Not weird but certainly wonderful, I’ve been handling a good deal of ash and oak recently. These have been firewood logs, however, with only a few bits suitable to be set aside for carving and other purposes.
Restrop Farm, where all my fuel comes from, is a small farm of rolling pasture fields and woodland. Included within its bounds is Ringsbury Camp, an Iron Age hillfort (scheduled monument 1018124) which sits on a spur of rhaxella chert looking out from the limestone ridge over the head of the Thames Valley. The views to the north, towards the Cotswold Hills, are fabulous.
About two-thirds of the hillfort banks and ditch are covered in trees, which along with the burrowing badgers have been compromising the integrity of the earthworks. The interior has been ploughed in the past, although only for a relatively small part of the twentieth-century after the Second World War, and not (as far as I know) with deep ploughing equipment. For many years the farm was owned by three sisters, the Misses Paginton, and their dairy farming practices were old-fashioned and gentle. It is to be expected that archaeological remains inside the hillfort are in good condition, but aside from a few stray finds there has been no controlled excavation here.
Sometimes the yellow stony scree thrown up by the badgers, which rolls down the banks onto the hillfort’s encircling paths, is a reddish-brown colour. This is the bloodstone, reputed in local story to be the stone stained red with the blood of unknown warriors who died in combat here – an event commemorated by the name of the nearby lane “Battlewell”, and “Red Street”, the alternative name for this part of the parish.
Ethel Richardson, in her local history published in 1919, mentions the possibility of there having been a Civil War skirmish here, when the lanes ran red with blood. She ties the red of battle to the red which at the time was thought to be the origin of the place-name Restrop. The historical truth is in a way more prosaic, and yet (to me) more romantic. Restrop is derived from “Rada’s thorp” (Gover et al 1939); Rada, the name of the otherwise invisible Anglo-Saxon farmer who cared for his crops and animals on the hillside and in the coombes which cut through the limestone, looking out over the clayey Thames valley to see wisps of smoke rising from the hearths in the walled town of Cricklade to the north.
Oak and ash both grow well at Restrop, and useful woods they are. They are both ring-porous. The vessels which transport water and minerals up from the roots to the tree leaves are made up of cells that make long tubes. Those vessels formed during rapid Spring growth are much larger than the tubes that grow in the Summer, thus forming rings which emphasise the tree’s growth rings (Abbott 1989, 2007:17). You can see this in the photo below:
The piece of ash on the left has especially clear growth rings. The rings of vessels are the darker, brown-coloured lines, in-between the pale wood fibres. This piece comes from a faster-growing branch, which you can tell because there are only four or five growth rings to the inch. Faster-grown ash is stronger than slow-grown because it contains more wood fibres, which is good for shock-resistance and is why ash is good for tool handles and furniture. Ash grows best on deep soils over limestone; just like the banks of Ringsbury Camp.
On the right, the oak – showing the very clear distinction between the dark heartwood and the light sapwood. Oak has a very strong and rich smell, owing to its acidic tannin content. This makes the wood resistant to rot (but also eats into steel so I am very careful to clean my tools quickly and thoroughly after using them on oak) (Abbott 1989, 2007:26, 28). There are a number of big oaks at Restrop, which have built themselves for strength against the wind that blows up and down the limestone ridge, and the prevailing weather rolling in down the valley from the west. Oak is a sinuous wood. Its strength and longevity have resulted in more than 90% of building timbers being taken from oak trees (Rackham 1986, 1995:86).
Now that the hedgerows and woods are greening up, it’s time to take a good look at the ash and oak growing at Restrop to see which buds come out first,
“Ash before oak – in for a soak;
Oak before ash – in for a splash.”
Abbott, M. (1989, 2007) Green Woodwork Lewes: Guild of Master Craftsman Publications
Gover, J.E.B., Mawker, A., Stenton, F.M. (1939) The Place-names of Wiltshire English Place-Names Society/Cambridge University Press
Rackham, O. (1986, 1995) The History of the Countryside London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson
Richardson, E.M. (1919) The Story of Purton; a collection of notes and hearsay Bristol: J.W. Arrowsmith Ltd
This post is the third in an occasional series called “Weird and Wonderful”.