Secrets of the High Woods project; An Archives Consultant’s View

Dr Caroline Adams

One of the best things about archives is that they are about people – both the researchers in the present, and the men and women who wrote or handled the document you are looking at. I joined the Secrets of the High Woods project as a consultant on the advisory committee when I was still working as Senior Archivist at West Sussex Record Office.  My working life has been in outreach, and I really enjoy introducing people to the archives of their area or their family, and sharing their excitement at what they find.  I was very pleased to be asked to be the consultant for the documentary research.

Dr Adams with project volunteers at WSRO

The Secrets of the High Woods project was based around the results of new evidence. LiDAR imaging is an archaeological technique, which allows the viewer a good idea of the topography of the ground, even when covered by trees (hence ‘Secrets of the High Woods’).  The results, when interpreted and analysed, are of huge benefit for uncovering the local history of the area – in this case the high woodland on the Downs, stretching from the Hampshire border to Arundel.  Added to documentary evidence by regular use of the record office, the results were very exciting, and about thirty volunteers took up the challenge:

LiDAR image

It is a Wednesday morning and up to fifteen people are crammed into the Record Office workroom. Each volunteer has a story to tell about their progress on their own area of study, and the others listen intently because there is so much connectedness between each experience.  Ideas fly back and forward across the room, and the conversation ebbs and flows between the Iron Age earthworks at Arundel (“are they shown on the 1590s map?”), through racing and stables (it wasn’t only Goodwood) along the south side of the slopes to the Canadian battle school around the Stansted area.  The LiDAR survey is the common factor in each of the areas of study.

I loved these meetings. There are very few areas of research more rewarding than being able to compare letters, deeds and other documents which give

West Dean Mss 3154

landscape information, with maps dating from the 1590s, the 18th century or the 1940s, and then looking at the LiDAR, going out to walk the area, and then back to search for answers to the new questions raised.  But it’s even better being the research consultant!

I have been amazed and thrilled to see how enthusiastic people can be, and how much time the volunteers are prepared to give. Most of the work has taken place at West Sussex Record Office, Arundel Castle Archives, East Sussex Record Office at The Keep in Falmer, and The National Archives.  Intrepid volunteers have braved the battery of ‘do’s and don’t’s required at any archives repository (for, unlike books, these documents are completely unique and irreplaceable, and therefore security is high) and discovered a world that many of them didn’t know existed.  From that beginning, they used the record offices regularly and enthusiastically.

Stansted House (1724)

Gradually, over the months each volunteer found their own area of expertise, and at meetings and training days, the archives’ volunteers shared their knowledge openly and discussed each other’s viewpoints without animosity. Some became obsessive over faint lines on the LiDAR images, pits or lumps in the ground, or ambiguous words in estate deeds and accounts in the archives. Everyone was prepared to learn a great deal, but nobody got precious over their theories.  Many people displayed a passionate knowledge of the locality which I found very moving.

In the end it’s down to grounding yourself in the roots of where you live. The sense of satisfaction in having gained a deeper understanding of your surroundings is coupled with the knowledge that you have contributed to and taken part in a much bigger project, and that the work you have done will give other people that satisfaction too.  It’s called ‘a sense of place’ and it is more beneficial than any amount of prescriptions from the doctor.

Find out more about the Secrets of the High Woods project on their website;

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