Buck Wood: episodes of change

Buck Wood has a long history.  Within the Wood are found the fossilised remains of trees which show that wooded land of some kind has been here many millions of years.  At a much later date the contours of the land were drastically changed when the glaciers of the Ice Age scoured out the steep-sided, wide valley we know today.  That shape, with the flat valley bottom and its sheer wood-covered sides, has unusual level areas mixed with gentler slopes rising above.  These flatter areas might have encouraged the settlement of the first Bronze and Iron Age groups in what eventually became known as Buck Wood.  Centuries later the geology on and below the surface led to the pre-industrial activities, such as small-scale coalmining and the extraction of stones for millstones, of the landowners and inhabitants of the Aire Valley during the last few centuries.

Whilst prehistoric remains show the beginning of man-made involvement in the woodland, we can also develop an account of more recent changes by looking at the wood itself, as well as by examining documents and other evidence that survives from as far back as the sixteenth century.

Jeffery’s Map of 1775, showing the route crossing the ford in the river at Thackley, and the Canal alongside Buck Wood

Buck Wood as we know it now is a very diverse woodland, a patchwork of different types of trees and undergrowth.  It is an ‘Ancient semi-natural Woodland’ meaning that there are records proving that there were trees there before 1600.  Planting woodlands was uncommon before 1600, so if a wood existed then it had probably developed naturally.  Buck Wood was an established woodland by the time of the 1584 Survey of Idle, when it counted as part of the East Wood; the area has been managed as woodland continuously ever since, and thus has the protective status of Ancient Woodland despite having been quite extensively re-planted in the twentieth century.

Forestry still has a language all of its own, and I’ve left the texts mostly in their original spelling, and haven’t altered the archaic words which are now rarely used, so they and their meanings are listed in the Glossary at the end of this article.


This survey is the first extant record of the Wood and other areas which comprised the Lordship of Idle.  It was undertaken prior to a change of ownership of the Manor of Idle – woods were a valuable resource for landowners, so it was vital that exact details should be registered. The area then called East Wood was a major part of the manor lands, and included amongst others the woods now known as Field Wood, Poggy Wood, Dawson Wood and Buck Wood.

The Surveyors implied that much of the land had been mismanaged.  With parts of the Estate, its pastures, woods and commons scattered over a large area, rented to many people for various uses, it is not surprising that the surveyors found that ‘the said Lordship of Idle for the more [sic] part is barren ground, wherein is plenty of wood, and quarries of wall stones and slate, with cole-mines also …  And there is within the said Lordship great and large coppice and springs very convenient for the breed of pheasants, of which by report in times past, there hath been great store, but now greatly wasted by default of such as have been the keepers of the said Wood.’


A sample page from the 1584 Survey document, held at W.Yorks Archives, Bradford Office

The Survey included assessments of the quantity and quality of the trees, especially the commonest, and most useful, oaks, but commenting that in the East Wood ‘The Oakes and other trees that are therein cannot very well be viewed by Reason of the Rocks and Thickness of the Underwoods that are in the same, but by estimation there is in the said East Wood 1000 Oakes’.  Unfortunately only 100 of these were ‘Oakes of the best sort – 100 vallued att 6s:8d the Tree totalling £40’ and the majority, 700, were ‘ Oakes of the fourth sort vallued att 0s:6d the tree, total value £21’.

However disappointing the results of the Survey of the East Wood, the surveyors paid attention to detail; they saw positive elements even in the most meagre places.  In one ‘minor woodland’ there was mention of ‘many old runt Oakes which are not of any great vallue, but being priced with the Underwoods  & very convenient with the same to be sold and cutt for the spring and so vallued at 33s:4d ye Acre doth amount to £16 :13s: 4d.  Useful recommendations were made, such as ‘Note that the soyle in the said Lordship is so apt to the spring and increase of Woods that there is almost no part of the same (the comons Moors and tilled land excepted) but if it were fenced & orderly kept and preserved would in short time bring forth Woods of divers kinds in great abundance’ . If wooded areas were ‘orderly kept from cattle and other harmes, There might be taken for Woods in the said Lordship every year and notwithstanding maintained and kept in as good case & better than now’.

The survey has several references to a family and a name that is still significant today. The Buck family had acquired many pieces of land, as well as tenancy of the Corn Mill and additional fulling mill, both powered by water from the River Aire, as well as the gardens and croft belonging to the House.  The corn mill and fulling mill had been in existence for at least 200 years before this 1584 Survey; it was common practice to add on some part of textile processing to an existing manorial corn mill, given that the corn mills had the machinery necessary to utilize water power.  By 1620 the Bucks had acquired the full freehold of 120 acres of the East Wood, and bequeathed their name to their wood, and later the Mill.


In 1750 a valuation was made of the trees on land belonging to a member of the Stansfield family, Sir Walter Blackett.  This included Buck Wood.  The valuation began by listing all the trees in ‘Part of Buck Wood opening to the House and Mill valued by Jn° Long and numbered with Scrievers, being about 2½ Acres’ .   Moving on from the main areas of woodland, the valuation continued, ‘in the Runs and Hedgerows’, the perimeters of fields, ings and closesincluding ‘the lane leading to Thackley’, presumably the ancient trackway that led to the ford crossing at the river by Buck Mill. The survey shows that there was a wide variety of trees and that they were being managed as timber for many uses.  A working woodland had to make a profit for the owners, and would not have been a haven of peace, but would have been an active and sometimes noisy working environment.

1750 Valuation: Buck Wood, beginning around Buck Mill House and the adjoining Mill. Held in W Yorkshire Archives, Bradford Office.

In a well-managed wood cyclical routines had been developed to ensure that the trees were an asset.  They could be pollarded or coppiced, and then left for 8 or even 20 years for new growth to reach the size at which they could be felled or harvested again.  Other trees were allowed to grow fully into ‘standards’ to provide building materials.  The overall appearance of a wood at this date would have been strikingly different from the modern woodland: the coppiced and pollarded trees were there for practical use, but they were sometimes curiously shaped, and even standard trees could be manipulated to grow into the shape for which they were to be used when mature. Over all, the woodland was less dense, and with the sky more visible it would have been lighter.

The valuation of 1750 lists all the trees that had been numbered and marked by the surveyors as part of this cycle.  It is interesting to note the similarities between the species then and now: oak was the most common tree, with a fair number of ash, followed by elders and elms; very rare were the single sycamore, beech, and poplar in the area covered. These woods were clearly working woods, and were managed as valuable property, providing for the diverse needs of builders, carpenters, wood turners, clog makers, basket makers, tanners and others who needed the bark from the oak, and charcoal burners.

Traditional ways of managing trees created different shapes of tree, which changed as the cycle of regrowth was repeated.
From RACKHAM, O. Trees and woodland in the British Landscape, 1976

What is not stated is the reason for this valuation: was it part of the routine cycle of forestry?  Or was it connected to the building of the Canal, which was shortly to cut a swathe through the Aire valley, disrupting farms, homes and woodlands, such as Buck Wood, along its route?  Where fields are identifiable both on the valuers completed lists and on a modern map, there is a fairly marked relationship between the pieces of land being valued and the imminent route of the canal – and the loss of both farmland and woodland.


In 1763, not long after the Valuation described above,  various ‘parcells’ of timber from the Stansfields’ land were being sold by Robert Stansfield to three gentlemen from Otley.  These included two parcells of ‘Woody Ground called Buck Wood’.  This was a routine sale of timber, not of the land the trees grew on,  and overall would not change the Wood greatly.  But it is interesting to see from the articles of agreement how much detail was required concerning looking after these two areas of Buck Wood for the term of their agreement with the landowners. Some trees were to be left untouched: ‘all Those Trees and powles and wavers therein which are marked and Rung about with Red and the Bark and Ramel thereon to be and remain without Deminishing or spoile and waste, for the future Growth and Springing and for the Replenishing the said parcells of Woody Grounds’.

The new purchasers were also asked to leave enough ‘Hedge boot’ to repair damaged fencing, as well as ‘Also Leive to pill and chop the Bark and Cord the Cordwood … and to make Charcoal pitts and Burn the said cordwood and to get Dust and Cover for the said Charcoal pitts .’   Charcoal burning was a traditional activity in woodlands, and the remains of several pits have been identified in Buck Wood.  Their age isn’t known, but they are probably more recent than the 1760s; samples of remnants of charcoal analysed from the pits include beech, which was a much later addition to the woodland.

Where the purchasers of the timber coppiced the trees they were to be cut low down near the ground and ‘Rounded off the Stoven and not Dished or felled hollow but in such manner as no Water will stand or Remain upon the Stoven but so as to encourage the best Springing and future Growth thereof’.  This was important to avoid damp and rot especially as trees were coppiced to encourage new multiple poles to grow for many different woodland, farm, or domestic use, such as fencing.  There are examples of coppicing in the present day Buck Wood, but they are a result of more recent tree clearances which have been abandoned and left to develop new growths.


This advertisement is from the Leeds Intelligencer in 1828, and gives a view of Buck Wood as an actively managed woodland, and also conveys an idea of how different the Wood would have looked at times.  Selling 1839 fully grown trees, and 1000 ‘Poles’ which were smaller trees, must have altered the appearance of the Wood dramatically, and with the Underwood cleared too, the area would seem shockingly bare until regrowth got underway; but this was part of the forestry cycle process that took place and was advertised regularly. Just under two hundred years ago the species grown are very similar to the modern woodland, although there are, for example, still no beeches mentioned. 

Sale of Wood, 1828, advertised in the Leeds Intelligencer

Buck Wood was described as a Spring Wood in this advertisement, because the trees were either pollarded or coppiced and left to ‘spring’ into growth again for whatever use was planned for the timber.   The 1000 Poles are evidence of the management cycle, as is the fact that the trees that are ringed with red paint are to be ‘left for a succession’, which meant they would provide timber for later use when ready.

As always in these advertisements the trees, poles, and any other products were carefully marked and counted.  Sometimes an individual tree would be mentioned because of its age and size; in 1811 a lone Ash tree in a field was singled out, and in 1814 ‘One large oak, growing in a field called Strangford Hill’, while Buck Wood was described as having ‘a considerable Quantity of full grown Oak, Ash, and Sycamore timber’.


In 1828, Buck Wood was still important as a source of timber, and still following traditional cycles of woodland maintenance.  But all around was change:  Bradford was growing with dramatic speed into a major industrial centre, and satellite communities such as Thackley had to respond and grow with them.  More timber was needed, and of course stone, for buildings, for roads, and for railways.  Although in Thackley and Buck Wood the latter were driven through tunnels under the ground, these also contributed to the changed environment of the Wood itself.  Finally though, the decision was made to sell Buck Wood and the rest of the Esholt Estate to Bradford Corporation, mainly to provide land for much needed sewage works. After several hundred years in the hands of private individuals as owners and tenants, who were generally taking good care of the trees and the fields within Buck Wood, there were bound to be changes once the land belonged to the Sewage Committee of Bradford Corporation.

The first major change came with the building of Ainsbury Avenue, winding between Thackley and the Esholt works.  Not long after, part of the woodland was transferred to the Education Committee who saw the need for an Open Air School and recognised the suitability of Buck Wood.  The site was partly on land used as a tip for waste from the railway tunnels, and the majority of the woodland immediately around it was maintained as an area for the pupils to play in.

Detail from the map of the ‘Dedication of Woodland scheme, 1948

GOVERNMENT SCHEMES: Forestry Commission grants 1920 – 1942; Dedication of Woodlands 1948 -1960s

It was in the 1920s that plans promoted by the Government, as part of a national effort to encourage the amount and area of timber grown, first had a major impact on Buck Wood.  Records aren’t available for the first of these schemes, but it appears that a great deal of Buck Wood was cleared and replanted with supposedly more profitable conifers.  This activity continued after the Second World War, when the government’s Dedication of Woodlands Scheme began in 1947.  Its aim was to encourage landowners to retain their land in forestry, and to introduce good forestry practice.  Bradford’s records from 1948 onwards sometime refer back to areas which were ‘Planted under Forestry Commissions Grant Scheme between the Years 1928 – 1942’, and cite the productive acreage in 1948 for the whole Esholt Estate (of which Buck Wood and the other small adjacent woods were the major part);  49.4 acres were Broadleaved, 18.2 acres were coniferous, and there were 88.0 acres of Mixed Woods.  No ‘Coppiced’ or ‘Coppiced with Standard’ trees were found, which suggests that there had been little active cyclical management taking place.  81 acres were counted as being unproductive. Throughout most of the time of this first national scheme, the public weren’t allowed in Buck Wood, so it might not have been apparent how widespread the destruction of the old woodland was.

But the situation changed in 1938, after Buck Wood had been opened to the local population for a few years, and people became alarmed that another drastic felling operation was taking place.  An article in the Telegraph and Argus described Thackley as being ‘up in arms about the clearance and replanting of Buck Woods’  and reported that at least a thousand people had signed a petition to stop the work from continuing, to end the plan for replacing all the old native trees with conifers, and to construct a fence round the Wood to keep people out.  Twenty-four acres had already been cleared, and a further thirty-three ‘had been doomed to the woodman’s axe’.   All that would be left untouched were the trees around the site of the Open Air School, which still belonged to the Education Committee. Mr Roland Rycroft, from Bowling Mill House, had organised the opposition and instigated the petition, and individual Thackley people were interviewed and made comments such as ‘It’s rotten. They tak’ all t’bit of pleasure there is away throa fowk.’

But there was a brusque response from Mr Wontner Smith, the Corporation’s Sewage Engineer who said that

‘this is the case with an afforestation scheme: when the trees are ready, you cut them down, clear the site and replant.  The public have no rights in Buck Wood.  Some years ago they had been allowed to use the woods because it was thought it would be pleasant for them.  There was no intention, however, at the time of making it a permanent public park.’

But he complained that they had abused this facility, and had

‘taken practically every living thing out of the woods … and done nothing but damage since they were allowed in.  They have even sawn down trees with cross-cut saws and torn up seats for firewood.’

The petition was unsuccessful, and the work went on.  However, there are reasonable grounds for suggesting that the felling and replacement of trees continued, but at a slower rate and to a lesser extent than that which had caused such concern.

Firstly, there is nowhere in Buck Wood that is planted with unnaturally neat rows of conifers, as occurred elsewhere in the country, and in some other areas of the Esholt Estate across the valley from Buck Wood.  

Secondly, the 1948 records list a scattering of pre-1800 trees throughout the woodland, some of which possibly still exist today. There are certainly many old and venerable trees throughout Buck Wood, that would not have survived wholesale felling and replanting.

Thirdly, records from the whole period of mid-20th century afforestation in Buck Wood show that a mixture of broadleaved trees and mixed species of conifers were planted.  Later planting in the 1960s, such as that on the line of the Shipley sewer, was a mixture of sycamore, beech and Scots pine.  The documents from 1948, compiled at the commencement of the national Dedication of Woodlands Scheme, stated that the ‘Objective of Management’ was

‘to maintain and utilise the existing Woodlands  … in accordance with the practise of good forestry.  The species proposed to be raised are those which, during the last half century, have developed into a satisfactory crop and those most useful for Estate works‘.  

However, the Council’s response to a question about regeneration declared that ‘Replanting [will be] with young trees, chiefly grown in our own Nursery.  The species to be planted will largely depend on the different species available either in our own Nursery or by other growers.‘   This appears to be a local, practical, response, rather than that expected to conform to the objectives of national government; the result has been a mixed woodland with an interesting variety of trees and saplings.

But, unfortunately, what has not happened, for various reasons, is the continuation of the practice of treating Buck Wood’s trees as an asset, a crop to be cared for as diligently as they were in earlier times.  A change in the demand for timber, and more competitive cheaper availability from other sources has left ageing trees dominating our woodland, no longer economically relevant as a cash crop.  A note on ‘Rotations’ in the 1948 document gives the life span of Conifers at 60 – 70 years, and of Hardwoods at 100 – 120 years; the poor condition of many of Buck Wood’s trees attest to this estimate.  In the present economic climate, the only ‘forestry’ that is possible is the removal of dangerous trees or branches, protecting the safety of the public, most of whom walk in the woods unaware of its rich history, and its precious status as an Ancient Woodland.


Brush: the loppings from trees or shrubs

Coppicing: cutting the trees down to a ‘stool’ on the ground on a regular basis. Regrowth from the stool resulted in multiple thin poles with many domestic and forestry uses,

Cord, Cordwood: a measure of wood prepared for sale or use

Dish: when a tree was felled the stump or stoven had to be cut so water wouldn’t be retained in it

Hedge boot: the right of a tenant to take wood or underwood for fencing

Ing ground: an area of ings or meadows; above, it’s spelt Ingg which may be an error.

Mulcture: or measure, refers to the portion of flour or corn that was due to the lords of the manor as a tax or tithe.

Pill:  to peel or remove the bark from trees

Pole:  saplings which sprang from the stool or stoven of a tree after coppicing.  They could be felled at the end of the coppice cycle, or allowed to grow into more substantial trees

Pollarding: Cutting trees at least 6ft from the ground, leaving a sturdy lower trunk, with new growth sprouting from the top, beyond the reach of browsing animals such as deer.

Ramel:  generally used to mean rubbish, but in woodlands it meant fallen branches, or leftovers from tanning or charcoal burning, which could be used for fencing

Ring about or rung: to mark a ring round a tree as a sign to workmen about to fell the trees

Scrieve: an iron tool for marking trees to show they were to be felled, such as Poles [see above]

Shrogg: scrubby woodland

Spring wood:  means a coppiced wood, not a wood with a stream; also used for the young growth of trees, especially coppiced trees

Stoven:  the stump or stool of a tree from which young shoots spring

Underwood: small trees or shrubs, coppice or brush-wood growing beneath higher timber trees

Waver: At the end of the coppicing cycle, when the trees were felled, a certain number were allowed to remain, to provide a later crop of timber trees.  In Yorkshire these were called ‘wavers’; elsewhere they were ‘standards’.

Way leave:  a special right of way; in the extracts the phrase ‘way and Leive’ is used.

Dr Hester Marvell,   with thanks to the various people who lent me their copies of early documents and later news-cuttings.

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