Reviving the ghost of the wildwood

June 6, 2003

Hidden in the Yorkshire landscape where the M1 and M62 motorways cross lurks the ghost of the Outwood, the ancient manorial forest of Wakefield, writes John Rodwell.

Marked on the ground now only in the shapes of the surviving fields and a few place names, it is a remnant of the original wildwood of Britain. It was a vital resource to the local community through the Middle Ages, but it was later ravaged by the exploitation of iron, coal and clay, which gave the area industrial wealth but destroyed a sense of the distant past.

The landscape today is a patchwork of residential sites, light industry and farmland. There are few remaining fragments of woods. The Outwood Project aims to bring this ghost of a landscape to life.

I became involved when my parents returned to the place where I was brought up. A local landscape history class showed my father how interesting this area is. I then got fired up and applied my professional skills to trying to tease out patterns, processes and cultural resonances in the landscape.

I brought together Wakefield Metropolitan District Council, English Nature and the Forestry Commission. With cash from the World Wide Fund for Nature's Future Landscapes programme, we began work with schools and community groups. Some initiatives are practical - such as planting sustainable networks of woodlands, using street trees to highlight ancient boundaries and developing a virtual Outwood with schoolchildren.

But a vital aspect of the project is its imaginative depth. This place has rich documentary records. In the Court Rolls of Wakefield, we can hear faint voices from the area's medieval inhabitants - people who lived and worked in the Outwood, cropping its trees, grazing their animals, quarrelling with their neighbours. With puppet theatre workshops and reminiscence therapy, the project team is using science and storytelling to give voice to this ancient woodland, awakening its past and developing a sense of vision.

Ultimately, the Outwood Project is about a landscape and its people. It is using ecology and archaeology to help local communities realise they share the same place and a common future.

John Rodwell is professor of ecology at Lancaster University.

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