Notes on Norsey Wood

Ancient woodland inside Billericay

Norsey Wood in Billericay consists 165 acres of mixed coppiced woodland. It is on a hilly site and the underlying geology has created a range of habitats; as a result there is a wide variety of wildlife living in the woods including rare species such as the dormouse and pipistrelle bat. There are healthy populations of dragonflies, butterflies and bees, grass snake, palmate newt and deer, and a wide variety of wild flowers, trees and lichens. There are many paths, walks and rides through the woods, many of which are thought to date back to the Iron Age. Maps of these paths and rides have existed since 1593. They are believed to be the oldest known woodland rides which still exist.

Norsey Wood
Norsey Wood

The wood has been designated as a Local Nature Reserve, a Scheduled Monument, and an SSSI. It contains a remarkable collection of archaeological features, some of which are of national importance in their own right (such as the Bronze Age bowl barrow, the Iron Age cemetery and the medieval deer bank). In addition the continuity of many different types of human activity over millennia has given the woods their unique character and is of great interest in itself.

Beneath most of southern Essex is London Clay, laid down over 50 million years ago during the Eocene period. At that time, the Billericay area was covered by a subtropical sea. As the sea began to dry out, a sandier clay known as the Claygate Beds was deposited on top of the London Clay, and still later, as the sea finally disappeared, a layer of yellow sand (known as Bagshot Sand) was laid down. Above the Bagshot Sand is a layer of gravel consisting of very round, smooth pebbles. These are the remnants of an ancient beach and were formed some 15 million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs, at a time when Essex had a subtropical climate and Billericay was on the coast - something to think about when walking the pebbled paths of the wood.

The higher parts of Norsey Wood nearest to Billericay High Street form a kind of level plateau. The ground, being based on sand, is well drained and supports sweet chestnut (most of which has been coppiced for centuries) and some patches of heather. South of this ridge are steep sided valleys caused by glacial meltwater. In these valleys the sand has been washed away and the Claygate Beds and London Clay are exposed. This gives rise to heavier soils, supporting alder, ash and willow, with water tolerant plants such as sedge, fern and sphagnum moss. Springs are common here, and there are localised marshy areas.

Tools from the Neolithic and Mesolithic era have been found in Norsey Wood, often just lying on the ground. The first evidence of human settlement in the area is a Bronze Age burial mound, created around 2000 B.C. (the only such mound in Essex). When it was excavated in 1865, three clay urns containing cremation remains were found. Another burial mound did exist but was cleared to make way for housing.

Burial Mound
Ancient Burial Mound

The high ground at the north of the woodland contains an extensive Iron Age urnfield. During the late Iron Age bodies were cremated, with the remains placed in pottery urns and then buried. Sometimes these graves were grouped together in small ditched compounds, possibly indicative of family or tribal groups. In Britain such cemeteries are only found in south eastern England. About 50 have been identified to date, probably a small fraction of the original number. Iron Age monuments in general are rare, and urnfields therefore constitute an important source of information about the social structure, beliefs and economy of the time. All examples with surviving remains, including that in Norsey Wood, are considered to be of national importance.

There are a number of medieval, man-made deer banks running through the woods which provide clues as to the history of woodland management from the medieval period to the present day. This system of banks could denote ownership, or mark different zones for the coppicing cycle; together they show the continuing importance of these woods through the medieval period, and could help explain its rich biodiversity.

A more poignant memorial is the area of WWI training trenches in Norsey Wood. A lot of trenches were dug during WWI, mostly for training the troops prior to being sent to the Western Front, although some were dug as defences in case of invasion. In most cases, once the war was over they were simply backfilled and forgotten. In Norsey Wood the training trenches are party obscured but well preserved and visible. They serve as a rare and valuable reminder of the nature of warfare in World War I, and of the activities of those who prepared for conflict, either on the Western Front or at home.