These are some of the things we all know about British woodland: 'that woods were destroyed by people felling trees to build houses and ships, that medieval England was still very wooded, that forests were preserved for hunting by severe laws and barbarous penalties, that there was a 'timber famine' in the Tudor period, that iron was smelted with coke because there was no wood left, that there was no conservation, that replanting was taken in hand after Evelyn wrote Sylva (1664), and that the last remnants of the old woodland perished when cut down in the First (or was it the Second?) World War...'
None of the above, you may or may not be surprised to learn, is actually true. It is the romantic pseudo-history of our woodland, built on folk history and 'factoids' (propositions which have all the properties of a fact except that they are not true), and it is, as Oliver Rackham points out in his magisterial Trees And Woodland In The British Landscape, quite impossible to eradicate. 'Pseudo-history,' Rackham writes, 'is not killed by publishing real history. In a rational world, this might lead to a controversy in which either the new version was accepted or the old version was shown to be right after all. In our world, the matter is not controversial; either the old version is retold as if nothing had happeened, or authors try to combine the two versions as if both could be true at once. Pseudo-history is not static but alive and growing... new factoids are even now being devised and added to the temple of Unreason.'
Sir Thomas Browne, back in the 1650s, set about demolishing the already vast temple of Unreason with his mighty Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Vulgar Errours. Much good that did. Pseudo-history will always thrive, I suppose, because it offers a simple, coherent narrative that seems to make sense and is often in some way emotionally satisfying. It can be intensely annoying - as when Ring A Ring A Roses is explained as being linked to the Plague, a nasty as well as a fallacious notion - and it is saddening that, in an age when most people seem to know less and less about less and less, the one thing they do know is likely to be wrong. Happily for the most part it doesn't really matter - but there are areas where a proper undersanding is essential, and woodland is one of them, since the conservation of this precious resource depends on a proper knowledge of what it is, how it works and how it can be helped to thrive.