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Maelor Saesneg Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

Maelor Saesneg

The Natural Landscape


Maelor Saesneg forms part of the morainic lowlands in the northern borderlands, extending from north Shropshire to southern Cheshire, lying between about 10 and 100m above Ordnance Datum. Topographically, it can be subdivided into a number of distinct landscape types - the floodplain and lowlands bordering the River Dee to the north and north-west, the gently undulating central area dissected by minor stream valleys, the more deeply incised valley of the Wych Brook along the northern edge of the area, and finally the extensive raised bog of Fenn's Moss on the border with Shropshire to the south-east.


The underlying solid geology is Triassic New Red Sandstone, composed of relatively soft red-stained sandstones and marls. Much of the area of overlain by glacial till derived from glacial sandy and clayey glacial till of northern or Irish Sea origin.


Soils and hydrology have both had a significant impact upon land-use potential of different parts of the historic landscape area. The flat floodplain of the Dee to the north of Worthenbury is subject to periodic flooding and waterlogging and has gleyed alluvial soils suited to permanent grassland. On the river terrace bordering the Dee to the north and south of Bangor and to the west of Overton are areas of well-drained silty brown alluvial soils and loamy brown earths suited to grassland and arable in areas where flood risk is low. A similar narrow band of deep brown earth is to be found just to the west of Horseman's Green. Most of the rest of the area is covered with seasonally waterlogged and slow draining fine loamy soils and clayey soils, characteristic of glacial tills in the region, that are suited to short-term and permanent grassland and arable in drier areas.

Rivers, streams, meres and bogs

Most of the area of Maelor Saesneg is drained by streams running to the north and west which feed the River Dee which delimits the western side of the area. Towards the west is the Mill Brook which rises south of Lightwood Green, skirts the eastern side of Bangor Is-y-coed, and joins the Dee near Dongray Hall. Much of the central part of Maelor Saesneg is drained by a series of streams which rise along the southern boundary of the area near Penley and towards the eastern margins near Iscoyd Park which join near Halghton and run northwards as the Emral Brook. At Worthenbury the Emral Brook is joined by a the Wych Brook which rises as the Red Brook near Fenn's Moss, at the south-eastern corner of Maelor Saeseng, the two streams mark the national boundary between England and Wales. The Emral Brook and Wych Brook run northwards from Worthenbury as the Worthenbury Brook, which join the River Dee just to the west of Shocklach Green, Cheshire. The south-western part of the area is drained by watercourses draining into the Shell Brook, again marking the national boundary, which joins the Dee just above Erbistock. The south-eastern corner of the area, to the south of Fenn's Moss is drained by streams which feed into the River Roden in Shropshire.

Studies of river meanders in the Dee valley have shown that the River Dee occupied a position close to its present location shortly after the last glaciation, in the process cutting down into the underlying glacial till and creating various landforms and sediments including at least two river terraces and leaving a discontinuous complex of abandoned river channels, meander cut-offs and oxbow lakes. Archaeological and sedimentary evidence suggests that the course of the river has been relatively stable since later prehistoric or Roman times, with many of the meander cut-offs being infilled during the medieval period and with evidence of increasing management of flow regulation since about 1700.

Vegetation history

Something of the post-glacial vegetation history of Maelor Saesneg is known as a result of pollen studies undertaken on the peats of Fenn's Moss in the south-eastern corner of the area, the late post-glacial site at Chelford in the Cheshire basin, and from studies of abandoned river meanders of the River Dee in the area between Worthenbury and Holt. As yet, there is little detailed evidence of the history of vegetation change and land-use history from pollen studies for later prehistoric and more recent periods, though study of old river meanders near Worthenbury suggests that the natural vegetation, possibly from the later prehistoric period, was of open oak and hazel woodland on the drier surrounding areas with areas of damper alder or willow carr woodland adjacent to the floodplain or in adjacent valleys, with sporadic occurrences of lime, elm and holly, with some localised areas of heathland close to the site suggested by heather and ling. Arable and pastoral agriculture became important in the land surrounding the Dee floodplain. Cereal cultivation included possibly wheat and barley but also oats, the latter being typical of Romano-British and later periods. Hemp pollen also identified, probably cultivated for fibre used in rope making, probably before the beginning of the 18th century.


Today, residual natural broadleaved woodland or replanted ancient woodland is largely confined to more steeply-sloping ground along the banks and old river terraces of the Dee, along stream valleys south of Lightwood Green and Halghton, along the Red Brook near Iscoyd Park and Wych Brook to the east of Tallarn Green and in the area around Bettisfield Park, south of Hanmer. Small plantations occur here and there, with more extensive broadleaved and coniferous plantations on the heathland around the fringes of Fenn's Moss in the south-east corner of the area.

As noted above, pollen evidence suggests that the earlier natural vegetation, possibly from the later prehistoric period, was of open oak and hazel woodland on the drier surrounding areas with areas of damper alder/willow carr woodland adjacent to the floodplain or in adjacent valley. Both Welsh and English place-names indicate the presence of more extensive natural woodland in the past, especially along the southern and north-eastern boundaries of the area. Many of the sources are relatively late, but some most probably date back to the early medieval period, in perhaps the 7th or 8th centuries. Anglo-Saxon place-names which probably indicate clearings in the woodland include that of Lightwood Green from Old English leoht 'bright, light', and the name Penley derived from the name Penda and Old English leah 'wood or clearing', which is also present locally in the Welsh form Llannerch Panna, 'Penda's clearing'. The place-name Musley, to the west of Lightwood, possibly also contains the element leah. The Domesday survey of 1086 records an extensive area of woodland at Bettisfield, three leagues by two leagues across wide, an area of almost 7 kilometres by 5 kilometres across (a league generally being reckoned to be about one and a half miles). Woodland is also signified in both elements of the Welsh name Bangor Is-y-coed, bangor meaning 'wattle enclosure' with the suffix is-coed , 'below the wood', to distinguish it from the occurrence of the place-name bangor elsewhere in Wales.

Woodland clearance no doubt continued apace during the medieval period from initial clearings as the ancient woodland resources were exploited for fuel and building materials as well as assarting to satisfy a need for more farmland. In a bid to encourage English settlers to occupy the new Edwardian borough of Overton, for example, would-be inhabitants in 1293 were offered free timber for building, timber continuing to be a the principal building material in the area until brick became more commonly available from the later 17th century onwards. Few records of felling have survived in Maelor Saesneg during this period, but there are records of extensive areas of native woodland being felled in the Northwood area of north Shropshire, just to the south of Penley, between the later 15th and early 17th centuries, leaving the patchwork of residual woodland that is still visible in this area today. The area of in the neighbourhood of Threapwood on the northern boundary Maelor Saesneg, had evidently been more heavily wooded in the past, its name significantly containing the Middle English element threpen, giving the meaning 'disputed or debatable wood', which significantly spanned the border between traditionally Welsh and English territories, which was to retain a reputation as a lawless, extra-parochial territory until well into the 18th century. Thomas Pennant in his Tour in Wales published in 1784 made particular mention of the 'venerable oaks, the remains of the ancient forest' near Threapwood. The presence of woodland in this area has left a notable legacy of farm names including the English 'wood' or the Welsh celli 'grove' including Wood Farm, Middle Wood Farm, Upper Wood Farm, The Gelli, Gelli Farm, and The Woodlands.

English or Welsh woodland names were given to farmsteads elsewhere, as in the case of Althrey Woodhouse, south of Bangor, Argoed (Welsh 'forest edge'), north of Overton, both on the banks of the Dee, and Plas yn Coed ('forest mansion') to the north of Lightwood Green, establishments which were probably all in existence by the end of the 17th century, a time by which the ancient woodland had probably been more or less reduced to the remnants which survive at the present day.

A number of lanes of probable medieval origin have English names identifying particular tree of bush species, such at Holly Bush Lane and Birch Lane. A number of later farms and houses likewise have English names identifying particular wild or cultivated species, including Holly Bush Farm, Oak Farm, Broad Oak Farm, Yew Tree Farm, Cherrytree Farm, Peartree Farm, and The Elms, of which Oak Farm and Peartree farmhouses are an early 17th-century timber-framed buildings, Peartree Farm and Holly Bush Farm significantly superseding earlier moated manor house sites.

Historical perceptions of the Maelor Saesneg landscape

Descriptions and illustrations of the landscape of Maelor Saesneg first appear in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and though mostly concerned with the picturesque views along the Dee near Bangor Is-y-coed and Overton Bridge provide some indications of land-use which probably post-date the major change from arable to pastoral farming in many parts of the area which appears to have occurred during the late medieval and early post-medieval periods. Speaking of Bangor Is-y-coed, Samuel Lewis describes 'The adjacent scenery in many places is beautiful and richly picturesque, the noble sweeps of the Dee being frequently overshadowed by thick hanging woods, which fringe its elevated bank', whilst his description of Overton Bridge introduces contemporary perceptions of land-use and potential:

'The surrounding scenery is beautifully picturesque, being composed of a great diversity of features in pleasing combination and agreeable contrast. From a ridge near the village is seen, on one side, an extensive plain of verdant meadows, enlivened by the windings of the River Dee, skirted in front by fertile and richly wooded slopes'.

Thomas Pennant, in the late 18th century, makes reference to the remnants of ancient woodland to be seen in the Threapwood area, and also provides the following description of the Hanmer area:

'the part about the little town of Hanmer is extremely beautiful; varied with a lake of fifty acres, bounded on all sides with small cultivated eminences, embellished with woods'.

Pennant draws special attention to the area around Willington Cross, to the south of Tallarn Green, noting that the country 'which hitherto had been uncommonly wet and dirty, now changes to a sandy soil; and becomes broken into small rising'. Lewis similarly draws attention to differences in land-use in the description of the area around Worthenbury:

'The soil of the higher grounds is in general good loamy clay, producing superior crops of wheat and rich pasturage; that in the lower grounds, which is subject to partial floods from the river and some tributary brooks which intersect it, is formed of alluvial earth'.

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