Skip navigation |

The Ancient Hornbeam of Hainault

A multi-talented gem at the heart of a Woodland Trust Wood

31 August 2010

Grand in size, stature and origins, Hainault Forest today is, in fact, just a tiny remnant of what was once the “Forest of Essex”. Never the less this is a site of national historic, cultural and landscape importance. A former hunting forest and created to provide venison for the King’ table, it’s one of the best surviving medieval forest of its kind, dominated by the distinctive top heavy and distorted shapes of veteran hornbeam pollards which the Woodland Trust is working hard to revitalize.

It’s estimated that Hainault has around 3000 - 4000 such pollards, numerous large oaks and a few ash pollards. The myriad of species they support include owls, woodpeckers and bats to whole communities of specialised insects, lichens, mosses and fungi.

Many hornbeam pollards survive today around London due to Hornbeam faggots being prized by the bakers of London for producing the best bread. Regular cutting of the trees has ensured that we now have many ancient hornbeam over 300 years old. Hornbeam faggots were the most commonly used in bakeries, cut to 5 foot lengths, they burnt long with a consistent heat that is said to have given the bread a harsh, smoky and biscuity flavour.

Hainault’s status as an ancient woodland is confirmed in spring by its dense carpets of bluebells which make a stunning display between April and June. The rare wild service tree and butcher’s broom (once prized as a scrubbing brush for butcher’s blocks) also provide strong evidence of its age.

Another notable feature is a small area of heather heathland – rare in Essex – where key plants such as dwarf gorse and lousewort have been recorded. There is also a pond next to which, it’s believed, a local herbalist called Dido lived in the 19th century, producing alternative medicines from the forest’s trees and plants.

The forest has contracted steadily over the last 150 years but, with the purchase of 53 hectares (131 acres) of adjoining land, the Woodland Trust aims to breathe new life into Hainault by creating new woodland which will help buffer and extend the old.

The wood of the hornbeam is extremely hard, which gives the hornbeam part of its name as 'horn' meant 'hard'. The hardness of the wood means it was not widely used for timber due to the difficulty in working it. However, it was used for smaller purposes cogs, ox yokes, musical instruments; pulleys, mallets, skittles and butchers’ chopping blocks. The wood was also valuable for fuel as it burnt hot enough to smelt iron.

To see for yourself visit the Ancient Tree Hunt Record

Ancient Hornbeam at Hainault. Photo from ATH record