The Duke’s woodland

Century Wood is called Century Wood because it was first planted up as woodland by the Duke of Sutherland around 1900. The Leveson-Gower family gradually accumulated land in Shropshire, Staffordshire, and Cheshire over several centuries. Their stewardship ultimately affected the pattern of land ownership today and even what the land looks like.

There were a lot of Leveson-Gowers, but I’m only going to pick out three that made the most difference to how Century Wood looks today.

The first is George Granville Leveson-Gower, the 1st Duke of Sutherland. The dukedom is a bit misleading, as it was only granted to him in 1833 in the last year of his long life, and he was really known as the Marquess of Stafford from 1803 when his father died. 1803 also saw the death of his mother’s brother, the Duke of Bridgewater, and Leveson-Gower then added Bridgewater’s enormous wealth to his own estates. This probably made Leveson-Gower the richest man in the world for the rest of his life. Here he is with his prominent nose and Order of the Garter star, looking like the young Duke of Wellington.

George Granville Leveson-Gower, 1st Duke of Sutherland

In Scotland he is notorious for his part in the Highland Clearances, although in practice they were mostly overseen by his wife, who was Countess of Sutherland in her own right and brought extensive estates in the very north of Scotland into the family. It’s one of those unpopular opinions that people don’t want to hear today, but the Countess appears to have genuinely believed that moving tenants from precarious subsistence farming inland to coastal crofts with a variety of income sources was an enlightened decision. Arguably this was borne out in the 1840s when the Highlands suffered its own potato famine, which would have been far worse with a large inland population. The tenants didn’t know this was coming though, and strongly resented the step down from farming to crofting. There is a statue of the 1st Duke in Sutherland which to this day is subject to vandalism and even one failed bomb attempt.

The contrast with the Duke’s contemporary reputation in Shropshire is striking. Within sight of his new country house, Lilleshall Hall, his tenants donated almost a thousand pounds to erect the Lilleshall Monument in his honour, with the following inscription:

“To the memory of George Granville Leveson Gower, K.G. 1st Duke of Sutherland. The most just and generous of landlords. This monument is erected by the occupiers of his Grace’s Shropshire farms as a public testimony that he went down to his grave with the blessings of his tenants on his head and left behind him upon his estates the best inheritance which a gentleman of England can bequeath to his son; men ready to stand by his house, heart and hand.”

One of the reasons for his tenants’ gratitude was the amount of road building and land drainage work which he did, using the Bridgewater wealth he had inherited. Whole areas of marshland were made available for agriculture by this wholesale lowering of the water table, and his tenant farmers benefitted, either with more land to extend their own operations or to allow younger sons to start on their own.

Century Wood stands on some of this reclaimed land, and every time I dig a fence post hole I am reminded of that as I go through the peaty soil that accumulated when the land was still marsh. Here and there I come across layers of silt and sand where there was an old drainage ditch or stream.

We skip over the 2nd and 3rd Dukes, and reach the 4th Duke, Cromartie Sutherland-Leveson-Gower. He inherited the dukedom and the family estates from his father in 1892 when he was 41. He was an MP until he came into his inheritance and then took his seat in the House of Lords. With his wealth and political connections came a prominent role in London society with his wife Millicent, and he invited famous men of the day to his estates in Shropshire, Staffordshire, and Sutherland for weekend shooting parties – rather like the ones in “Gosford Park” or “Downton Abbey”.

The papers relating to the management of his Shropshire estates are in the county records office in Shrewsbury, and include accounts for the sale of timber from his woods and the costs of establishing and maintaining them. There are even gamekeepers’ books listing the names of men who joined him on each shoot and how many birds were shot.

The land that is now Century Wood was a field and then planted up as woodland during this period in about 1900. There are references to shoots in the neighbouring woods, and the annual crop of pheasants was part of its produce along with the eventual timber harvest. One of the estate maps is a printed Ordnance Survey Map with the new woodland drawn in pen and ink. It’s tempting to imagine the Duke, his estate manager, his forester, and Charles Jeggo the head gamekeeper standing around this piece of paper agreeing where best to plant, and then committing to it in ink.

Thanks to the 4th Duke, Century Wood now existed.

I can’t mentioned the Duchess without a quick digression: the 4th Duke died in 1913 and the Duchess volunteered as a nurse during the First World War, organised an ambulance unit in Belgium, only to be surrounded by the Germans in late 1914. She managed to cross their lines and escape, wrote a best selling book about her adventures, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government. She travelled in the 1920s and 30s, and mostly lived in France. In 1940 she again found herself behind German lines, this time being captured, but escaped and returned to Britain via Spain and Portugal. She lived until 1955, longer than either of the two husbands she had after the Duke, and her ashes were buried with him in Sutherland.

Their son, George Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, became the 5th Duke in 1913. He inherited what is now Century Wood along with the rest of the estates but was convinced having his money in land was a liability and sold it off in phases. Century Wood was sold in 1917.

After the war he entered politics and also took prominent roles in national institutions: he was Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (the monarch’s representative in its proceedings) and he was the first chairman of the British Film Institute. You may have seen him on film in another of his roles: he was president of the British Olympic Association in 1924 during the events shown in “Chariots of Fire”. He was played by Peter Egan, in a rather flattering piece of casting it must be said.

With the break up of the estate, mostly to smaller local landowners and farmers, the wood and the Leverson-Gower family parted company after more than three centuries. A few owners separate my purchase from the 1917 sale, and the wider landscape and the woodland itself are a product of all the management choices they made. Choices I now add to myself.

Book hunting at the Shropshire Outdoor Show

At the weekend we went to the Shropshire Outdoor Show at Whittington Castle near Oswestry. The show is now in its second year and thankfully was able to go ahead despite the pandemic. Two dozen stands with a mixture of bushcraft, traditional crafts, and demonstrations like archery. A strong and lovely smell of wood smoke too. During the afternoon I came across a classic book on forestry, but more of that later.

The location of Whttington Castle is another of Shropshire’s hidden gems. The castle is operated by a charitable preservation trust on a 99 year lease, and they have done a lot of conservation work on the fabric of the buildings. As well as a beautiful place to visit, they also host reenactment events and regular car boots sales.

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Fences and boundaries

They say that good fences make good neighbours. When I bought Century Wood, my thought was not so much about neighbours but wanderers: wandering people and wandering deer. I put up stretches of fencing with this in mind, but over time they have come to define boundaries on the ground.

In practice, I’ve had very few run-ins with trespassers, although the first was quite a surprise. On my second visit after buying the wood in 2008, I heard shotguns and then three tweed-clad trespassers, two with guns, confidently wandered into what is now the central Glade where I was felling a tree. I suspect some local shooters had got used to the wood being unoccupied for many years. Signs and fences were an important part of stopping this, along with natural boundaries.

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Spring at the log cabin video

I spent two nights of the Easter weekend at our off grid log cabin at Century Wood. I’ve made this video about staying there, and I also talk through the basic 12V electric system, the kitchen sink and drain, and how I use the wood stove.

Every Time Box video

I’m just back from the wood and I thought it might be interesting to have a look in my Every Time Box. That’s a toolbox I take with me on every visit. Even if I’m just passing and might drop in for half an hour. I keep all these things together in the box so I can just stick it in the car and not have to think what to take and get it altogether. If I’m going for a day, I fill a plastic crate up with the tools I need, and I have some big plastic boxes with lids for overnight stays in the Log Cabin. But the Every Time Box always has the essentials.

Rather than take a lot of photos and type descriptions, I’ve made a video in which I talk you through the contents of the box.

Do you do something like this? Please tell us what you always take with you to the woods in the comments!

Wood tractor 2 – trying out my mods

Last year I posted about buying a second-hand lawn tractor to use in Century Wood. I modified it during the winter to make it work better in the woods: for getting around and pulling the garden trolley that I’ve been dragging along the rides myself since 2008. Now I’ve tried it out and in this post I talk about the modifications I’ve made.

In the slider above you can see the before and after pictures. The tractor was in good working order, but had some patches of surface rust and flat tyres at the front. There was no grass cutting deck with it: when I went to collect it during a gap in the lockdowns, its eBay seller gave me the rusted lump that had been the deck for free, and I managed to salvage two pulleys from it before taking the body of the deck to recycling.

This video shows the mods I’ve made and driving the tractor around to look for fallen branches on the rides. The rest of the blog talks about the modifications in more detail.

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Cutting hazel for firewood

One of my aims for 2021 is to be more organised about firewood, now that we have a wood stove at home too. I’m concentrating on the hazel that grows in the thin shade of the plantation poplar trees, since it’s a better firewood, and coppices well so it’s an easily renewable source. This post has some photos and a bit more about my plan for it.

First, here’s a slider comparison showing before and after pictures of one of the hazels on the edge of the Glade at the centre of the wood, which I cut this month.

Since I established the Glade, every few years I’ve cut back overhanging branches like this when they start to encroach. The next picture shows a close up of what the hazel looked like afterwards, with the thicker stems cut for firewood, a few smaller stems cut for overhanging, but most of the smaller stems left to thicken up. The cuts are sloped to tip the stems over in the right direction and to direct rainwater away from the centre of the stool or clump of stems that form these trees. I make brash piles out of the ends of the thicker stems, which are good for wildlife but here help define the edge of the Glade.

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So how did 2020 go?

Well, 2020 did not go as planned in Century Wood either! Every year I write myself a summary of what I’ve done and a list of what I plan to do, and I’ve been looking back at what I wrote back in January 2020.

The first thing is that I had planned to cut a lot more firewood than I did, but due to other work, travelling and an operation, I wasn’t able to get much done in January to March. So far, firewood has been for the Log Cabin, but in November we got a wood stove at home and so we’ve been rationing it. Next winter will be better as I’m being much more organised about cutting it now.

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Woodland Awards, 2020

At the end of this very odd year I received the award for Best Woodland Blog for CenturyWood.uk (jointly with Clare Mansell’s Little Green Explorers). These awards are run by Woodlands.co.uk, one of the two main “retail” woodland sellers, and you can see the other winners in the winter 2020 edition of Living Woods magazine and on the Woodlands.co.uk website.

The citation reads: “A lovely, reflective and regularly updated blog about running a small woodland, with photos and videos about activities, woodland issues, the ‘log cabin’, projects (e.g. using a scythe mower to clear a glade), woodland travel pieces, beavers and pine martens, and Henry David Thoreau.”

I’ve now received a box of prizes and a certificate. Sometimes these kind of things are token gestures, but in this case they are generous and genuinely useful.