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Historic Forests of Britain

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Our woods to-day are the homes of much that is loveliest and most romantic in our island scenery. But what a change is there! When first we hear of Britain in history the wood or forest was the hiding-place of all that was terrible, and to the people of those times least lovely. A great part of the country was one forest; and much of it as nearly as may be impassable. Where a tree fell there it lay, as formidable as a street barricade in the French Revolution. The place was dark and tangled and often unexplored. No wonder the forest, where lurked in reality wild beast and bandit, was held to be the den of dragon and wizard and witch. To the natural dangers of this impenetrable darkness were added all the supernatural terrors that the wit of the people could invent.

History began with the clearing of the forests, first round about Avebury, which was the earliest capital of England, and Stonehenge; then about London, and especially the Eastern counties, where probably trees never grew so huge as in the West or Midlands, as in Sherwood, or above the Wye or Severn, or round about the Windsor district.

The Romans with their great roads soon robbed the woodland of its worst terrors; and when the Normans came the word forest, though used also for a great wood, meant a great hunting ground where wood and glade and heath and bog alternated, where a horse could gallop as well as an archer lurk. It means that still. What we call a deer forest in Scotland is often a wide space of wild heath where scarcely a tree is to be seen. Dartmoor itself, which is more like its old self than any other place, was known as a forest. Of course, in Windsor Forest and Sherwood and the New Forest it is true that great oaks and beech and ash trees always flourished and still flourish. Some few of them are as old as the Norman kings.

It is very wonderful how the actual woodland has survived in spite of the destructive changes. A surprising instance that has not been generally noticed is this: Westminster Hall, whose old oak beams were found to be eaten out by the "death watch beetle," a small but singularly destructive insect, was found to be in need of repair; and the new oak beams that replace the old have been brought from the very same forest, the Weald of Surrey, that was used by the original builders. Even so close to London as this, the forest has kept its character for growing English oak. But the Weald of Surrey and Kent, like Sherwood and Windsor and the rest, would scarcely be recognized as forest by a visitor to-day, so wide are the glades, so broadly spaced the trees and so spacious the clearings. They have lost their terrors and have kept their charms. You can still recover some of the romantic meaning of the forest, even in Epping Forest, among the oaks and dappled trunks of the hornbeam, an old English native tree that especially flourishes there, even though you faintly hear the rattle of a London omnibus, and see the street lights twinkle from afar like sparkling stars.

All the forests have changed with the changing times and represent the course of history; but the New Forest is perhaps the best example because of its present as well as its past glory. Time was when the royal forests or hunting grounds, or game preserves or chases, numbered over three score, and were scattered all over the country, but the royal rights were very quickly surrendered, and the local people recovered the rights of chase. The 68 royal preserves became five or six; Windsor, Richmond in Yorkshire, Sherwood, in some respects Savernake (the biggest of all as deer forest) and the New Forest were notable survivors; and among these the New Forest illustrates the process of change much better than any other, because we know the history better. A good contrast may be drawn between the New Forest and Sherwood Forest: the first became a sort of byword for Norman cruelty, the second a household word for English freedom. The Norman and Angevin kings had their palace at Winchester and wanted a hunting ground close at hand. It was written of them that "they took their sport from Malwood (a delightful country house in the forest) on their way to Rouen, riding down after a few days' deer-hunting to Beaulieu or Lymington, where the galleys waited to take them across the Channel."

It was taken as a proper punishment for the cruelty of the forest laws in this royal reserve that two sons of William the Conqueror were rather mysteriously killed within the precincts of the forest, one being William Rufus, the second Norman king. The place where probably he fell is now marked by the Rufus stone, taking the place of the old oak; and the view from Stony Cross Plain, where Sir Walter Tyrrell is supposed to have shot Rufus on August 2, 1100, is to-day perhaps the finest forest view in England. For the New Forest still contains about 92,000 acres of land, and was never bigger than about 150,000 acres. It contains old and wonderful trees, especially beeches and oaks, and many new plantations; but the area of "forest" is still made up, as always, of heath and bog and pool and open spaces, some waste, some in part cultivated.

There are few better walks in England than from Lyndhurst towards Matley. At one point you reach a place of bare gravel and thin heather, "yet," as Mr. Cornish wrote in "The New Forest," "at no great distance are thick woods of the finest timber in England, and even on the crest of the hill a fine rounded wood of beech and oak, Matley Wood, stands up like a fertile island with a sea of heather and bog round it.... Here is a picture which, but for the road and the bridge,- cannot have changed for a thousand years." Elsewhere you come upon ample spaces of delicious green that look like a private park with its dotted trees, and here especially the cattle and ponies of the, Hampshire commoners and copyholders love to congregate. Hereabouts, too, the hunting that delighted the first Norman kings still continues. The red deer still runs wild here, a survival of the original deer, and also the fallow deer; and these royal animals are still hunted, as well as the fox and the otter. It is quaint and very suggestive of history to note that the library in the Verderers' Hall, at Lyndhurst, full of precious information on local as well as general forest law, is curtained off by a red deer skin.

Nearly all the forests underwent a great change in appearance when the kings ceased to hunt in them. We see this best in the Londoner's favourite forest of Epping, especially beloved by King Harold before the Normans came, and in Waltham Abbey he was buried. Here hunted Queen Elizabeth, when as princess she rode over from Hatfield, itself famous today for the most splendid of our old oaks. The last king to hunt in Epping was Charles II, and from his day till a famous lawsuit in our own day the forest suffered every sort of maltreatment. Once it covered as much of Essex as Savernake covers of Wiltshire, and was known as Waltham Forest till divided into Hainault and Epping.

In the old days it was forbidden to build any fence large enough to keep out a doe and her fawn, and it was complained that this law was the greatest of all hardships to the local manors, for the deer ate up all the crops and agriculture had to be quite surrendered. But after kings ceased to hunt the complaint was that all the deer were killed, the trees all lopped or destroyed, and the character of the forest entirely destroyed by enclosures. The forest became smaller and smaller. Unlike the New Forest, which was progressively changed by a number of wise laws from a king's sporting ground to a national playground, Epping and Hainault were rapidly being stolen by private persons. Finally, an Act of Parliament, in 1851, allowed Hainault to be disafforested Its trees were grubbed up and some 2,000 acres laid out in farms. "There was lost for ever," as Lord Eversley complained, "one of the most beautiful of natural forests in the South of England, within easy reach of London."

But at last public opinion was aroused in regard to both forests. It was proved that the commoners had never lost the right of turning out their stock and letting it ramble at will, and after many years of dispute between commoners, lords of the manor, and the Corporation of London, Epping forest was thrown open to the public by Queen Victoria in person on May 6, 1882, and remains, along with a remnant of Hainault, a true relic of the old English forest "in perpetuity." To-day any visitor may infer from the queer shape of many of the trees how in the old days they suffered from the lopping of boughs, which was one of the commoners' most valued rights even up to the middle of last century. Almost all the trees are pollarded.

We know nothing of the origin of the royal forests except in the case of the New Forest, and oi the small forest of Hampton created by Henry VIII But we know that most of them were very much smaller when they appear in history than they had been. Once there was a mighty forest known as Anderida, which covered what we still call the Weald, and included a great part of Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire, with fine timber, especially oak. Of all this only about 14,000 acres remained as forest when Edward III granted it to John of Gaunt under the name of the Free Chase of Ashdown, or sometimes Ashdown Forest, as we call it to-day.

That lovely heath and common, which to-day is best known to players of golf, was a battleground of rival rights for many hundred years, various lords and landowners struggling to enclose it and to obtain rights from the king, and the commoners resisting. And the various rights affected the wild inhabitants of the wood as well as the people. In the early days kings used to grant to the great lords the mastership of the forest and "the keepership of the wild beasts therein." All the wild beasts are gone except some of the red deer and fallow deer and some of the birds. Even a hundred years ago there were many "black game" in Ashdown Forest, as there were grouse in the Weald. These are gone. But the oak is the most hospitable of all trees. It is the host of at least a hundred animals. Four-legged animals and birds eat the acorns, and unnumbered insects delight in the leaves and flowers.

In the long legal battle between commoners and lords of the manor for rights in what was left of Ash-down Forest the chief bone of contention was the right to cut the bracken, which throughout English history has been a valuable form of hay. The hunters declared that the cutting of it destroyed the young seedling oaks and so disafforested the country; and this was partly true; but the trees perhaps would be worth less than the fern. In any case, after a great struggle the final victory was won by the commoners in Ashdown, and after a very similar struggle in Malvern Hills. To-day nearly 7,000 acres of Ash down Forest are safe from all enclosure.

In one of the remoter and loveliest parts of the New Forest there is still to be seen the last of the charcoal burners' huts, and the sight suggests one of the causes that brought about the disappearance of the forests. The forest wood was the one source of fuel, and the source of the factory furnaces. It was cheaper in the old days to bring the ironstone or other ore to the wood than the wood to the ore. The woods were the factories. To give one example, the Romans, soon after their conquest of Britain, smelted iron ore in the old Forest of Dean, and the heaps of their ashes are visible to-day.

In regard to most of our forests the first mention is in Domesday Book. There is found the first mention of Dean, the lovely woodland between the Severn and the Wye. Shropshire to-day has the reputation of growing trees of bigger girth and greater height than other counties, and in Dean the quality of the wood of the oaks was so famous among shipbuilders that those in command of the Spanish Armada were especially instructed "not to leave a tree standing in the Forest of Dean"

The forest still enjoys the protection of a charter of 1668 defining the rights of the Crown and the commoners. Though the forest has been whittled down it still contains 18,500 acres. It resembles the New Forest in many ways.

All that remains for us to see of some of the great forests is a lordly park, and the reason why these parts of the wood have remained uncultivated as of old is that the soil is poor and thin and is better for growing bracken and underwood or stunted trees than for cultivating corn. The worse soil has remained either common or park simply because it was inferior.

The most romantic forests in British folk-lore are Sherwood and Arden. If you stand at one spot close to the top of the road from Nottingham to Mansfield, you will have no little help in imagining in what sort of a scene was spent the gay life of Robin Hood and Friar Tuck. They tell us that the story is all legend, and none of it certainly true so far as the best historical evidence goes; but those great oaks and half-open woods were a sanctuary of some sort for men as well as for wild beasts. A good deal of this forest, enclosed in the area now known as the Dukeries, has become park, and in some of these parks, as yet more persuasively in Hatfield Park, the real spirit of the old woodland still survives.

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Pictures for Historic Forests of Britain

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