Pitstone Common Wood, now known as Sallow Copse, close by to Ringshall was the venue for the Thursday volunteers, on the coldest day of the year. The forestry team had been in earlier to cut down silver birch, which has been encroaching on older established trees – oak and beech which will become the veterans of the future. The work is known as halo clearance which allows specimen trees to develop unaffected by encroaching secondary growth. It is carried out in stages so that the trees are not exposed to life threatening changes. The volunteers cleared the branches into piles for habitat improvement, and the resulting timber will be sold off for firewood.
Pitstone Common Wood, part of the extensive Pitstone common extending down to the Mansion and beyond, has a long history of tree felling, with altercations between landlord and tenant. Although a common wood open to the people of Pitstone, it was guarded against exploitation by strict regulation going back to the 1300’s. Many of the local landowners and smallholders had rights to firewood and timber in the wood which was known as “hillwork”. A 14th century source detailed the number of cartloads of firewood as opposed to timber, which could be extracted from the wood.
Disputes relating to Pitstone Wood between local lords and smallholders in Pitstone, and the monks of Ashridge were arising from the late 15th and early 16th centuries.
A group of freeholders from Pitstone petitioned the King around 1500, complaining that the Rector and Convent of Ashridge had illegally extracted five hundred cartloads of wood. Following the dissolution of the monastery a certain Richard Warde, Cofferor of the Queen’s Household who held the land, started selling off the timber. This led to a confrontation with the tenants who threatened the foresters, and they removed thirty loads of timber which had already been felled.
When the Bridgewaters arrived, Sir Thomas Egerton in 1607 was made aware of a communal “hewth” or felling of trees which was about to take place by the commoners. The issue was decided in the Court of Common Pleas in favour of Egerton, where the key tenants as protagonists faced charges of unlawful assembly, riot, and the bearing of unlawful weapons. Despite the verdict the issue of tenants rights remained unresolved.
Pitstone Common Wood still extended to some three hundred acres, and the subsequent history of the tenants’ wood is defined by the gradual consolidation of holdings into larger units and fewer hands, with rights being sold.
The 7th Earl of Bridgewater (1803 – 1823) with his policy of expanding Ashridge bought up these rights. Finally around 1820 the last holder, a certain Thomas Maunder who lived in Aldbury sold his holding to the Bridgewaters for a sum of £1000 – a small fortune in those days.
Thanks to Richard Gwilt for his contribution.