An historic landscape

 1) East Kent
The Blean Woods are remarkable in several ways, one of which is their large size, as they stretch from Hoath in the east as far as Dargate in the west – a distance of over seven miles. Much of the area is ancient woodland about which survives large amounts of written records.

 2) Prehistory
Even before the making of records, settlements existed for many centuries on lower ground, adjacent to the woods. There is archaeological evidence to activity in the woods as well, including the burial mounds (or tumuli) in Clowes Wood near its northern boundary. Originally these would have been prominent features of the landscape with views down towards the sea.

3) Writing
The earliest surviving written records of the Blean are mainly old copies of charters recording the gift of land in Anglo-Saxon times made by the King or members of their families. These were mainly in Latin, but included Anglo-Saxon words where necessary.

4) Mincing Wood
A charter of 724 was a gift of ‘pascua porcorum’ or gift for swine. It was a gift by Aelthelbert, son of King Wihtred of Kent to his cousin St Mildrid, abbess of Minster abbey in Thanet. This area became known as ‘Mincing Wood’ due to the word ‘mincing’ being the medieval name for nuns. It is near the road from Seasalter to Canterbury, next to Church Wood.

5) The name ‘Blean’
The charter of 724 and others before the Norman conquest speak of ‘Blean’ – a name with similarities to the old welsh place name ‘Blaen’. More than one of these documents speak of ‘pascua porcorum’ indicating that the woods would have had many oaks to provide food for livestock – a feature of the woods today. In the middle ages the monks of Canterbury referred to the area as ‘blen’ or ‘le blen’, in documents written in Latin.

6) The Eagles Wood
A charter of 948 mentions eagles in the Blean. One such charter speaks of a ‘den on Blean earnes hyrst’ referring to Eagle’s Wood on the Blean. Eagles thrive in areas with large open spaces, and spaces covered in heather are still prevalent in many areas of the Blean.

7) Roads
Aside from the Swalecliffe road, the principle routes through the woods were the Roman road still known as Watling Street and another from Canterbury to the coast near Seasalter. An additional  road running between Herne and Canterbury became disused in 1750, but was later replaced by the current A291. All the woods through which the roads passed would have once been oak woods where the oak would have been coppiced once they began to be managed. The underwood was used as fuel, for construction material and for making sea defences.

8) Institutions
Kings from early times beginning with King Ethelbert began to give large endowments of woods to abbeys such as St Augustine’s and priories such as the Cathedral Priory (in the time of Richard I). King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, but endowed the Archbishop and the Dean and Chapter with large woods previously owned by monks. In the case of the Dean and Chapter this meant they also acquired the records of the suppressed monasteries going back hundreds of years, which are kept to this day. These records give detailed accounts of management practices of foresters.

9) Oak timber and chestnut
Apart from the oak timber, the Blean woods have much coppiced chestnut, which replaced the previously grown oak coppice. The change took place when the local hop growers showed a preference in chestnut for hop poles around the 18th century. Another change was a greater emphasis on production of timber over underwood, although the Blean woods have still retained coppiced chestnut stools – some of which (judging by their large size) show they are older than the timber trees around them.

10) Ecclesiastical commissioners
The woods ceased to be managed by the Archbishop or the Dean and Chapter when their place was taken by surveyors instructed by ecclesiastical commissioners in about 1860. By this time woods in the Blean onced owned by monasteries and medieval hospitals, of which there were a number, were in private hands. The surveyors for the ecclesiastical commissioners did not introduce drastic changes. The most important of their changes was the making of new roads and better drainage. The system of planting chestnut and coppicing continued.

11) Church commissioners
With the arrival of the church commissioners as successors of the ecclesiastical commissioners after the 2nd World War, greater changes took place to the Blean, following the advice given by the Forestry Commission in 1950. As a result most of the 3000+ acres was sold to private individuals or businesses who removed a great deal of ancient woodland and replaced much of it with conifers. These changes were not admired by all. A sign of this was the creation in 1953 of a national nature reserve consisting of two of the Blean’s ancient woods – Mincing Wood and Crawford’s Rough.

12) Nature reserves
History has witnessed important changes in the management and ownership of the woods, and changes continue today. Many of the current woodland owners are charities concerned with conservation such as the Kent Wildlife Trust. The first of those acquiring woods as reserves were the Nature Conservancy and the RSPB. The expansion of nature reserves in the Blean is a welcome benefit and has helped reduce the number of conifers.

By Alexander Wheaten