The current name of the site comes from the name of the local wood (Hartslock Wood) and the area has been know as ‘Hartslock’ for a very long time. Contrary to most people’s first guess, the name does not derive from a male deer (Hart) or a miss spelling of ‘Heart’ but has a simpler derivation.
Back in the early 1500s the Harts, a local family of note, apparently owned a lock across the river, just below the woods. There is no indication of the ancient use of this lock but in 1710 it was just considered a ‘fishing lock’ – a wooden construction used to support nets and eel traps. By 1802 the ruins of this lock were known as ‘Hart’s old weir’ and the note commented that the ruins were ‘very inconvenient’. So in 1804 (and later in 1812) the timbers were ordered to be removed as they were a hazzard to vessels travelling along the river, which in those days would have been a thriving commercial waterway. Obviously this work was not carried out successfully because in 1910 a Mr Thacker watched the final destruction of this hazard. Barges were moored in the river ‘… still drawing the teeth of this half-extinct monster against the left bank …’.
Although Monkey Orchids are widespread in Europe, through central France and around the Mediterranean, in the UK the Monkey Orchid has always had a restricted range. The first records for Monkey Orchids come from around the middle 1600s but these records are difficult to assess because at this time the species was confused with the Military Orchid (Orchis militaris) and the Lady Orchid (Orchis purpurea) – most records at this time list them under ‘Orchis militaris or Military Orchid‘.
We know from Herbarium specimens that the UK range never extended much beyond the hillsides on north bank of the Thames from Goring to Caversham. This area is on the southern end of the Chiltern Hills and has always been difficult to farm, being quite steep and having very poor, thin soils. Over the years increased pressure from agriculture and the expansion of local towns has caused a massive decline in suitable sites. Nowadays they are only found at Hartslock and at a few sites in Kent where they appeared in the 1800s.
In the years leading up to WW2 the Hartslock colony was apparently constant at about 200 flowering plants. After the war the American army sold off surplus tracked vehicles to local farmers and with the advent of more powerful tractors this opened up the possibilities for cultivating all but the steepest slopes. In the early 1950s most local hills, including the main orchid colony which was in the lower field where the caravan and main gate is now, was ploughed up to plant cereals.
Luckily this practice only went on for a couple of years as the farmers quickly realised that the soils were too poor to make farming worthwhile. Luckily the ploughing did not extend further up the hill to where the orchid colony exists now – the land here was steeper, partially scrubbed over and protected by a thick hedge which prevented easy access. It is likely that Monkey Orchids already grew here in low numbers but when they heard of the destruction, local people suplimented these plants by replanting tubers that they rescued from the destruction in the lower field.
In the late 1950s and 60s local botanists and members of the Reading & District Natural History Society helped monitor the orchids and provided a limited form of protection for them. Then in 1975/76 BBOWT, the local Wildlife Trust, bought Hartslock, thus guaranteeing its future protection.
My thanks go to Charlie Crook, a retired local farmer, for providing much of the detail regarding post-war farming in the area. Also, many details of the history of the Hartslock name were derived from ‘The Thames Path’ an Aerofilms Guide by Helen Livingston, 1993. (page 97)