Wain Wood was a lucrative source of income for its owners. The accounts of the woodward
or bailiff, John Merritt, from 1739 to 1767 have survived. These not only describe
how the wood was used but also list the villagers (including some widows) who cut
it. Some travelled from Hitchin and Gosmore.
Every year between five and six acres of wood were rented to local people. Each was
allocated (on a rotational basis) a small area of woodland from which they cut hornbeam.
This was used for their own firewood or sold around the district. A man could make
this his full-time occupation during wintertime. (Here is a link to a list of the
people who rented small portions of Wain Wood during this period.)
In addition, between 3,300 and 9,000 ‘rads’ were produced annually at Wain Wood.
“Rads’ were probably bundles of faggots, light branches and shoots which were cut
by estate workers and sold in lots of a thousand. Another source of revenue was the
35 to 102 yards of bark which was sold to tanners each year in the mid-1700s.
From these three items the wood brought in an annual revenue of between £33 and £55.
The demand for firewood, however, was affected by the coming of the railway in the
nineteenth century which introduced affordable coal to the neighbourhood. Then, although
the rental of wooded areas for coppicing continued, the main attraction of woodland
such as Wain Wood was its potential for shooting - the woodward was superseded by
Villagers chop wood for fuel in Wain Wood
John Bunyan and Wain Wood
Wain Wood will always be linked with John Bunyan (1628-1688) - the Baptist preacher
who wrote Pilgrim’s Progress. (Link: Religion) Reginald Hine, the Hitchin historian,
describes this association:
‘At Wain Wood, in Hitchin parish, there was no preaching shed. The cottage is still
there with its pleasant ingle-nook in which Bunyan smoked many a peaceful pipe. But
it was in the woodland dell which is still known as Bunyan’s Dell, under the trees
and under the stars, that he preached to his “gathered church” which numbered sometimes
over a thousand souls. If it drenched with rain, there were four devoted women ever
at hand to hold an apron over his bare head as he preached.’
For many years anniversary services were held at the dell but this custom had lapsed
long before the 1880s. However, the large attendances in 1882 at the newly-built
Bunyan’s chapel at Preston fostered the optimistic hope that the annual service at
the dell might be revived.
In 1928, there was an enactment of Bunyan’s original sermon an Bunyan’s Dell from
which these photographs were taken.
Bunyan’s Cottage from a drawing by Samuel Lucas circa 1860
Bunyan’s Dell, Wain Wood circa 1960
Four views of Bunyan’s Cottage from the 1920/30s
Bunyan’s Cottage was traditionally the lair of the Wain Wood gamekeepers for at least
a 100 years from 1851. The following is a list of its known occupants:
ROBINSON, Thomas and Mary
and BARNES, Ralph
ARMOUR, John and Emily
CLAXTON, William and Edith
MIDDLEDITCH, Dick, Betty, Ethel and Philip
Farmer and gamekeeper
Gamekeeper and father of Frank, below
Gamekeeper, son of Edward
Gamekeeper and cricket club groundsman, umpire and life member
A walk through Wain Wood - August 2008
I remember walking through the wood in about 1960. There were lines of dead birds
and small animals which had been strung out between trees by Dick Middleditch, the
gamekeeper. When I walked through the wood recently, I recalled that it was a short-cut
from the bottom of Preston Hill to Chequers Lane as it lopped-off the corner by ‘The
The walk starts near the bottom of Preston Hill (A on the map above) and concludes
at the stile off Chequers Lane.
The start of the footpath A near the bottom of Preston Hill
After following the path to the right at a fork (the left track leads to Bunyan’s
the right of way is clearly marked
A glimpse of Bunyan’s Cottage from the footpath. Note the ‘green man’ on the wall
Sources: ‘Hitchin Countryside’ and ‘History of Hitchin’ - Reginald Hine; Wain Wood
accounts 1739-67 HALS DE/R/E114; ‘The Diary of Joshua Whiting’; ‘Behind the Plough’
- Nigel Agar; Hertfordshire Express March 1885; Censuses 1851-1901; Ippollitts electoral
Above: A montage showing Bunyan’s Dell
Bunyan’s Cottage and Dell
Wain Wood, to the north of Preston, was a part of the immense forest that once stretched
from Hitchin to Hatfield. Because of its age and richness of flora and fauna, it
is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. In the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, Wain Wood was owned by the Radcliffe family.
The name of the wood, Wain, has prompted speculation that it was inhabited by pagans.
Wain may derived from a word meaning valley of heathen worshippers. An alternative
(and far less intriguing) connotation is that the name means a wain or wagon-way.
In the nineteenth century, Wain Wood lay in the parish of Ippollitts and was almost
a mile wide and long. It was dominated by oak trees and hornbeam and had a coniferous
plantation of pine and larch. Beneath the canopy of trees, the wood was celebrated
for its spring-time display of bluebells - wild cherries and primroses also carpeted
Butterflies (such as the speckled wood butterfly) and moths flitted about the wood
in profusion while adders and lizards made their homes in the undergrowth of the
Wain Wood was a favourite haunt of Hitchin Quaker families because of its abundant
natural surroundings. There they ‘botanized, bird-watched, sketched and chattered’.
In the early 1800s, Joseph Whiting wrote in his diary, ‘Good Friday. A beautiful
day. Walked with sister Ellen and Edith to Wain Wood. Took our dinners with us. Before
entering the wood, met some boys with their hands full of primroses. Edith was afraid
they had gathered them all but was soon greatly surprised to see parts of the wood
almost covered with them’.
On 5 March 1885, one of the wood’s occupants was rudely disturbed - ‘a fine full-grown
badger was caught in the middle of Wain Wood, Preston. Six men were employed from
ten am to five pm in digging it out, it being at a depth of between five and six
feet from the surface. A number of people assembled to witness the operation and
when the badger was reached, a man named Collins drew it out by its tail and held
it up to the spectators’.