One of the most interesting things I do for Woodlands.co.uk is visiting large woods in the south east, and considering how and where we should divide them. Very often the woods are surrounded at least partly by woodbanks, which may be straight lines or may to weird and wonderful shapes. These woodbanks are nearly always topped by ancient and gnarled trees, mainly hornbeam, regardless of what is growing in the rest of the wood.
I have been reading about the origin of woodbanks in “The History of the Countryside” by Oliver Rackham. Apparently all of them are at least two hundred years old. The straight ones are likely to date from the enclosures in the early nineteenth century, but the wavy irregular ones are almost certainly medieval or even earlier. Woodland owners had them constructed to mark their boundary in a permanent and immovable way, by digging first a ditch on the edge of their property, then piling the excavated earth up on their own side of the ditch. (Hard work!) So usually the woodbank belongs to the woodland, and the ditch is the dividing line.
We also often find woodbanks within the woods themselves. How could these be boundaries? Oliver Rackham says these were put in when estates were divided. Each inheritor marked the edge of his own section by digging a new woodbank. So you thought splitting woods was a modern invention?! You may well find that one side at least of your own woodland is so marked.
I am always excited to see this clear evidence of the work of people in a bygone age, when individual hand work in woods was the norm, and people who worked in them knew each bank and tree and trickling stream as a friend. Much like the new breed of woodland owners, of course!