The National Trust are currently keen to highlight the achievements of minority groups at their properties, where they may well have suffered hostility. At Ashridge we can continue this theme with an expose of the Welsh legacy which runs deep in England. We can look at the landscape on the Estate and marvel at the hollow-ways carved out over the centuries by the Welsh, and be surprised at the adoption of place names like Piccadilly Hill for their gathering places, but there is more.
The Welsh had a trade presence in London in early Medieval times in the parish of All Hallows along the banks of the once bustling river Walbrook first mentioned in 1274, which takes its name from the Old English wala, meaning “of the Welsh,” and broc meaning “brook.” As early as 1312 some seven hundred cattle from North Wales were sent to Windsor for use in the King’s House-hold.
However In England, there was a mythological association of Wales with vagrancy dating back to the time of Owen Glyndwr in 1401 when an oppressive ordnance was passed providing inter alia that, “the minstrels, bards, rhymers, wasters and other vagabond Welsh in North Wales, be not suffered henceforth to over-run the country as has been done before; but let them be entirely forbidden on apin of a years imprisonment”.
Henry IV (1399-1413) maintained that the rebel Welsh among whom the spirit of freedom could not be quenched, declined to sit comfortably under the New English Order, and because they were “agein the gode purpos and commune profyte of the reiaulme”, they must be classed as vagabonds.
It was in the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) some two hundred years later when registration was mandatory, that the Welsh cattle drover needed to carry his license with him to escape punishment at the stocks or pillory, as a vagrant. At this time Welsh drovers were travelling in increasing numbers into England without maps to guide them in an unfamiliar and hostile environment, so they embarked on a strategy of creating way-mark signs – using Scots pine trees.
Richard Mabey in his book Flora Britannica states that in the warm period which set in about 5,000 years ago pine trees were finally driven out from England and Wales by deciduous trees, and since then all Scots pines have been planted or have self-seeded from planted trees. That being the case one wonders when they were re-introduced and by whom.
John Evelyn in his book “Sylva” in 1664 stated “The worst land in Wales bears (as I am told) large pine”, so the Welsh have been credited with having returned the Scots pine into England from a relic outlier in North Wales, since the tree was not planted as an “ornamental” until the time of Capability Brown in the mid 1700’s.
The earliest record of planted trees in England is from 1669 at Wareton near Newport in Shropshire on a drover route going to the Midlands. The group of thirty five pine trees had measurements suggesting a planting in the early Tudor period.
The Scots pines were no doubt chosen as way-mark trees by the Welsh because they are evergreen, with a distinctive crown, surviving on poor soils, and are rarely browsed by cattle or deer, and were not to be seen in England. – their only limitation being their short lifespan of about two hundred years. Some pines can still be found at road junctions and water-holes, at river crossings and adjacent to public houses and farms where the Welsh would find a welcome – they were not universally popular. They had a reputation for being upright men but close- fisted, and in a group presented a formidable force in the countryside.
Here at Ashridge we still have a fine specimen of a way-mark tree deep in the wooded area of Ivinghoe Common. Planted some two hundred years ago adjacent to a derelict brick pit which would have been used as an overnight coral for the cattle, when the area was an open common. This is one of Bob Davis’s special trees featured in the current exhibition at the Visitor Centre – he was unaware of it’s existence until it was recorded for the Ancient Tree Hunt in 2011.
We are probably all aware of the “white horse” chalk hill figures and crosses scattered around the south of England. Many of them were cut in the 19th century as copycat figures of earlier times and some are ancient, but the majority have no known history. Unlike the chalk crosses at Bledlow (SP769009) and Whiteleaf (SP821039) in Buckinghamshire which can be seen today at a distance across the Vale of Aylesbury, but have no historical records, there are three archive records referring to a “white horse” hill figure at Ashridge, on Pitstone Hill. It has the same sight line as the crosses, and pre-dates 1580. This is a useful clue as to the age of the chalk crosses, because they no doubt served the same purpose, being way-mark signs cut by the Welsh cattle drovers in Tudor times, adjacent to known drover routes into London from Wales. The Welsh had the need and the manpower to keep the crosses regularly scoured, but the white horse figure at Pitstone fell into decline and is long gone.
We should thank the Welsh for the legacy which we have inherited – Diolch yn fawr iawn.