The oldest living things in Dorset are reportedly found in Duncliffe Wood. They are small- leaved lime coppice stools, created when young tree stems have been continually cut down over decades, to near ground level.
Duncliffe’s wildlife and woodland heritage is well documented. And now the site owners, The Woodland Trust, want to know more about the hill’s human history. They’re recruiting a volunteer researcher to spend four hours a week for three months looking into Duncliffe’s past.
“We want them to do a bit of digging into the history of Duncliffe,” said Rachel Harris from the Woodland Trust. “It’s a really prominent feature on the landscape outside Shaftesbury, at the edge of the Blackmore Vale, and we have various bits of information that we know about it. But we don’t know where they’ve come from or what the sources are. We’d like somebody to delve into the archives to find out what they can about its colourful history, up to the present day.”
There are documents that would provide a good starting point for the successful applicant. “We know that it was listed in the Domesday Book of 1086. At the time, its owner was recorded and it was valued at £9,” said Rachel. “It has quite an illustrious history. We know that it was owned by a French nunnery. At one point it became Crown property. It was gifted to Eton College and later conferred to Kings College, Cambridge. We have these facts but we’re not sure where they have come from and we’re wondering if somebody can find more stories. There may also be the opportunity to do some writing,” Rachel said.
It’s said that Dorset’s most famous writer was influenced by the woodland. “Apparently it was supposed to have inspired Thomas Hardy. It’s mentioned in his book ‘Jude the Obscure’,” said Rachel.
Rachel says they’d like to document folklore tales about Duncliffe, too. “We’d like to find out whether there are more local stories. We believe that the wood was used in the 1930s for cutting hazel for thatching and gathering firewood. We wonder if there are local people with family members who remember their use of the woods. We’d like some of that informal oral history. It would be interesting to cover.”
The project’s three-month term is intended to focus the volunteer’s activity. “A deadline is always good as a target to work to. There might be a certain avenue that somebody decides to go down more than another. But we may decide to extend the deadline,” said Rachel.
The finished research will be used to inform visitors. “It’s a popular wood and it is loved by local people for dog walking and exercising but it also has fabulous bluebells, which bring people from much further afield. We hope we can put up some information panels to tell people more about what we have found out about Duncliffe’s history and also to interpret the changes in the wood and its wildlife over the years, and show where it is going as a restored ancient woodland.”
If you’re interested in the project, you’re welcome to apply even if you have no previous experience of research. “It’s a volunteer role and we will invite people to submit a little bit of information about themselves and talk about their experiences and interests. We will then have an informal conversation and try to work out who has the time, interest and the skills to go about the work. Experience of looking into local history will definitely be desirable.”
This is a voluntary role but some of the research may take the successful applicant further afield, such as visiting the County Records Office in Dorchester. The Woodland Trust will make sure that the researcher is not out-of-pocket. “We are more than willing to reimburse volunteers for any expenses that are agreed. It’ll be interesting to find out where those records are actually held and how accessible they are,” said Rachel.
Rachel says they would like to make a decision on who is appointed by the end of January. You can apply on the Woodland Trust website.