Desk Research: Dengie Woodland

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Illustration by Matthew Ayres from A Popular History of the Dengie Hundred

Mixed-bag of weather today that made walking far undesirable, especially after yesterday’s puddlicious Southend trip. Burnham’s little library has a small local history/topography collection with enough in it to hold one’s attention quite a while – including a copy of the book of the great Chapman/André 1777 map of Essex.

Another map has captured my imagination more recently however, the one above taken from A Popular History of the Dengie Hundred by M.J. Ayres, R.J. Blaney & T.J. Wood. This map is a highly speculative rendering of how the Dengie might have looked in a period for which we have no good contemporary rendering. I’m attracted by the suggestion of woodland on the higher ground, as it gives some impression of what might have been lost locally (only 2% of Essex is covered by ancient, semi-natural woodland, Essex is the second least wooded county in England – and Maldon district has only 3% woodland cover of any kind), and because it visualizes a suggestion made by P.H. Reaney as to the etymology of the name Dengie itself:

Zachrisson (Acta Philologica Scandinavica i, 284 ff.) is probably right in connecting the name of this place with Danbury and the forest of Danegris (infra 248-9). The forms of these two place-names clearly go back to earlier dæn(n)ingabyrig  and –hris respectively, denoting the burh and the hris or brushwood-land occupied by the Dænningas. This would seem to be an ingas-derivative of the word dænn, used of ‘woodland pasture for swine,’ the name denoting a folk settled in an old forest-area, much as we know to have existed near Danbury in the past. In the VCH (i,376), evidence is noted for a strip of woodland running across Dengie Hundred, which at its western end borders on Danbury. It may be that the original name for Dengie was therefore Dænninga -eg, ‘marshland occupied by the Dænningas-folk.’
– Percy Hide Reaney, The Place-Names of Essex, (1935)

The ‘VCH’ – the Victoria County History refers to the early Norman period and presents a more limited woodland expanse than the map of 600 years earlier in A Popular History of the Dengie Hundred suggests.

Attention may also be directed to a distinct belt of woodland running almost north and south from Hatfield Peverel to Woodham Ferrers. On the former manor the proportion was as high as 35%, and on the latter 20; at Woodham Walter it was 19, and at Woodham Mortimer and at Hazeleigh just over 14. From this belt a spur appears to have extended through Purleigh into Latchingdon, to the east of which the Hundred of Dengie was almost devoid of woodland.
– Herbert Arthur Doubleday (ed.), The Victoria History of the County of Essex, (1903)

I think the name of the village of Althorne suggests a scrubby woodland of Blackthorn, all thorn trees where the land began to rise from the marshes, and Reaney provides some support to this but with a different etymology:

The second element in this name is clearly Þorn, ‘thorn-bush.’ Dr Smith suggests that the first is OE æled, ‘burned,’ cf. Burnt Oak and other similar names.

Some evidence of marshside scrub is still visible in the landscape, with local conservation volunteers constantly cutting it back and burning the wood. So perhaps woodland once extended further than the VCH suggests. The Doomsday Book entry for Creeksea refers to ‘wood[land] for 20 swine’.

Evidence from the period before maps and written records might be gleaned from archaeological investigations. Excavations in the intertidal zones of Essex by the County Archaeological Service have uncovered tree remains and pollen from the neolithic period (T.Wilkinson & P.Murphy ‘Archaeology of the Essex Coast, Volume I: The Hullbridge Survey’, East Anglian Archaeology 71, (1995)). The results from the Crouch and Blackwater reveal a substantially wooded environment, primarily a mixed oak/lime woodland. More detailed analysis notes the presence of a mixed-broadleaf woodland consisting of Quercus (oak), Corylus (hazel), Fagus (beech), Fraxinus (ash), Ulmus (elm) and Tilia (lime). They also remark that:

It is interesting to note that percentages of Betula are low. As a pioneer coloniser of open ground, its presence might have been expected if any form of ephemeral anthropogenic activity (e.g. forest clearance for agriculture) was taking place in the region.

The Dengie is almost all fields now though, mainly arable with a limited area of pasture. How might more space be found for woodland?

The Essex Woodland Project works a number of sites in Essex, but as the map below shows, Danbury is as close as they get to the Dengie.

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1 thought on “Desk Research: Dengie Woodland”

  1. […] One important suggestion about woodland in the Dengie made by Powell relates to woods held by the Manor of Lawling noted in the entry for Latchingdon, but which research he has consulted suggests were actually located in Runsell Green in Danbury parish. As a result, in the Mirams map Lawling’s woodland has been included in Danbury and Purleigh in appropriate proportions: ‘[t]his has had the effect of removing Latchingdon from the woodland area, while bring Danbury into it, as part of the belt running south from Hatfield Peverel’. This qualifies the idea of a spur of woodland  extending east into the Dengie through Purleigh into Latchingdon made in the Victoria County History and referred to in an earlier post. […]

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