Rusland Horizons

Woodland Archaeological Survey

Category

Category: 
Landscapes
Community
Post-medieval
Industrial
Modern
Rural

Author

Rebecca Cadbury-Simmons

NAA were commissioned by the Lake District National Park Authority (LDNPA) to work with local volunteers to undertake an archaeological landscape survey of the woodlands within the Rusland Valley, near Coniston, Cumbria. Over two seasons of fieldwork between 2017 and 2018, a total of 369 hectares were surveyed across 27 woodlands within the survey area. A total of 554 new features were identified and recorded, demonstrating the intensive industrial activity that the woodlands had previously been used for. In total, 69 volunteers contributed to the project over both seasons and learned skills in archaeological landscape surveying.

The Rusland Valley has long been known as an area of industrial activity during the 19th and 20th centuries due to the demand for charcoal and firewood, as well as the raw material required for many other wood-based products. The area is densely packed with woods that are mostly made up of Ancient Semi-Natural Woodlands (ASNW) and Ancient Replanted Woodlands (ARW). These areas were heavily exploited in the production of timber standards and coppiced wood, producing poles. The coppiced ‘poles’ would have been used as the raw fuel in charcoal production, being piled high in circular stacks and burnt at a controlled temperature by woodsmen who would have lived close to the charcoal stacks during this process. Despite understanding the history behind the use of the Rusland Valley for these purposes, a detailed investigation into the extent of the industry had not previously taken place.


Surveying a pitstead.

The most common features that were found and recorded were charcoal burning platforms; the level earth platforms created for burning circular stacks of wood during the process of producing charcoal. They were so common in the Rusland Valley that we recorded over 300 of them! ‘Pitstead’ is the term used in Cumbria to describe these platforms, while in other areas they may be referred to as charcoal hearths or stacks. Pitsteads come in two distinct types; one is a circular area of cleared woodland; the other is more oval. Both tend to be cut into a slope creating a very visible profile. The frequency of these pitsteads, particularly the number on steep slopes, indicates that the charcoal burners used as much of the woodland as they could access.

Another indication of the scale of industry within the woods was the presence of huts, which would have been used as seasonal housing for either charcoal burners, bark peelers or possibly both, as these practices took place at different times of the year.  We recorded 16 ruinous examples during the survey, which were originally made from turf or stone. Although they vary in form, all contained a distinct beehive-shaped, stone-constructed hearth. 

Many other features were found in the woods. Some were quite common such as tracks, relict walls, hollows and rabbit smoots. Rabbit smoots are small openings found in the base of walls to allow rabbits to pass through. These serve two functions: the first is to stop rabbits from burrowing under the walls, which weakens their structure; the second is that a trap was often set on one side, affording whoever was working in the woods at the time an easy supper. More unusual features included two distinct ‘Hek’ gateposts, a circular stone hunting hide and a commemorative date stone from 1926.

It is hoped that this survey will help to protect the sites that have been identified during the survey, as some of the features were at risk from natural threats of root damage, animals burrowing and springs running through them. This was particularly noticeable in the woodsmen’s huts, several of which had trees growing through the hearths, probably owing to the increased fertility the soil would have gained in the burning process. The skills that the volunteers have learned through this project have also equipped them with the ability to continue surveying the local area which will in turn help to populate the LDNPA’s Historic Environment Record.

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