Originally published on jerwoodopenforest.org/journal
The layering of histories in the landscape interests me. My project explores loss and memory – in relation to specific trees but also the wider landscape. Doreen Massey, reflecting on a woodland, writes of ‘places as meeting places; of people, of histories, of the flows and movements of myriad nonhuman things. In that sense places do not come fully formed … rather they are intersections, and as such must be negotiated.’ (Kings Wood: A Context).
Birklands is an amazing example of this meeting of human history, natural history and a place formed through ongoing negotiation. Steve Horne from the Friends of Thynghowe group shows me round the forest, pointing out ancient woodland, boundary stones, broadleaf plantations established in the 1880s by the Duke of Portland, and the remnants of Victorian plantings along an avenue that would have lead to the ‘Russian Hut’ built to entertain powerful guests on hunting trips to the forest. Steve shows me a picture of the famous ‘Shambles Oak’, which was an immense ancient tree, famed for it’s connection with Robin Hood. Described in an 1883 magazine, near the end of it’s life: ‘This monarch of the forest is carefully chained, and sustained, like a paralytic, with crutches and supports, so that the traditional monument shall be allowed to escape the fate Lucifer, “to fall and never to rise again”’. All that’s left where this oak once stood is an iron ring, it’s metal support structure having outlived it – my first lost tree.
We approach what appears to be an unremarkable looking hill and start to follow a circular ditch, tracing a ring on the hillside. As we walk through the trees and emerge onto the open hill top, Steve explains that this is Thynghowe – a rare archeological feature dating back to the 9th century – and talks about the sense of place he experiences here. This ring would have been highlighted with light sand – visible from a distance – and marked a meeting place. In Old English and Icelandic languages ‘Ting’ or ‘Thing’ means a governing assembly. At a Viking Thing the free people of the area would develop laws by negotiation, apply these laws to local issues and resolve disputes. Steve explains some of the features of a ‘Thing’ that could pre-date elements of modern democracy, including an assembly of 12 elders and the ‘lawspeaker’ who memorised the laws of the land – an entirely oral tradition. I think about this in relation to performance and storytelling – the directness of an oral account and what it means to bear witness.