Landscape archaeology of ancient woodlands with Tim Laurie

Tim Laurie is a landscape archaeologist who has devoted years to studying ancient woodlands and trees in three Pennine Dales.  After years of dedictated study, Tim gave me an interview for Countryman Magazine.

Tim Laurie views a recently regenerated Wych Elm

Tim Laurie views a recently regenerated Wych Elm

Landscape Archaeology

His interest grew from archaeology, after investigating prehistoric settlements in Swaledale, Wensleydale and Teesdale.  After discovering many Bronze Age burnt mounds – which he believes were being used as a kind of sauna – he says, “I realised that I couldn’t understand the landscape archaeology without understanding the contemporary woodland.”

Ancient Forest

So, he began a devoted study of the remnants of ancient forest in these northern Dales.

Rowan and yew cling to a limestone outcrop

Rowan and yew cling to a limestone outcrop

After comparing historic pollen samples, found in soil cores, with present day trees growing in the Dales, he realised that steep waterfall ravines, cliffs and scars were harbouring remnants of that ancient forest.  Wind-blown or bird-carried seeds lodged in crevices, roots slowly but surely penetrating the fissures in the limestone, giving succour to ancient trees that, on flatter ground, would have been prey to browsing animals or human land-clearance.


Some of these trees, he reckons, are hundreds of years old.  He comments, “These veterans have loved long hard lives, and have great character.  They are being recorded for the Woodland Trust.

Veteran Oak tree near Marske in Swaledale

Veteran Oak tree near Marske in Swaledale

He interested local artist, Jocelyn Campbell, in these characters, and she began drawing them.  After adventurous scrambles to reach some of the more remote trees, Jocelyn has published a book of these lovingly made tree portraits.

Wild yews

These veteran trees are highly individual, but it is the community of trees that makes a woodland.  It is this habitat that most interests Tim.  He says, “There are wild yews in Swaledale that live almost indefinitely.  If they lose a branch, they throw up two more.  At the base of some cliffs there are very large and ancient yew trees.  Walking under their closed canopy is like walking in a dark tunnel.”

Wild yews on Applegarth scar in Swaledale

Wild yews on Applegarth scar in Swaledale

Tim says, “The wild yews of Swaledale are exceptional: in neighbouring Wensleydale, there are yews only in Churchyards.”


Elsewhere, there are patches of wych elm, elsewhere lost to Dutch Elm disease, but here, clinging to the high scars, their remoteness has protected them from this scourge.  The disease is carried by a flying beetle, and Tim hopes that it simply can’t fly so high.  He adds, “These trees are isolated from other populations,” a factor which may also help them to escape disease.

Limestone cliffs and scars

Although public footpaths run close to many of these steep screes, ravines and cliffs, few have public access directly onto the cliff.  In order to record the trees of these remnant wildwoods, Tim sought out permission from landowners – and then, due to the steepness of the slope, was forced to abseil down to collect his data.


However, there is one place where Tim sees rare and interesting trees which is easily accessible.  In the town of in Richmond, Yorkshire, just near the old railway Station (now a leisure venue), on a bend of the River Swale, the northern bank is a limestone cliff, harbouring relict woodland.


Standing on the lawned south bank, Tim looks across and says, “There are some wonderful old English Limes here, Tilia platyphyllos, now rare in Britain.”


He points out how the tree roots have grown over the limestone rocks, calcified as water drips through the porous rock.  He says, “This is a wonderful example of natural woodland, with ash, Wych elm, oak, beech and lime, not modifed or planted – and all here on our doorstep.”


Step across the road, and you can buy a cup of tea in the Station.






Read more, in print only, in Countryman Magazine, November 2016 issue


Read more about Tim’s tree surveys with Swaledale and Arkengarthdale Archaeology Group,


Buy Jocelyn Campbell’s book of tree portraits at



About Helen Johnson

Freelance writer specialising in Yorkshire's history and heritage.

Comments are closed.