Underwood is a term for trees within historically managed woodland (Silva minuta in the Domesday Book) – the ones grown and managed for common usage such as wattle for buildings, stakes for fencing, and firewood and charcoal for fuel i.e. not for building timber. A managed woodland often included underwood as well as timber trees left to grow big and straight. Underwood is made up of the trees that were coppiced and pollarded over and over again – from early history on to the post medieval period.
The underwood was managed frequently so trees stayed smallish, and their crop of wood was productively harvested much more often than from the timber trees and so the underwood could be worth more than the timber. What is left of the historic underwood can sometimes still be seen within semi natural ancient woodland – look for idiosyncratic-shaped overgrown veteran trees. Because the trees were managed and encouraged to rejuvenate they have lived a lot longer than single timber trees which were felled. They are as much cultural heritage as natural heritage.
Whereas oak and beech might be more likely to have been left to become timber trees, the quicker growing underwood species were often more of a mix such as crab apple, holly, service, ash, sallow, hazel, maple, thorn, wych elm, birch. Careful rotation would be needed to give the different species the best chance to flourish and to ensure there was always wood available to the people who had the rights to collect it. The species mix were what came naturally in different parts of the country and what thrived in local conditions.
From the 18th century onwards, as demand altered, the products from underwood became less valuable and timber trees became more so, and therefore the management and species proportions of woodlands changed. During the 20th century predominantly conifer planted woodland for timber prevailed.
Urra Moor, part of the Cleveland Hills, contains the highest point on the North York Moors – 454 metres above sea level, at Round Hill. There is a lot of prehistoric archaeology in the area – cairns, lithic scatters and a flint arrow head find. Being at the highest point for miles around is always going to be useful for humans as well as significant.
There is some disagreement over where the unusual name Urra comes from. Most simply it might mean hill from the Norse haugr, or it could imply a more impressionistic idea of the darkness and gloom of such a wild barren area and be from the Old English word for dirty – horheht/horhig/horuweg. Try speaking the words without pronouncing most of the consonants.
Obviously it’s not the time to explore Urra Moor, due to the Covid-19 situation. Please do not travel into or around the North York Moors National Park unless this is absolutely essential (essential travel does not include travel for exercise or to second homes and holiday accommodation). The National Park will be here waiting for you to enjoy when it is safe to do so.
The European stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is found where there are high amounts of nutrients in the soil and so is usually associated with habitation and other types of development. It is often frowned upon as a ‘pernicious weed’ because it is such a successful perennial that spreads through its rhizomes and runners, out competing other plants. At least it wont be suffocating many wildflowers however as many of those don’t appreciate nutrient rich soils.
Urtica dioica has serrated edged leaves and small grouped flowers. The leaves and stem are covered in hairs the tips of which can deliver a biochemical sting into your skin if touched (Urtica comes from the latin word for burn). This active element may be one of the reasons some people think it has medical efficacy. The plant can be usefully added to compost, and it (as a young plant only) can be used as an ingredient in food and drink, the immediate danger being in the collection rather than the eventual digestion. N.B. Don’t partake of any wild plant unless you are absolutely sure you know what it is and whether it really is edible or not.
From a biodiversity point of view the nettle is particularly useful as a living plant because it acts as a host for the eggs and then provides vital food for the caterpillar stage for a multitude of butterfly and moth species – including Comma (Polygonia c-album), Peacock (Aglais io), Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), Angle Shades (Phlogophora meticulosa), Buff Ermine (Spilosoma luteum), Burnished Brass (Diachrysia chrysitis), Dot Moth (Melanchra persicariae), Ghost Moth (Hepialus humuli humuli), Mother of Pearl (Pleuroptya ruralis), Setaceous Hebrew Character (Xestia c-nigrum), Snout (Hypena proboscidalis), Spectacle (Abrostola tripartita), White Ermine (Spilosoma lubricipeda).
Verjuice (Verjus) is the liquor that comes from pressing unripe fruit. The word means ‘green juice’ – ‘green’ conveying the tart un-ripeness of the fruit. The fruit used depended on what was available in the region. In and around the North York Moors that would have largely been crab apples, and maybe gooseberries. The fruit would have been pressed/crushed to abstract the liquor. The remaining mush could be fed to animals like pigs. The liquor could be used to flavour food with sourness – it is very acidic, like lemon juice before lemons were widely available, like a mild vinegar or a bad wine – and as medicine or tonic. The Crab apple tree (Malus sylvestris) is native to Britain and the trees were mostly wild in the past, although sometimes used in fencing (i.e. manipulating woody species to create enclosure hedges). In the 19th/early 20th century foraged crab apples were collected along with orchard fruit from the North York Moors to be sent off to jam factories; crab apples have a particularly high level of pectin to help the jam set.
There are a couple of records of parts of Verjuice presses included in the North York Moors Historic Environment Record (HER 840 and HER 19525). There is also at least one ‘crab mill’ which would have been driven by a horse, conserved as a feature in village of Sutton under Whitestonecliffe on the edge of the Moors. Crab apple trees are much less common than they were, both in the wild and in the hedgerows.
Vernacular buildings were domestic and functional. They were ordinary in their time – built out of local materials (what was to hand) using traditional techniques. The vernacular buildings in each area might look similar, but are very rarely identical. It is this local distinctiveness that makes these buildings particularly important nowadays and therefore the best examples are worthy of being listed. From the 19th century onwards materials became more easily transported around, house building was done on a more uniform and larger scale, architectural techniques and fashions were reiterated across the country – so the term vernacular is mainly used only for pre 19th century buildings..
Vernacular buildings have been described as a component of the landscape and not just because they’re built from materials hoved out of the local geology. The buildings needed an appropriate toughness to withstand the weather. They are patched up over time to stay useful sometimes these phases of building add to the character sometimes they might deflect. But vernacular buildings, whether they’re listed or not, always have a connection back to the people who built them, lived in them, drank in them, kept their animals in them.
In the North York Moors vernacular buildings that still stand are mainly from the 17th and 18th centuries. The most typical are built from sandstone and clay pantiles. Around Whitby cut ashlar blocks and quoins (corner stones) are common instead, and along the south edge of the Moors buildings are often built out of mixed rubble and quoins or sometimes gritstones/limestone. Materials were often re-used; after the Dissolution (mid 16th century) new or repaired buildings around some of the dissolved Abbeys and Priories of the North York Moors ended up a characterful mix of the vernacular and the spectacular.
Whereas it can be easy to see why stately homes, churches and castles are listed (protected for the nation), it can be more difficult to identify which of the many vernacular buildings of England should be listed too. Historic England have a series of Listing Selection Guides.