Monday 1 March 2021

From the Parish Magazine - Eton Wick History Group Meeting - Burnham Beeches

The 14'h April meeting commenced with congratulations to Mr and Mrs Pidgeon and Mr and Mrs Denham who were celebrating their 50th Wedding Anniversaries at about that time. (Mrs Denham, Mrs Lund and Mrs Olney gave a talk to the April Eton Wick WI meeting).

Newspaper cutting from the Windsor and Eton Express

The Group was then introduced to Dr Helen Read; she was to give them an insight into the history and management of Burnham Beeches. But how much could there be to learn about a bit of a wood? Suffice it to say that by the end of the evening the interest was such that the Group was left still wanting to hear even more. Apparently there have been trees on the Burnham Beeches site for hundreds of years; within the area there is an Iron Age hill fort which is a scheduled Ancient Monument. The land is referred to in 1086 in the Domesday Book with mention of 600 swine and wood for plough shares. There is evidence of a moat which dates from 1250 and within which probably stood a single dwelling with a well; there is a shallower outer ditch, and it is one of the best moated sites in the Southern region. The owner of the area in 1250 was a William Allard and from 1518 to 1812 it belonged to the Eyre family and was known then as the Common Wood of East Burnham — it consisted of well-spaced trees with grazing land underneath them. In 1812 it was sold to Lord Grenville of Dropmore and then in 1878 it came up for auction, advertised as "Land suitable to build a large country house on", but a Francis Heath who wanted to purchase it could not afford it (despite writing to Queen Victoria for assistance) and it was finally purchased in 1880 by the Corporation of London, under the Open Spaces Act of 1878, and the Corporation manages the site to this day. This original area was of 140 hectares and, subsequently, adjoining land was purchased by the Corporation until Burnham Beeches reached its present 218 hectares.

During all this time the land had been used for the supply of timber and for grazing animals, but the Corporation were very strict, and the local people were not allowed to use the Beeches for anything, whether grazing or cutting timber, without a licence — the locals got a bit fed up with this and on at least one occasion they threw the Head Keeper in the pond. But gradually the area became used for recreation and in Edwardian times was heavily advertised in London. Families would come out to enjoy the fresh air, take donkey rides and relax with refreshment at the tea rooms; they enjoyed having their photographs taken with interesting trees in the background — a particular favourite, which now no longer exists, was named the 'Elephant Tree' because of its huge and gnarled girth.

During World War li the whole of the Beeches was fenced off and used as a Reserve Depot and for Army vehicle repairs. The Army had a camp within the Beeches — on top of the Iron Age hill fort! The Group was told that at one point about 10,000 Army vehicles were hidden within the Beeches. One tank, in testing a new waterproofing system, disappeared into Swilly Pond; the waterproofing process worked perfectly and was later used on craft in the D-day landings.

The Group learnt about coppicing (cutting back at ground level) and pollarding (cutting back to higher up the tree so that cattle, sheep etc. cannot get at the new shoots). Pollarding the beech trees prolongs their maximum life, which would normally be 250 years, to over 450 years; it also gives the trees their gnarled and lumpy appearance which makes an ideal habitat for small creatures. In the 17th Century the Beeches contained about 3,000 pollarded trees: in 1990 there were just 530 — a cause for concern? There were strict seasons for carrying out pollarding, even in 1523 when it was written: "Let him begin at nethermost bough first and not when the wind in North or East." We learnt that if you cut all the branches off a beech tree it will die and it must also have some light; the fungus you see on trees actually eats away at the dead wood in the middle of the tree — hollow trees can survive very well. There is an extremely rare moss which is found on only 20 trees in Britain and 6 of those trees are in the Beeches. There are bats and there are thousands of beetle and fly species.

Dr Read told us so much more, which we lack the space here to record. Except perhaps to mention that when walking in the Beeches these days you should watch out for film crews (a very popular location) and artists, and look out for the animals: there are 2 Exmoor ponies, 3 British White cows, 10 Jacob sheep, 2 Berkshire pigs and copious Keepers. Lois Parker thanked Dr Read profusely and we all hope she will come back and talk to us again.

The speaker at the following meeting, on 26th May, was Mr Tony Cullum and the topic 'THE CHANGING FACE OF ETON AS VIEWED THROUGH THE LATE MARK BELL'S SLIDES'.

Dr. Read's paper on Burnham Beeches

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