About Ecclesall Woods: Historical Features

Neolithic carved cup-and-ring stones

About Friends of Ecclesall Woods There are three rocks with 'cup and ring' marks on natural boulders or rocky outcrops in Ecclesall Woods believed to be of late Neolithic or Bronze Age date. "Cup and ring marks" are a form of prehistoric rock art. A cup is a circular depression in a rock, surrounded by a concentric circular channel, the ring. There are often multiple rings, and patterns of cups, rings, and channels enclosing the design. The tools used are not known, but they may be flint or metal tools, or deer antlers. The meaning and purpose is not known. Elsewhere, more complex carvings are known as petroglyphs, and it's thought the carved rocks might be a tribal meeting place. The position of the rocks in Ecclesall Woods is not publicised to avoid damage and vandalism. See picture.

Wood Collier's Memorial

The monument says that "George Yardley, woodcollier, was burnt to death in his cabbin on this place Oct 11 1786". Wood collier was another name for charcoal burner, and there is a charcoal hearth very close to the memorial. Those who paid for the monument are listed: William Brooke, salesman; David Glossop, gamekeeper; Thomas Smith, besom maker; and Sampson Brookshaw, innkeeper. Sampson Brookshaw was landlord at the Rising Sun inn on Abbey Lane, almost opposite the Cow Lane entrance to the woods. No record has been found of George Yardley's burial in any surrounding churches, so perhaps his memorial is also his grave.

Arched Stone Bridge

Arched Stone Bridge Ecessall WoodsGrade II Listed Monument. The bridge covers a stream as it joins the Limb Brook, and is dated at about 1800. It lies on the main track between Ryecroft Mill and (then) Abbeydale Hamlet, and (now) Abbeydale Road. You can see, by craning over the parapet or looking from the sides, that the stream bed under the bridge is lined with stone, to prevent erosion of the bridge supports. Further down the Limb Brook, there are remains of abutments for another bridge, which presumably predated this one.

Q-pits and Charcoal hearths

Q-Pit Wood The pits were hardly noticed as a feature of the Woods until about 50 years ago; before that, they were thought to be bomb craters. The most probable explanation for these pits is that they were used to make white coal, a dried-out form of small pieces of wood, which was used in lead smelting. We know that white coal was made in the Woods, from a lease dated 1649, and the lessee given permission to make white coal also rented to mills for lead smelting. While there is no definite proof that white coal was made in Q-pits, it seems very likely. We suggest that the wood pieces - up to 30 cm long - were stacked in the hollow of the pit, and roughly covered with branches, and, maybe, turves, with a chimney in the centre.

A fire was lit in the spout, and the smoke drawn through the wood and up the chimney. We don't know how long this would take, or even if this method would work at all, until some experiments can be done. The pits were probably in use from 1570-1750 approximately. Some may have been re-used; Dr. Smyllie suggests they may have been used to make coke in small quantities, and the rubbish content of one excavated pit suggests a use for picnic or camping. Sometimes pits are used at the moment by teenagers building shelters.

Q-Pits and Charcoal Hearths. A Q-pit is a roughly circular depression, 3-6 metres in diameter, surrounded by a raised bank made up of soil and stones from the centre of the depression. On the downhill side the bank is interrupted to form an entrance/exit to the pit, and this is also fringed by banks. This exit can be short, where the ground is fairly steep, or long where the Q-pit is on fairly flat ground. The pits are usually solitary, but in some cases two or even three are very close, even sharing their exit. Q-pits are also found in other local woods, such as Ladies' Spring Wood, and elsewhere, in North Yorkshire, the Lake District, and even, recently, one in Somerset. It's hard to identify other areas, as the pits have different names; Q-pits or Q-holes is a local Sheffield name.

In the Woods is sometimes said to be 90, sometimes as many as 130. Whie a typical Q-pit is easy to identify, there are some depressions which may be older Q-pits nearly filled up. It can sometimes be easy to confuse a pit left by a falling tree with a Q-pit, after the tree base and stump have rotted. It has also been difficult to locate the pits accurately, so none are counted twice. GPS doesn't work very well under trees.

The photo shows a Q-pit in wood 1 in winter. It's difficult to photograph Q-pits, as if you are far enough away to see the whole pit, usually there are trees in the way. Also, what is perfectly clear visually on the ground is hard to disentangle from a 2-D image like a photo. FEW has just produced an information board by a Q-pit in Wood 3. Q-pits, like other ground features, are most easily seen in winter.

Charcoal hearths exist in large, essentially uncounted, numbers in Ecclesall Woods. At least 300 have been identified. They are harder to see that Q-pits, as they consist of a flattish oval with a small rim on the uphill side and a small dip on the downhill side. They are 6-10 m ovals. If you pick up soil from a hearth, there will be small pieces of charcoal visible in the earth. There is a fairly visible hearth next to the wood-collier's memorial in Wood 2. Charcoal hearths were intensively used for several centuries. Read how they were used. Click here to view the Charcoal Burning document.

Ryecroft Mill

Ryecroft MillRyecroft Mill is quite a modern name for what was Dore Corn Mill or Jacky Mill, and the surrounding plantation was known as Jacky's Wood. All that can seen now is the high back wall, in front of which was the overshot wheel. In front of the wall is the wheel race, leading to a goyt under the footpath to the brook. Behind the wall lie the remains of the dam, now almost dried out, marshy, and home to a badger sett and many varieties of wild flowers. From the picture below, the mill buildings stood to the right of the back wall. The dam was fed by two very long goyts, both of which can be traced for a considerable distance. The goyt to the east was probably fed by a dam much higher up the Limb Brook, just down from the stile entrance from the playing fields.

The first mention of this mill is in 1655, when it was a corn mill. It was later used, till about 1850, to drive the air flow for lead smelting. Then it was briefly used for scythe grinding, and from 1864 to 1872 reverted to corn milling. It may also have been used for crushing iron pyrites mined at Ringinglow.

Romano-British Enclosure

This lies at the top of Wood 3, overlooking the Limb Book. The land falls away very steeply to the brook, and more gradually on all other sides. The whole area is overlaid with early field enclosures, ganister mines, charcoal hearths, Q-pits, spoil from the mines, a paved Victorian carriage road, modern improvements, and very probably more. Before the survey and excavations carried out by FEW in 2003-6, very little was known about this area, and there is still much to discover. The archaeological reports can be seen if you click here

Ancient Field Boundaries

Features in Ecclesall Woods have lasted for a very long time. Q-pits have probably not been used for 200 years, but are still very obvious. The boundaries of the Romano-British enclosure in Wood 3 can be traced quite easily. At the top of Wood 1, there are again clear boundaries of a field system, which may also be Romano-British - or later or earlier. Elsewhere in the woods are traces of other walls, not clearly part of a system, but overlaid by other features. All this is complicated by spoil heaps from mining for poor-quality coal and ganister, cuttings for Whirlowdale Road and works by Abbey Lane, building on the edges, drainage ditches, and possibly other works from the deer park era. There is, so far as I know, no complete survey of this sort of wood feature. It could only be done in winter, when vegetation cover is minimal. They cannot be photographed; they are only clear to an informed eye. Nonetheless, there is a strong hint that some of these field boundaries predate the Romano-British period, because of their simpler style.

Sunken Trackways

Small lengths of sunken path, usually bordered by holly bushes, are found in all 3 woods. Sunken trackways are normally used for moving stock. We would expect the sunken ways to form a network, or at least connect, but the remnants we have do not seem to do so. Further exploration and mapping is needed.

Trackway.(Photo) The trackway runs from the corner of the Playing Fields, along the paths following the course of the Limb Brook. It crosses the Limb Brook from right bank to left bank at the concrete bridge close to the Ryecroft Glen Road entrance, and runs along towards Abbeydale Hamlet. The trackway vanishes as it turns right towards the Model Railway grounds.

As you can see from the photograph, there are two lines of stones. The distance between these isn't constant, though it stays approximately the same. The trackway runs across the goyt leading down to Ryecroft Mill from a dam well up the Limb Brook, so it was presumably built after this goyt fell into disuse. Ryecroft Mill stopped working in 1872, but the goyt may have been disused for some time before this. We can certainly infer that the trackway is 19th century or later.

There have been several theories about the purpose of this trackway. The most likely is that is was used by packhorses or mules. The centre gap between the stone lines would have been filled with small stones, to help the heavily loaded animals keep their footing. They could have been carrying coal from the Dore mines down to Abbeydale Hamlet.

History of Ecclesall Woods

Ecclesall Woods are ancient woodland, which means that their history can be traced in written documents for at least 400 years. They are not, however, a leftover of original primary woodland, as they have been used in many ways, by many people, for over 2000 years.

Two cup-and-ring carved stones have been found in Ecclesall Woods, dating from the Neolithic, probably made 2000-1000 B.C. There are the remains of field systems throughout the Woods. Some may be Neolithic; some are Bronze Age; some are Romano-British. There are the remains of a Romano-British enclosure at the high point of Wood 3, overlooking the Limb valley. Probably the woods were largely cleared and used for cultivation and animal farming at this stage.

Old Map of the Woods

Old Woods Map

The Limb Brook forms the southern boundary of the woods, and was the boundary between Northumbria and Mercia in the Dark Ages. Later it was the boundary between Derbyshire and Yorkshire, and this has only changed over the last century as Totley and Dore were absorbed into Sheffield.

In the Middle Ages the woods formed part of a deer park, set up in 1319 by Sir Ralph de Ecclesall. This would be the first time that the woods were enclosed. The deer park would have clumps of trees and open grassy spaces, called launds. Many of the tree stands would have been coppiced. This means that the trees were cut down to stumps, and long, straight, new shoots sprang from the "stool" or stump. These shoots were cut after a number of years, usually between 5 and 25, and a new crop grown. This wood had many uses, for building, fencing, and later for pit props. A wood with "Spring" in its name is, or was, a coppice wood, like Ladies' Spring Wood.

From about 1600 to a little after 1800 Ecclesall Woods were managed as "coppice with standards", and divided into compartments which were rented out for use. This is the period when Ecclesall Woods were of great importance in Sheffield's industrial development. Charcoal was made and used for smelting iron "White coal" was made and used for lead smelting. Wood was used for pit props, and there were many other crafts using wood - peeling oak bark for use in tanning leather, making "besoms" or twig brooms, basket making, hurdles. The "standards", trees which were not coppiced and allowed to grow into tall trees and then cut as timber, were used in building and probably in industrial machinery. The large water wheel at Abbeydale Hamlet has an oak shaft from a tree at least 4ft (1.3 meters) diameter. Different trees had different uses. However, charcoal making was probably the most important use, and over 300 charcoal hearths can be found, which would be used several times.

Mining for coal and ganister also took place. There is a large open quarry in the Bird Sanctuary, which cannot be visited, which produced poor-quality coal. We don't know when, for how long, or by whom. Ganister is a stone which is used to make heat-proof liners for steel furnaces. There was a quarry in Wood 2, now turned into a pond for wildlife, and at least 2 other quarries in Wood 3.

From about 1820 on, the demand for timber increased and the demand for coppice wood decreased, and Ecclesall Woods were gradually converted into a plantation managed for timber. Vast numbers of new trees were planted throughout the 19th century, including sweet chestnut, beech, larch, Scots pine, ash and elm. The first four didn't occur naturally in the woods, but have grown well and in some cases are producing daughter trees. Timber from the woods was provably sold to timber merchants every year from 1835 to 1901, and it would have been used in building or for railway sleepers.

In the early twentieth century the demand for local timber fell, as softwoods and exotic hardwoods were imported cheaply. The expansion of Sheffield put pressure on woodlands, so some of Sheffield's ancient woods disappeared under new housing. Edges of Ecclesall Woods were nibbled, for example by Dobcroft Road. In 1927 Sheffield Corporation, with help from J. G. Graves, bought Ecclesall Woods from Earl Fitzwilliam, to use as recreational space - we would now say amenity woodland.

One of the first results of public ownership was the establishment of the Bird Sanctuary, in Wood 3. In 1929, 17 hectares were reserved and fenced to protect birds and exclude the public from this area. The Sanctuary is well observed by almost all visitors to the Woods. As a result, the number of bird species breeding in the Woods has gone up from 41 species prior to the Sanctuary, to 61 species in about 1980. Numbers are larger, too.

In the 1990's Parks and Countryside developed a 5-year Management Plan for the woods, and subsequent plans have followed the success of the first plan. The woods had become "over-mature", with many trees reaching old age together. Trees in chosen areas have been felled to allow saplings to grow, and these cleared areas often have a fine display of flowers in the first cleared years. Naturally falling trees are not cleared, but allowed to decay on the ground, forming habitats for woodland wildlife. Biodiversity has improved during these plans. The sawmill site has been reclaimed from private rental, and is being developed as a woodland centre, with crafts, wood products, education all showcased. Ecclesall Woods have held a Green Flag, a sign of a well-managed inland site, for 5 years now. (Equivalent of the Blue Flag for seaside areas).

Roads Around Ecclesall Woods

For an imaginative understanding of the history of the Woods, it helps to consider the different dates of the roads. Abbey Lane follows a very old route, from Beauchief Abbey to Parkhead, and probably dates back as a track to the flourishing of Beauchief Abbey in the 1200's. Abbeydale Road was not present until the early 1800's; nor was the railway. Through the period of greatest activity in the woods in the 18th century, the woods would reach the edge of Abbeydale Hamlet, and transport of charcoal, clay and other materials from woods to Hamlet would have been easy. Before that, the fields around Beauchief Abbey would have run down to the Sheaf, and continued as woodland to the west.

Whirlowdale Road is later, cutting through the woods and defining Wood 1 and Wood 2 as separate areas c. 1920. (Picture) Fortunately, building was not allowed where it cuts through the Woods. At the edges, sections of the woods were nibbled away, as in Dobcroft Road, and houses on the part of Abbey Lane backing on to Wood 1. The 1825 Ordnance Survey 1" map shows that the woods were larger then, but the two corners to the west of the Abbey Lane/Abbeydale Road crossing were already occupied. The large buildings there and their grounds have been replaced by Abbey Crescent and Sherwood Glen.

Streams and Ditches

The main stream running through the Woods is the Limb Brook, in Wood 3. This used to be the boundary between Mercia and Northumberland, and later between Yorkshire and Derbyshire. It was possibly a boundary even earlier. There are several smaller streams, and a network of drainage ditches. None of the streams is purely natural, as they have all been channeled and controlled during the intensive use of the woods. None, apart from the Limb Brook, has a name on local maps.

There is a dense network of drainage ditches in several parts of Woods 1,2 and 3. It was interesting to see that they still controlled water flow and prevented flooding during the Sheffield floods of 2007. We have no idea when these ditches were constructed -- they may be Tudor, to help drain marshy areas when the woods were first compartmented, or they may be Victorian.

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