• Sidlings Copse – History of a Wood


      In 2002 as part of the Junctions 1- Flowers Exhibition at the University of Surrey, I linked up with palaeobotanist Dr Petra Dark of the Department of Archaeology at Reading University to create a series of works based on Dr Dark’s research at an ancient woodland site, Sidlings Copse in Oxfordshire.  Dr Dark has extracted core pollen samples from different levels beneath the earth at the copse and by the process of radio carbon dating, she has established the pollen’s age and thus traced the fortunes of the wood from the Ice Age to the present day.  Generally speaking, pollen grains have never evolved in character.  The pollen that fell from a hazel tree in the Mesolithic Age looked the same then as it does today, so through modern scientific processes, palaeobotanists are able to learn more about early environments.   The eight images, which are shown here are based on electron micrographs of some of the different pollens found by Dr Dark in her excavations.   As soon as I saw an electron micrograph of a pollen grain, I felt I was looking at another world.   After the last Ice Age, when Britain was still joined to Europe, the landscape became heavily wooded and the predominant trees were hazel (corylus avellana).  Sidlings Copse was no exception. [Mesolithic I and II]  For a short time, the number of Scots pine (pinus sylvestris) rose during the early Mesolithic period reaching its highest level in the history of the Copse. [Mesolithic III]   During the late Neolithic period and the first half of the Bronze Age there is evidence of woodland clearance throughout the Thames Valley, as human agriculture began.  This, together with a slightly warmer climate, had an effect on the water table and flooding occurred.  Mud was deposited over the tufa on which the hazel and pine had grown and other trees like alder (alnus glutinosa) grew up as the woodland started to regenerate. [Bronze/Iron Age]   During Roman times, Sidlings Copse appears to have been cleared once again of most of its trees in order to provide fuel for the local Oxfordshire ware potteries.  The findings of Ribwort plantain (plantago lanceolata) pollen bear this out because it only grows in open spaces. [Roman Britain]   Seven hundred years later, during Mediaeval times, the Copse formed part of the Royal Forest of Shotover and Stowood, subject to Forest Law to preserve a habitat for deer. This resulted in the spread of  the oak (quercus robur). [Mediaeval Britain]   Today Sidlings Copse is a mixture of woodland and open land – it is home to some rare species of flora and fauna. A plant similar to Hemp Agrimony, (eupatorium cannabinum) which likes damp woods and waste ground has grown at Sidlings Copse since Mesolithic times – it can still be found there today. [Towards the 2nd Millenium] These microscopic ‘worlds’ of pollen record the waves of change which have passed over this small piece of Oxfordshire.  The final image [Sidlings Copse 2002] is Earth itself, of which Sidlings Copse and its flora are a tiny, constantly changing part.   I would like to thank Peter Stafford of the Department of Botany (Pollen) at the Natural History Museum, London, Dr Margaret E Collinson, Reader in Plant Palaeobiology at the Department of Geology, Royal Holloway College, University of London for their help with this project.  She would particularly like to thank Dr Petra Dark whose great help and encouragement have been invaluable.