The tale of three rivers told through ancient woodlands.
THREE years of walking in the woods has helped researchers in their mission to piece together the story of a historic landscape between three Northumbrian rivers.
Members of the Bernician Studies Group have investigated 50 woods between the rivers Font, Coquet and Wansbeck.
The group is an educational charity dedicated to the study of the North East and its wider connections during the early medieval era. Bernicia was a sixth century kingdom which stretched from the Forth to the Tees, and later became part of the powerful kingdom of Northumbria.
The study area includes the ancient townships of Horsley, Witton, Ritton, Wingates and Stanton. Townships usually consisted of a church, manor house and farms.
Members have been searching for evidence that the woodlands are ancient. That has involved looking for around 20 plant species which are typical of very old woodland, and of trees which have been pollarded and coppiced.
The ancient woodland plants include bluebell, wood anemone, wild garlic, moschatel, wood speedwell, wood sorrel, woodruff, grasses and ferns.
Plants were found in substantial numbers in woods on the ancient township boundaries.
It has been suggested that the study area may have been part of an ancient woodland zone between native tribal lands to the north and south.
This is based on the number of Old English place names which recorded woodland and clearances. These names are still in use today.
They include leah/ley, meaning "woodland clearing", as in Horsley and Garrett Lee; hyrst/hirst denoting "a wood", as in Hesleyhurst; hag, meaning "managed woodland, seen in Causey Hag and witton, meaning "wood settlement", as in Netherwitton and Longwitton.
As well as the woodland wanders and plant searches, the group has studied old maps and routes such as the Devil's Causeway which runs through the area, undertaken archaeological investigation, and read the Latin charters of Newminster Abbey near Morpeth and Brinkburn Priory, on the edge of the townships area.
The results so far will be outlined at a fully-booked event at Brinkburn Priory tomorrow.
The study area is called Cocwudu, a name which was recorded in a listing of church landholdings compiled in the 11th century and seems to be a combination of the river name Coquet and Old English wudu, meaning woodland.
Group research directors are Tynemouth-based archaeologist and historian Colm O'Brien, and author, historian and woodsman Max Adams, who are Visiting Fellows of Newcastle University.
Among Max's books is The Wisdom of Trees, which explores both the biology of trees and people's relationship with woods and forests across the centuries. Two more books by Max, Planting Trees and Trees for Life, will be published this year.
Max, who lives in Shotley Bridge in County Durham and has a small woodland, says: "The group is interested in all aspects of the early medieval period in Northumbria and how the landscape evolved through the Roman period, the Dark Ages and as a powerful early medieval kingdom.
"Woodlands give us a history of land use and tell us about the partnership between humans and the environment. They are stable elements in the landscape, often where no farming has taken place because of steep slopes, for several thousand years.
"Northumberland is generally unwooded, but place names indicate old woods which often tend to be on the boundaries of ancient townships."
The study had shown the value of small woodlands for natural and historical reasons.
"We are realising how important these places are for the natural environment - they are unique and irreplaceable," Max says.
"We are also concerned that the view may be taken that small woods do not matter, but they are absolutely vital habitats for wildlife and as repositories of much of our history.
"The results of our study are very interesting and show that the area was a very dynamic place."
The area includes land which was the dowry of Juliana, the 12th century daughter of Earl Gospatric, who was to marry the son of the Norman baron of Morpeth, Ranulph de Merlay.
The dowry is recorded in the charters of Newminster Abbey.
Bridget Gubbins, the author of books on the abbey and Juliana and de Merlay, says: "The dowry consisted of the townships and seems to have preserved intact an Anglo-Saxon estate which we can recognise in Northumberland today.
"It has been fascinating to see how different themes have come together, but we still have a lot of work to do.
"Landholders have been absolutely brilliant in allowing members to investigate their woods, and we have been overwhelmed by the number of people who want to come to Sunday's event."
Author Max Adams who has a new book titled 'The Wisdom of Trees'
Max Adams at a woodland bank