The ancient, magical land of Borsdane Wood

'We all scramble down the bank to the pebbled riverbed to see the old channel that veers off the brook’s course. It’s no more than a depression in the ground, a ghost-river.'

By Dani Cole

We’re following the ghosts and relics of the past in Borsdane Wood. Our small troupe is being led through the trees — silver birch, oak, beech, sycamore — by Mick Davies, who seems to know every inch of leaf-littered ground. He has the air of a sage, dressed in a cap and sleeveless jacket, and bearing a bulky camera bag.

During the week, Mick, 60, is a laboratory manager for a food company, sometimes putting in 12-hour shifts. When he’s not working, he takes “a hell of a lot of bird photography,” and Borsdane Wood has been one of his regular haunts since he was six years old. 

This narrow 1.5-mile stretch of woodland sits in a steep-sided valley in Hindley and it is Wigan’s most extensive ancient woodland. When I phone Wigan Council’s biodiversity officer Kieran Sayer to ask if he could walk me around the wood, he tells me he’ll bring Mick along, as well as Dave Hanbury, of Borsdane Friends Group, who care for the woodland in partnership with the council.

Kieran is 25, Dave is 71, and we would look like a motley crew if there was anyone here to see us. As we head deeper into the wood, meadow gives way to green, dappled canopy, and some of the mossy branches of the trees resemble the shaggy tines of stag’s antlers. 

The three men settle into a comfortable back-and-forth about the jobs that need doing and the birds they’ve seen here — the kingfisher is the ultimate prize. “It’s the closest thing we’ll get to a tropical bird over here,” Mick says. Kieran tells me about a goshawk that was spotted flying through the wood a few weeks ago. “It’s like a sparrowhawk on steroids.”

Mick stops us along a section of the Borsdane Brook, the river that cuts through the wood and separates Wigan and Bolton. Though it straddles both boroughs, Wigan Council has managed the wood since 1974. Here the brook is shallow, and there are a series of man-made weirs. It was diverted to channel water to feed Hindley Mill, a steam-powered corn mill that was later converted to a cotton mill. This part is known as ‘Flag Bottom’, and Mick points out the natural flagstone jutting up. We all scramble down the bank to the pebbled riverbed to see the old channel that veers off the brook’s course. It’s no more than a depression in the ground, a ghost-river.

Then he fishes out two clear plastic bags packed in with his camera equipment. Out of the first, he takes out what I initially take to be knapped flint — it has an angular, glassy sheen. It’s surprisingly light and smooth in my hands. “There are two things this area is known for,” he says. “Cotton and coal.” Wigan’s coal mining can be traced back to around 1450 and continued into the late twentieth century, with the last coal mines closing in the 1990s. The valley’s shape exposed bedrock and the coal seams that were close to the ground’s surface. Under the headline ‘Mining no threat to woodland’, a Manchester Guardian article from May 1, 1950, reported: 

Local authorities have been told by the National Coal Board that there is no threat to Borsdane Wood near Bolton, though there is a possibility of coal mining in the area. It was stated there might be enough coal in the neighbourhood to employ 200 men for 10 years.

Mick tells us that because of pollution, the water used to run “all sorts of colours,” but efforts to clean it up over the years have been rewarded. “It’s full of trout. Big trout,” he says. The second bag contains something more intriguing. “What do you think that is?” he asks, holding up a brown lump. I make a guess. “Dinosaur poo?” Wrong: it’s a fossilised freshwater mussel bed. The rock is cleaved in half, and he opens it, as you would with a clamshell, to reveal a delicate whorl of patterns inside. “This is where the history of the wood starts,” Mick tells us.

A vestigial forest

Ancient woodland makes up just 781 hectares (around 3 square miles) of Greater Manchester, as identified by the Provisional Ancient Woodland inventory. The definition of ancient woodland is native woodland that has been present since at least 1600, a date that reflects the emergence of the first reliable maps (such as tithe maps), and the fact that there was little recorded planting of woodland before the seventeenth century.

Britain’s post-glacial landscape would have been a scrubby, wind-scoured tundra, interspersed with groves of trees and cropped by herbivores. As the climate warmed, during the Mesolithic era, trees — birch, hazel, lime, elm, hornbeam — started to appear. True wildwood, which covered Britain after the Ice Age, no longer exists. The wildwood in the North was predominantly lime, but Borsdane Wood is perhaps the “nearest natural” remnant of these wildwoods. Because it sits in a sharp, river-carved valley, it’s been left relatively unchanged by human activity. Woodland has long been a resource, exploited for food, fuel and timber. Borsdane is a vestigial forest, a fragment of Britain’s prehistoric landscape. 

A large barrow called ‘Boar’s Den’ — a type of prehistoric mound that served as funerary monuments — near Sprodley Brook in Wrightington is commonly thought to be the origin of the woodland’s name. One Victorian writer suggested a connection between Borsdane and ‘Boars Den.’ During Saxon times, drifts of pigs owned by serfs would have roamed the wood, also adding weight to the theory. But in The Place-Names of Lancashire, Eilert Ekwall attributes the first instance of ‘Borsdane’ to ‘Ballesdenebroc’, (Borsdane Brook) in 1215, derived from Old English for ‘Boell,’ a name, and ‘dene’ taken from the Old English of ‘denu’ meaning ‘valley.’ 

From the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, the wood was part of land belonging to the Langton family of Lowe Hall. J.A. Hilton in North West Catholic History writes that after the Reformation, Hindley was in the “debatable land” of Catholic and Puritan Lancashire. In 1628, Abraham Langton was a “Catholic recusant” and in 1652 he was charged with treason as a “papal delinquent” and his estates — including Borsdane Wood — were sold by parliament. From then, it is thought to have been common land until it passed into the ownership of Hindley Hall Estate, which is now a golf club.

‘All you can hear is birdsong’

This is a broadleaved woodland, which is classed as a “scarce habitat” in Greater Manchester. It’s one of 40 sites in Wigan managed by Kieran and his manager Martin Purcell. Kieran’s path into conservation stemmed from his interest in nature photography. He volunteered with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust and later went on to study ecology and conservation at his local college. “I want to do my bit to try and preserve things,” he says.

“Each habitat supports a different range of species,” he tells me. “It’s the only ancient woodland in the borough.” The ground floor is carpeted with pungent swathes of wild garlic and wood anemone, both ancient woodland indicators. Ancient woodlands like Borsdane — which has 26 species of mammals and 176 species of birds — are incredibly rich with flora and fauna, and are habitats for rare and threatened species. 

Among some of the fungi species are the amethyst deceiver, cinnamon porecrust, which darkens from yellow to rust-brown and grows on deadwood, and fly agaric, the distinctive red-and-white topped mushroom often depicted in fairy tales. The abundance of fungi in the wood lures in foragers, which carries risks. “You get people who come and say ‘I can find stuff to cook for my tea,’” Dave says. Mick tells me about the destroying angel which he saw in another wood — it’s a snowy-white mushroom with pale, crowded gills. Once ingested, death can occur within days and there is no known antidote. Fortunately, you won’t find it in Borsdane.

The wood is home to the lesser spotted woodpecker. Since 1970, the population is estimated to have fallen by 83% with no more than 2,000 pairs thought to be left in the UK according to the Woodland Trust. The “ongoing loss” of ancient and mature woodland is a “key factor” in its decline, the organisation says. Other rare bird species include the willow tit and the spotted flycatcher. In 1934, a wild bird sanctuary was established in Borsdane Wood, the third in Lancashire at the time. A feeding house with a thatched roof was erected, and it was supervised by wood keeper Herbert J. Evans, who was known for chasing out naughty children who ignored the “no cycling” rule.

Today, errant teenagers are more likely to leave cans and set fire to bins, which is where Borsdane Friends Group step in. “There are some very well-off youths here,” Dave jokes. The community volunteer group was set up in 2009, and they help monitor and maintain the wood, organising educational nature walks and litter picks. Japanese Knotweed and Himalayan Balsam, two invasive species, have crept in between the trees and part of the group’s work now involves balsam bashing. “You can see by the sheer height, nothing has a chance of growing,” Dave says. “It’s so dominant.” Before he retired, he was a mental health nurse working with dementia patients. Borsdane holds great value for him. “It’s a sanctuary — everything is so peaceful. All you can hear is birdsong.”

In 1986, Borsdane Wood became Wigan’s first Local Nature Reserve. This led to the planting of tree species such as Japanese cherry, and western hemlock from north-west America, “like more of a park.” These days the council is focusing on native trees and is considering which species will be climate change resistant. “The biggest risk imported trees have is that they could have pests,” Kieran says. “That’s the major thing. Any trees that have to be imported need to be sprayed and quarantined.”

Restocking and managing the wood is a “massive task” and the stakes are high because ancient woodland is irreplaceable. Centuries of growth and the accumulation of leaf-litter, mosses and lichens have created a complex network of habitats that may never recover once disturbed or impacted. Careful thought needs to be taken to ensure it can thrive for generations to come. 

“We’re getting to the point where old trees are beginning to fail,” he says. In their place, new trees will be planted, and these will have to cope with pest disease, drought, and changes in temperature. He points out a horse chestnut that has a fissure twisting up its trunk: this is potato blight. “They get black lines up the main stem,” he explains.

The affected trees will be cut down, but their stumps will be left as deadwood. “It’s part of a functioning woodland that trees die,” he reassures me. “Ecology is never black and white.” There are other challenges to consider. Young trees planted at other sites in Wigan have been targeted by vandals who have uprooted them. “It’s a lot to think about,” he says. “We’re trying to stick to as much heritage as we can.” 

There is also ash dieback — caused by a devastating fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus — in the wood. The spores are carried in the wind, and one estimate predicts it will kill four fifths of the ash trees across the UK — a species that is sacred in Celtic and Norse cultures; the mighty ash Yggdrasil is the World Tree in Viking mythology. In British folklore, the ash possessed healing and protective properties against witchcraft. Newborn babies were given a teaspoon of ash sap to ward off ill health.

The tree is considered a good omen and also had its uses in deploying charms. In Lancashire, a woman who wanted to know who her husband would be pulled an even-ash leaf from the tree and incanted: “Even-ash, even-ash, I pluck thee/ This night my own true love to see.” But there is some positive news: “Some of the ash seems to be resisting,” Kieran says. He’s come along with a pair of binoculars, and every so often lifts them up to look at a tree to see if it is suffering from the disease. 

We’ve almost reached the end of the walk and Mick has one last surprise to share. “I’m going to take you to a farmer’s field,” he beckons. “But not as you know it.” He leads us to a sunny glade where the ground undulates gently. I’m not sure what I’m looking at until he tells me the slight brows are an example of ridge-and-furrow farming, a technique dating back to the Medieval period.

We say our goodbyes on Hindley Mill Lane, and I walk away with the feeling that I’ve spent the afternoon not just in a woodland, but in the far-distant past.

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Follow-up read: Enjoy our recent piece about the endangered willow tit and the man dedicating his life to saving it (members only).