Hockley Woods isn’t actually one area of forest. It’s actually a group of contiguous woodlands encompassing Great Bull Wood, Great Hawkwell Wood, Beeches Wood and Parson’s Snipe. Together they form the largest ancient woodland in the county, but they were once separately owned and divided by earthworks, some of which date from Saxon times. Today around 20km of these earth ridges exist, protruding from the ground up to a metre in height.
Since the ice sheets melted 10000 years ago, deciduous woodland has thrived across the UK. Here in Hockley it has been coppiced for over a thousand years, a process whereby trees in a small section are cut back for timber, allowing light to flood the forest floor and thus encouraging different species to thrive until the trees grow back. Each of the main tree types found here has a different use: oak in the construction of timber-framed buildings, easily-split chestnut for fences and hornbeam once used in the manufacture of police truncheons.
Many of the trees are oak, with hornbeam and chestnut also very common. Some varieties are locally dominant, such as the wild cherry in Parson’s Snipe. This rich blend of trees is due to the differing soils found across the woodland; oak and chestnut can be seen on the higher ground whereas the hornbeam prefers the wet clay.
As a result of centuries of coppicing, a number of plants survive that can only be found in wild woodland. Although you’ll commonly see bracken, ferns and brambles, there are more unusual species in Hockley Woods, including wood anemones, cow wheat and even orchids. It’s because of this that the woods have been designated as an SSSI.
There’s also a 16th century pub adjacent to the car park, The Bull Inn. Once a smugglers’ tunnel ran from the pub to the stream in the heart of the woods; these days, you’ll have to make do with a walk above ground.