Looking Forward: Contemporary Interactions with an Ancient Woodland

Nowadays, the Deneholes of Hangmans Wood do not generate nearly as much curiosity as they did during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, that hasn’t stopped the site from catching the attention of Historic England, who have named it a Scheduled Monument and included it in their 400,000 strong list of historically and architecturally important sites of England. The site was named a Scheduled Monument under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979, meaning that it must remained unchanged for future generations to enjoy. As a result, the Deneholes have been fenced off to stop the public from entering them and are protected by an impenetrable double gated system.

2 gated Deneholes
No entry
A closer example of the fencing system

A Folklore Interaction?

When I was personally surveying the site, I did come across something interesting that made me think that locals could still be interacting with the area’s folklore; though the folklore seems to have moved from the Deneholes to the wider wooded area in which they reside. The woods itself, being called Hangmans Wood, is sure to attract to stories of ghosts and other things that go bump in the night and I must admit, I was incredibly surprised that I hadn’t come across any of this when I was carrying out my research. Tony Benton has commented on Hangmans Wood and says that it is likely named as either the site of a former gallows, or as an evolution of the term for hanging woodland because the woods sit in a slope. He does make a case of it being a former gallows due to it existing at a junction of a major route. It would seem that locals are now being drawn to Hangmans Wood as a haunted site, as I discovered the remnants of a Halloween pumpkin placed in the undergrowth next to a pair of rather ominous looking trees. It is nice to think that the folklore of the area has undergone some sort of transformation and is now inspiring the minds of, probably young teenagers, to venture into the woodland on All Hallows Eve to scare themselves silly in what has become a modern yet traditional element to the October celebration.

A pumpkin lies in the undergrowth

A Nuisance in the Modern Age

In 2012, something rather peculiar happened not too far from Hangmans Wood. Sink holes began opening up in people’s driveways, with one family losing a car as a result. This first incident seemed to spark a national interest in sink holes that were frequently appearing along the Thames Estuary in Essex and Kent. The BBC had the following to say on the matter

‘The cause of the problem is a denehole, an underground gap left by chalk excavation in 17th Century’

Of course, it has never been officially proven that the Deneholes were created through chalk excavation, yet it does remain the general consensus on the matter. Unfortunately, this does seem to be correlated with the advancement of 21st century society. No longer do people sit around and tell stories involving the legends of the local area, so it would appear that those stories pertaining to Danish invaders and smugglers ring have been lost. All that exists now is a faint whisper of belief that carries through the ancient trees of Hangmans Wood, and sometimes the evident curiosity of a local dog who is particularly interested in sink holes, who may know something we do not.

New surveyor of the Deneholes

Past Reflections: Historical Interactions with the Site

After learning about the folkloric association of Deneholes and Hangmans Wood, it is now time to turn attention towards how the people of the area interacted with the site in the past. In 1899, W. H. Hamer published an article in The Idler, a monthly ‘gentlemen’s’ magazine that is now defunct. Hamer provides a 7 page exploration into the Deneholes and admits that at the turn of the 20th century, the origin story behind the holes had remained as mysterious as ever. Hamers report builds on an extensive investigation carried out by the Essex Field Club 12 years previously in 1887.

The Essex Field Club

Having been in existence since 1880, The Essex Field Club is a self-described society for wildlife enthusiasts concerned with the natural history and geology of Essex. It was founded ‘to promote the study of the Natural History, Geology and Pre-historic Archaeology of the County of Essex and its borderlands’, and carried out extensive field work investigations throughout Essex. The club attended Deneholes on numerous occasions to investigate the crevices underground in an attempt to ascertain their origin. One report, by a T. V Holmes, from 1883 has the following to say on the origins of the Deneholes:

That these Deneholes are very ancient – that they certainly date from a time when the art of building can scarcely be said to have existed on the island, and when invisibility formed the best security against the sudden attacks of an enemy – seems, to me, evident’

Holmes has clearly fed into the folkloric origin story of an Anglo-Saxon hiding place and even goes one step further by suggesting that the holes were used as hiding places of/from pirates who were scouring along the Thames. Later, in 1887, The Essex Field Club decide to extend their investigation and finally descend below the surface. This was achieved through the generous funding of those who subscribed and donated to the EFC; a group of benefactors made up of members of the public who felt it was important that the site be preserved so that local people could also explore the Deneholes. The underground investigation continued over 6 weeks but was eventually halted due to funding issues and the dangerous nature of the excavations. The EFC had to dig through layers and layers of sand and gravel, an activity they described as very difficult and tedious. Their tools were also stolen by ‘unauthorised visitors’ but, thankfully, there were no accidents.

Excerpt from a report by The Essex Field Club (1887)

A Wonderful Discovery of Nothing

Back now to Hamers report of 1899, where it appears that although regular trips were taken into the depths of Hangmans Wood, no definitive answer was ever given to establish the actual origin of the Deneholes. Hamer reveals that by the time of his report, the Deneholes had been excavated in such a way to allow easier and safer access for those wishing to explore them. However, this did not provide any further illumination on the answers he was seeking. In fact, it only seemed to add to the confusion. From his own descent into the unknown below, Hamer offers the following theories that could explain what Deneholes are;

  • Chalk quarries
  • Weapons pits
  • Food storehouses
  • Living quarters for subterranean cave dwellers
  • Dungeons
  • Burial places
  • Underground temples for sacrificial rituals

Hamers clear investment in and commitment to discovering the true origin of the Deneholes is nothing short of admirable, though it seems the further down the rabbit hole he went, the further he strayed from receiving the all important answer. The mystery remains what appears to be a close guarded secret, and as he puts it himself, ‘it is said those who know the most of them say the least’. Evidently, folklore can and will persist.

Further Reading:
Hamer, W H, ‘The Deneholes of Hangmans Wood’, The Idler ; an illustrated magazine, Feb. 1892-Jan. 1899; London (Mar 1898): 162-168

Down the Rabbit Hole – A Folklore Investigation

Upon first glance, Deneholes appears to be a rather unremarkable area in an ever so slightly self-effacing industrial Essex town. It sits within a three hectare site named Hangmans Wood; a name used affectionately by Little Thurrock locals, who have referred to it this way since the seventeenth century, as evidenced in ordinance surveys that exist from that period. Flanked by a giant roundabout and busy A road, it is easy to see why it’s official status as a Special Site of Scientific Interest is often overlooked. This isn’t helped by the fact that its entrance is located behind a petrol garage and an Estuary franchise of Kwik Fit. Surprisingly – or not, depending on your stance – this little wooded stretch is steeped in historic folklore, most of which stems from the name Deneholes; a name that is a reflective of the landscape features that reside within the area.

Entrance to Deneholes & Hangmans Wood

What is a Denehole?

As the latter part of the name suggests, a Denehole is, quite literally, a hole in the ground. From the surface, they appear as large craters, with the smaller ones looking like nothing more than rabbit holes. However, these holes typically extend 20M/60 feet below the ground; much further than it would appear from overhead. At least 70 holes exist in this small pocket of Essex and they have attracted a rather high amount of intrigue over the years due to the unusual reason they exist; the holes are entirely man-made. It is from this that we are able to draw our first piece of speculative folklore, which happens to be based on the name as well as the beliefs of the local people; that belief being that Dene = Dane.

Crater-like surface of a large Denehole fenced off from the public

Hide and Seek

Vikings and Anglo-Saxons

In 789 AD, the first Viking invasion on the Anglo-Saxon inhabited British Isles is recorded, taking place in Dorset. From this year on, The British Isles saw subsequent attacks at periodic intervals until finally succumbing to the eventuality of Norse rule in 1066, under William the Conqueror at the famous Battle of Hastings. Viking expansion, understandably, caused a great deal of problems for the Anglo-Saxons living in the British Isles at the time of the raids. How would they defend themselves, where would they hide when under attack if not protected by the walls of a medieval castle? According to the local folklore of Little Thurrock, the Anglo-Saxons dug incredibly deep holes in the ground in order to shelter away in subterranean caves from impending attacks by Danish Vikings. This legend is what gave rise to the name Dene/Danehole, which is a plain reflection on the belief that, once upon a time, the laypeople of Anglo-Saxon Britain were hiding from Danes in large holes. This is an example of the innate need to provide meaning for the unexplained or misunderstood that has existed incessantly throughout the history of humankind. Evidently, the reasons applied are, more often than not, steeped in folklore in the form of legends and folk tales. Another example of this can be seen in the Stanton Drew Stone Circles in Somerset, where folklore belief pertains to the stones being petrified members of a wedding party who enjoyed themselves a little too much on a Sunday.

Battle of Maldon, Essex, AD 991

Smugglers Caves

South East Essex has a vast array of tales detailing the banditry of its inhabitants, even legendary highwayman Dick Turpin features in a few. Sitting along the Thames Estuary, Little Thurrock and it’s neighbouring towns are fraught with tales concerning a specific type of bandit legend; the humble smuggler. With the port industry booming in nearby Tilbury Town since 1886, Tilbury Docks has played a vital part in the formation of local folklore. Though there is evidence to suggest that smugglers were using the Essex coast during the 18th and 19th centuries, there isn’t any to explicitly state that smugglers were active around the shores of Thurrock. However, this hasn’t stopped locals from believing that the Deneholes of Hangmans Wood were once used as smuggling tunnels by those illegally trafficking goods out of Tilbury Docks. Locals believe that the smugglers stored their loot within the deep crevices below the ground, moving it through a labyrinth of interconnected tunnels that stretch from the banks of the river to the inland communities of the county.

18th century smugglers

Cunobelins Gold Mines

The third and final folklore association of Deneholes and Hangmans Wood to be discussed here is the perceived idea that the holes originated as gold mines. Thurrock historian Tony Benton discusses the ‘fancy nonsense’ that surrounds the gold mine origin story of Deneholes and reveals that it is linked to Cunobelin; an ancient king of the Britons belonging to the Trinovantes Celtic tribe. It is said the Cunobelin (AD 10 – AD 40), the inspiration behind Shakespeare’s ‘Cymbeline’, held secret knowledge of the area as a rich gold deposit. This does well to inform the ‘hidden treasure’ aspect that is evident in many folk tales, and could explain why the legend has persisted for such a long time. There is a lot to be said for human nature and the excitement that exudes when mystery and intrigue abound.

A Cunobelin coin

Further reading:

Tony Benton, Boldly From the Marshes: A History of Little Thurrock and its People, (Private publisher: UK, 1991).