From war to ‘witch marks’: graffiti carved into New Forest trees reveals past lives

From war to ‘witch marks’: graffiti carved into New Forest trees reveals past lives

Some are fading records of passionate woodland trysts, while others tell vividly of the fear of the supernatural that some still feel in the forest: they are the more than 100 pieces of graffiti carved into trees in the New Forest in the south of England that have been spotted by members of the public and collected by the national park authority.

There are, not surprisingly, plenty of lovers’ initials but also “witch marks”, etched into bark to try to ward off people suspected of evil intent and examples of the “king’s mark”, which was used to identify trees chosen to be chopped down to make warships.

There are also reminders of war and peace, of people stranded far from home and of families and friends coming together in the trees.

The presence of American service personnel at a nearby base in the second world war can be seen in marks such as: “HD, USA, 1944.”

One of the most ornate was found in one of the deepest and darkest areas of the forest and spells out: “Summer of Love 1967.” Some of the message is obscured by lichen but most of the beautifully rendered letters can still be made out clearly.

The New Forest National Park Authority launched the project in February and was delighted by the amount and variety of what people found.

Lawrence Shaw, archaeologist at the New Forest NPA, said some of the inscriptions dated back hundreds of years. He said: “Trees get blown over, are felled or die. These inscriptions can be a fragile record so we felt it was important to get people to help map them. The project really gripped people’s imaginations.”

A frequently found mark was the one used to identify trees for use in building Royal Navy ships. “They were looking for decent beeches and oaks,” said Shaw. The ones that survived were clearly not needed before iron and steel took over as the shipbuilding material of choice.

Some of the witch marks may date back hundreds of years, though it is not possible to date them with certainty. Markings such as the “HD” one are easier to place. US service personnel were based at RAF Stoney Cross in the forest during the second world war.

Shaw said: “You can imagine these servicemen going out and exploring an alien environment and leaving their marks.”

Other images carved into the trees include eagles, boats, houses and faces, but one of Shaw’s favourites is the summer of love message. “It’s ornate and detailed,” he said. “It’s in the deep, dark of the forest and I don’t know how anyone found it.” Shaw doesn’t know why it was created, but it was done with care. “They must have used carving tools rather than a pen knife,” he said.

Shaw is also keen on graffiti carved into a fallen tree next to a popular path. “There are lots of different initials on it. You can imagine families walking there and stopping from time to time. There are 10 decades of human interaction with nature on that tree.”

But the park is not encouraging people to carve new graffiti into the trees. “That might risk damaging them.” Shaw said. ” This is about appreciating what has been done in the past and understanding how people have interacted with the New Forest over time.”

The project is also being careful about over-interpreting what it has found. Shaw said: “We had one beautiful “Om” symbol and wondered if it might have been created by Indian soldiers based nearby. We were contacted by someone who said, no, it was her sister who had a penchant for the symbol in the 1970s.”

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