Runners and dog walkers in the sunny glades of Ecclesall Woods rarely look around and see the remains of Sheffield’s early industrial heritage.
“This was people’s livelihoods, these trees were a family’s income,” said Viv Scone.
“This was before gas and electricity, and people didn’t have plastic then, so the woods would be used for heating, manufacturing, building materials, bowls, spoons, milk churns, barrels – the uses were endless.”
Viv and her colleagues from the Friends of Ecclesall Woods have documented charcoal burning sites, pits where wood was burned for lead smelting, and trees cut or coppiced over 100 years ago dotted around the woods’ 350 acres.
“People know this is a massive area of ancient woodland, but these woodland industries are less openly celebrated,” said Viv. “We hope we can help people see them a bit more.”
Viv and craftsman Dave Jackson are part of the Under the Trees Woodcraft group working to promote the industrial history of Ecclesall Woods and the skills and tools used by centuries of woodland workers.
The group has received a £9,900 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to help children and adults learn how different trees were harvested to make fuel, furniture and all kinds of domestic and industrial products, and how the city’s reputation for high quality tools came partly from the knives, saws and axes used in woodlands all over the Outdoor City since medieval times.
“There’s a general interest now in traditional crafts,” said Dave Jackson, adding that the Ecclesall Woods craft courses have grown and expanded over the last six years to attract paying customers from all over the country to enrol on blacksmithing and tool sharpening courses, as well as the original ‘make your own three-legged stool’ classes.
Coun Mary Lea, Sheffield Council cabinet member for culture, parks and leisure, said: “These woodland practices are centuries old and so it is only fitting that they are taught in one of Sheffield’s most ancient woodlands. I’d encourage everyone to take advantage of opportunities like this, to learn something new and keep these ancient traditions alive here in the Outdoor City.”
Old Sheffield woodworking tools are now much sought after, but the volunteer-run Under the Trees Woodcraft group are keen to divert old planes and chisels from the vintage market.
“If anyone’s got a shedful of old tools they don’t want, please drop them off here and we’ll refurbish them and put them back to work,” said Dave Jackson
Volunteer sessions at the Woodland Discovery Centre on Tuesdays and Thursdays allow people to learn woodcraft skills as they help the Under the Trees team prepare for craft courses and promotional events.
“I took a pay cut to come and volunteer once a fortnight,” said Sarah Coe, after sawing through a large and intimidating log. “I enjoy my office job, but wanted to learn something completely different. I enjoy being outside and working with my hands, and would recommend it to anyone. It broadens your horizons.”
Working the woods provides income and raw materials for local craftspeople, said Dave Jackson. “It also supports a long tradition of woodland work, which itself supports our birds, butterflies and wildlife.”
Visitors may have noticed the spectacular bluebell displays earlier this year, partly a result of recent coppicing and clearances. “Flowers die off if light doesn’t reach the forest floor,” Dave said.
“Reversing under management with coppicing allows wild flowers to return, sometimes after waiting as seeds for 60 or more years.”
Although officially ancient, like many local woodlands Ecclesall stopped being a ‘wildwood’ hundreds of years ago. After becoming a medieval deer park in the 1300s, the trees were coppiced (cut back regularly to stimulate new growth) to provide fencing, fuel, charcoal and wooden poles (“for 1001 uses” said Dave Jackson). After the last coppice sale in 1859, the practice only really returned about 20 years ago, Dave said.
“I walk here with my dog every day which is such a privilege, and I just wanted to give something back,” said volunteer John Lee.
“I thought I knew about these woods, but I know a lot more since I’ve been volunteering. The woods need managing, they need looking after.”