Hardwick Wood

Hardwick Wood is one of the ancient woods of West Cambridgeshire. It lies on the western boundary of Hardwick; see map and aerial photo. It is privately owned and there is no public access, though the Wimpole Way passes along the western boundary of the wood. It is managed as a nature reserve by the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire & Peterborough. All enquiries should be addressed to the warden, Jean Benfield (telephone 01223 262537), who has written the following history of the wood.

HARDWICK WOOD - A brief history

by Jean Benfield

Hardwick Wood is a 43-acre deciduous wood between the villages of Hardwick and Caldecote and in many respects it is the best-documented wood in England.

Anciently called Braidelah it originally belonged, like Hayley Wood, to the Bishops of Ely, presumably having been carved out of the West Cambridgeshire Wilds some time during the Anglo-Saxon period. The Domesday entry ('a grove for fences') is of a kind which implies coppice management, and by 1251 this practice was certainly well established. The Ely Coucher Book of that year names the wood, giving its area as 21½ acres. In the Hundred Rolls of 1279 the area is given as 15 acres, and in a 1356 survey of the Bishop's Lands, 20 acres. The differences in area are probably not significant: the figures suggest (allowing for the medieval tendency to underestimate the area of woods) that closes had already been formed. The Bishop's tenants had duties of carting the wood's timber, maintaining the boundary ditch and cutting hazel rods to make hurdles. In return, they had rights to specified amounts of underwood. To supervise all this there was a professional woodward, one of the earliest recorded holders of this post being a William Adamson of Stanesby.

Annual accounts survive for most of the years 1338 - 1495 and show that the actual area cut varied widely from year to year, though there was a gradual lengthening of the original five-year underwood rotation. Timber trees, mainly oak and ash but with some maple, were felled irregularly, sometimes in large numbers, and there is mention of the cut wood being used as 'wrangelons' which were probably large coppice poles.

By the 16th century management of the wood was formalised and villagers were interpreting their common rights more liberally. The system is recorded in great detail in a law suit of 1587, when the estate had been leased to a developer, Sir Francis Hynde of Madingley, who 'cutt down, spoyled and carryed awaye the most part of the same wood there growinge'. For this he was taken before the Court of King's Bench and successfully prosecuted by his tenants. At this the commoners' rights took up two-thirds of the wood, the landowner holding the wood rights on the remainder, and rights to the timber on the whole wood. The commoners' strips were known as 'rindges', a system which appears to have been unique to Hardwick Wood.

Like Hayley, Hardwick Wood was confiscated by Queen Elizabeth in 1599, and passed through many private hands including those of Pembroke College. The estate accounts continued to record sales of wood and timber by a woodward on behalf of the owner, and also payment of quit rents by the commoners for their rindges. Wood sales last appear in 1662 for at some later date the owner made part of the wood into a close by grubbing out as much wood as he dared, though this subsequently reverted to woodland.

By the 19th century the land uses and ownerships of the Wood were still very complex. Rindge rights existed until 1836 when an Enclosure Act for Hardwick Wood extinguished these and compensated their owners. The Wood was gradually re-planted with oak, (annual rings suggest a date of 1838), conifers and elm (1812), and although the underwood was not destroyed, the new owners clearly intended to grow timber and bark, both of which commanded unusually high prices around that time, at the expense of the underwood which had formerly been the chief product of the Wood.

Records of the late Mr R.M. Hurrell (whose family has owned the Wood for over a century) show that much planting took place between 1890 and 1910, presumably for fox cover, as well as timber, and that in 1938 an outbreak of Dutch Elm disease necessitated the removal of a number of dying elms. During the Second World War some wood was felled for pit props in addition to that timber cut for general use, while one acre of underwood was felled annually for tomato poles until 1947.

The Wood was neglected and little used over the next 25 years, but since 1974 it has been managed as a nature reserve by the Cambridge and Isle of Ely Naturalists' Trust1 under an agreement with Mr H. Hurrell. The old coppice management is being restored, small glades opened in the centre of the wood, and paths cut for better access to these. All this has resulted in greatly improved flora, particularly oxlips and bluebells. It is hoped that the Wood will become more attractive to birds now that more open areas are available to them after years of neglect and light exclusion.

The Wood is open to members of the Naturalists' Trust, but there are footpaths leading to its boundary from Hardwick and Caldecote, and a bridlepath extends the whole length of its western side.

1. Since incorporated into the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire & Peterborough.

[The author is indebted to Dr O. Rackham for the information in these notes.]

This article appeared in the Naturalists' Trust Newsletter, around 1986.

See also: Hayley Wood; its history and ecology by O. Rackham.

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Last updated 17 January 2001. webmaster@hardwick-cambs.org.uk