years, the woods have been planted with a mixture of conifers and broadleaves with beech the dominant species. It was extensively damaged during the storms of 1987 and 1990, leading to the loss of beech on the scarp and slopes which, after clearance, were planted with a mixture of cherry and beech. 

The author Kenneth Grahame was enchanted by the lazy reaches of the Thames in the countryside around Cookham and Pangbourne, and it is thought that Bisham Woods provided him with the inspiration for the Wild Wood in his book Wind in the Willows, first published in 1908.