History

One of largest semi-ancient woodlands in Southern England

Introduction

Common Wood is so called because for well over a thousand years, together with Penn Wood, Kings Wood and St Johns Wood, it formed the southern part of Wycombe or Holmer Heath, 4,000 acres of common heath and woodland. The edge of the Heath is still marked by the place-names Tyler End , Widmer End, Heath End (near Gt Kingshill), Spurlands End, Beamond End, Mop End, and included, Hazlemere, Holmer Green, Penn Street and Winchmore Hill. The inhabitants of all the surrounding parishes enjoyed rights of common and they used the heath to pasture their pigs, graze their cattle and to provide fuel and wood for their houses and tools.

During the Saxon and early Norman centuries, the Heath was used as a hunting chase for the Citizens of London. Common Wood was a part of “the penne” or enclosure where the deer were kept and from which the parish was to take its name. [There is further evidence for a chase from three other place names – Niming Chase, Rogmanshamhatch, Justice Berry – all of which need rather elaborate explanation].

Rights of common

The heath actually belonged to various Lords of the Manor, so commoners had to guard their privileges jealously and there were continual disputes as to the rights of common to be enjoyed. The earliest record goes back to about 1206 and concerns the right to pasture pigs in “Wicombe woods and Penn woods” without having to pay pannage (rent). Records of disputes in 1576 and 1665 in neighbouring Kings Wood and St John’s Wood, also part of Wycombe Heath, show that commoners claimed, “for time out of mind”, that they had enjoyed, “rights of common for all manner of cattle except mares. Also the liberty to dig chalk and clay, sand and mould, and to cut bushes, maple, hasle, sallow, willow and crab and no other wood”. The commoners did not claim the right to actually fell trees and there are several records of fines being imposed for doing so, but they did claim the right to take the underwood and the “lops and tops” of the trees felled by the Lord. There were also pathways and rights of way through the wood.

Pigs

Pigs were an essential part of the medieval woodland economy, to such an extent that Domesday Book for Buckinghamshire measures the extent of woodland by how many pigs it could, in theory, sustain, assuming probably about two-and-a half acres for one pig. It was generally only freeholders who had the right, without payment, to drive their pigs into the woods to browse and to fatten on the acorns and beechnuts. Villeins were required to pay pannage for the privilege, usually at the rate of a silver penny for a yearling pig and a half penny for a young pig. In the 18th C, fines were still being imposed by the Manor Court on commoners who failed “to ring their hogg”.

Banks and ditches

The wood is criss-crossed by banks and ditches, some of which may have marked the boundaries of different owners, or were for woodland management to keep animals away from young trees. The present footpaths sometimes follow the line of these boundaries. There have been changes of ownership. For instance, Common Wood and Penn Wood were probably one wood until Segraves Manor was formed from a confiscated part of Penn manor in 1222. Segraves was given 100acres known as Segraves Wood, together with another part known as Mynchen Wood. These separated parts were returned under the same ownership of Penn Manor in the early 17th C.

The trees

The oldest beech trees that you see in the wood are about 150 to 200 years old and were planted when furniture making became a major industry in Wycombe and beech wood was in such demand that it was known as the “Buckinghamshire weed”. Earlier, it is likely that the wood contained less beech and more of other species such as oak, ash, cherry etc. The wood was managed both by felling and re-planting and by pollarding and coppicing, i.e. cutting down the trees but allowing straight shoots to spring up from the top or stumps and regularly harvesting them to provide building materials, hayrakes, brooms, fences, shepherds crooks and many other things. The most profitable crop in Segrave’s Manor in Penn, in 1372, was bundles of firewood, cleft and cut in billets of a certain length, known as “tallewoods”�, which were hauled to the Thames by horse and cart for journey to London and elsewhere. They cost six pence per hundred to make up and were sold for three times as much.

Pits and dells

Throughout the wood you will see pits and dells of varying depth and size. Most of them are where flints, chalk, gravel, clay and sand have been dug up in the past. The pits tend to be an irregular shape with access for a horse and cart at one end leading up to the face that was being worked. St Margaret’s Church, Tylers Green was built, in 1853/4, from flints that came from Common Wood.

Saw-pits, bodgers and the Wycombe chair industry

The new chair industry that started up in High Wycombe in the 1790s was to become the town’s dominant industry for nearly two centuries. It was the primary reason for the settlement and growth of Tylers Green and it completely altered the nature of the local woods such as Common Wood. The chair factories demanded increasingly long timber trees because they were more economical to transport and the traditional coppicing and pollarding was no longer practised.

In the early years, much of the work was done in the woods. The rectangular pits in Common Wood, often with a bank of earth to one side, are up to 10 feet long, 3 or 4 feet wide and originally 6 to 8 feet deep (although many are now almost filled in). They are saw-pits dug to enable large trunks to be sawn by hand into two-inch planks for chair bottoms. “Bodgers” was the popular name for chair turners, who set up rough workshops in the woods, sawed the beech trunks into convenient lengths then split them with wedges into smaller and smaller billets just big enough for a leg, a stretcher or whatever round part of a chair that was to be made. They were then chopped, shaved and turned on a pole lathe into the finished article.

High Wycombe soon became nationally recognised as a centre for making Windsor and cane-seated chairs. One Wycombe manufacturer made 8,000 chairs for the Great Exhibition at the Crystal palace in 1851. In later years, Gomme’s G-Plan furniture, Ercolani’s windsor chairs and Parker Knoll’s upholstered furniture were to become household names. In the 1930s, Dancer and Hearne of Penn Street in Penn was the largest producer of chairs in the world, with an output of 10,000 chairs a week and there were 200 other firms all involved in the furniture trade. Bryant & Mays set up their match factory in Wycombe to make use of the wood discarded by the chair-makers.

Inclosure

The Inclosure Award of 1855 finally extinguished all rights of common in Penn, and from then on, Common Wood and Penn Wood became the private property of the first Earl Howe. The dispossessed majority was outraged and seven years of active, lawless protest, followed. Fences were pulled down in broad daylight and poaching was widespread. Several people were sent to prison.

Deadman’s Dane Bottom

“Dane” comes from Old English denu meaning a valley, and, until the 1855 Inclosure, this was the main valley bottom route right through the middle of Penn parish, continuing on from Penn Bottom. The track forms the NE boundary of Common Wood and now runs on through the Hazlemere golf course that occupies what used to be the northernmost part of Common Wood. The Sites and Monuments Record (SMR), kept by the County, has two entries which explain the “Deadman” part of its name:

  • SMR 0170 – A possible Anglo-Saxon burial within a cist of flint, found by a labourer at Deadman Dane Bottom in April 1828. Only part of the jaw, a shoulder blade and hip bone survived of the burial, along with a corroded iron “battle-axe”.
  • SMR 5603 – A bronze palstave (axe) of Bronze Age date found at Deadman Dane Bottom in 1905 or earlier.

Miles Green February 2003