This is intended as a brief potted history of the New Forest to demonstrate how the area has evolved from prehistoric times into what it is today. The landscape of the New Forest is unique across Europe. Its area of lowland heath (by definition heath lying less than 1000 feet above sea level) is the largest remaining in the UK and Western Europe and is rarer globally than rain forest. It is also a landscape that has been changed and fashioned by man and his animals throughout the centuries with different generations placing differing demands on it.
The area we know as the New Forest would have spread originally from Southampton Water in the East to the River Avon in the West, with the coastline at its southern extremity and its northern boundary very much the same as the present day. New Forest soil is generally of poor quality comprising significant amounts of clay, gravel and sand and at its northern boundary there is a distinct change in composition to the chalklands of Hampshire and Wiltshire.
There are several theories regarding the prehistoric course of the Solent but suffice it to say that when the Isle of Wight was joined to the mainland, the Solent was a large inlet and river covering much of the New Forest area. As a result of land heave during the last Ice Age, the bed of the Solent rose exposing large parts of the Forest and leaving significant deposits of alluvial clay, gravel and sand which form the basis of the forest soil structure today. This explains why we find large areas of bog and wetland, sand dunes like those near Moyles Court and Bolton’s Bench, Lyndhurst plus exposed gravel on the side of roads where verge parking has eroded the thin grass surface. Forest soil is also poor for agricultural purposes and this is one of the reasons why the New Forest has remained as it is today.
Around the last Ice Age the area would have been covered by tundra which was gradually replaced by native deciduous trees (oak, hazel, elm, lime) as temperatures rose. There is evidence of occupation by man since the earliest times but when man changed from hunter/gatherer to primitive farmer around 5000 BC, we start to see the first evidence of woodland clearance as farming settlements were created.
During the Bronze Age (2400 – 700 BC), primitive methods of farming quickly leached the soil of nutrients on farm settlements. As a consequence these primitive farmers would move and clear another area of woodland to cultivate (usually by fire), leaving the previous plot as rough grazing for their animals. This continual cycle of cultivation, clearance and burning impoverished the soil further and created the extensive acid heath that we see today over much of the Forest.
The Iron Age (700 BC – AD 43) saw a continuation of woodland clearance and gradually more permanent settlements emerged with increasing emphasis on land division and protection by way of boundary ditches. No evidence has been found of significant settlements within the forest area from this period but it is thought that stock was let loose to graze on the open heath very much as it does today.
During the Roman occupation of Britain (AD 43 – 410) there is evidence of Roman roads crossing the Forest (the A31 follows a Roman route from Stoney Cross to Ringwood) but no significant evidence of Roman settlements, the nearest being Rockbourne just beyond the Forest boundary to the north west. The principal evidence from the Roman period is their exploitation of natural resources to produce pottery, in the north west of the Forest. Although not particularly good agricultural land, the area possessed clay, wood (charcoal) for fuel, and water, all of which are needed for pottery production. Many finds of Roman pottery have been discovered in this area over the centuries
Details of the Saxon and Viking period (AD 410-1066) are relatively scarce but there is evidence of a small number of settlements with agricultural economies. Saxon place names still persist – Lyndhurst, for instance, meaning lime wood and Brockenhurst meaning badgers’ wood. At this time the area was named Ytene, an old English word meaning Jutes (who originated from Northern Germany like the Saxons). St Nicholas Church, Brockenhurst is the oldest church in the New Forest and dates back to Saxon times. English Kings are known to have worshipped there.
For a brief period from 1013 to 1042 the Vikings wrestled the English throne from the Saxons and the most famous of their Kings was Cnut (Canute) who ruled his kingdom from Wessex and its capital at Winchester. Cnut is best known for attempting to command the tide to turn back which some records indicate took place on the shore in nearby Southampton. It was also Cnut who first introduced Forest Law to the country which although extremely severe in its intent was poorly policed through lack of resources and it was the Normans who subsequently refined, amended and enforced Forest Law .
Following the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066, the New Forest shot into prominence when William the Conqueror (William I) designated the area as his Nova Foresta (New Forest) in 1079. This was the same year in which the Normans built their cathedral at nearby Winchester, which at that time remained the capital of England. In William’s day the term “forest” had a completely different meaning from that which we understand today – it referred to any area of land preserved exclusively for hunting “beasts of the chase” (primarily deer and wild boar) by the Monarch and his companions. Such areas would typically contain large open areas of heath and lawn as well as woods. These areas were subject to Forest Law and the penalties for transgression by Commoners (those members of the population who were neither members of the nobility or priesthood) were severe, including death. These areas became Crown Land and the central heart of the New Forest still remains Crown land in the 21st century.
Upon the death of William I in 1087 his third son, William Rufus, became King William II of England – his elder brother, Richard, had been killed by a stag in the New Forest some years earlier in 1083. William was named Rufus because of his ruddy complexion. He was unpopular with both church and nobility because he robbed the monasteries and taxed the barons to raise funds for military campaigns in Scotland, Wales and Normandy.
On 2nd August 1100, one of the most infamous events in the history of the New Forest took place. King William Rufus went hunting in the New Forest and included in his hunting party was his younger brother Henry and a Norman nobleman called Walter Tirel (aka Tyrrell). During the hunt, Tirel fired an arrow at a stag which missed the animal and hit William Rufus in the chest. Within a few minutes the King was dead. In fear of the potential repercussions, Tirel jumped on his horse and made off at great speed crossing the River Avon at a point that is still known as Tyrrell’s Ford. He escaped to France and never returned again to England. Meanwhile, Henry rushed to Winchester where the monarch’s money was held. After gaining control of the Treasury, Henry declared himself the new King.
William’s body was subsequently found by a charcoal burner named Purkiss who put the King’s corpse into his cart and took him to Winchester where he was buried in the cathedral that his father had commissioned. Today the Rufus Stone marks the spot where he was supposedly slain and no one has ever discovered whether it was a tragic hunting accident or, in view of his unpopularity, something far more sinister – murder. Conspiracy theories still abound in the 21st century! The spot at Canterton where he reputedly fell is now marked by the Rufus Stone which was erected several centuries after his death. However, recent research suggests that the actual spot may be nearer Beaulieu.
The Normans were great huntsmen and whilst we can trace Red deer and Roe deer back to prehistoric times, it is likely that the Normans introduced large numbers of Fallow deer into England and the New Forest in particular – at one time there are thought to have been as many as 10,000 deer in the Forest. Today, the New Forest is the largest remaining example of a Royal hunting forest in the UK although the last monarch to hunt here was James II in the late 1600s.
Reports differ considerably on how badly the Normans treated their subjects, particularly in the New Forest – some claim they imposed brutal methods whilst others claim that William merely had a “bad press”. Suffice it to say that the Commoners weren’t happy – a theme that has continued throughout subsequent centuries. The imposition of Forest Law deprived them of farming land and the ability to graze their animals and collect timber for fuel amongst other things. Gradually Commoners’ rights were recognised and established – Pasture (cattle and ponies), Estover (fuelwood), Turbary (turf cutting), Pannage (pigs), Sheep and Marl (digging of clay). With he exception of turbary and marl, these rights are still in use today on the Forest. At one time, “commoning” took place over most of England but the New Forest is one of the few areas where it still exists on a large scale.
The character of the Forest as we know it which has its origins in prehistoric times, reinforced by Bronze and Iron Age activity, was largely preserved through the Medieval period of some 500 years as a result of Forest Law and Commoners’ rights. As a consequence, the New Forest, with its extensive commons, open woodland and ancient woodlands retains many of the features of a traditional medieval landscape and it is this which makes it unique. It was also during this period of Norman rule that the origins of the Verderers can be traced – they were responsible for looking after the “vert” or greenwood (from the Norman word meaning green). These Verderers were agents of the Crown who investigated and recorded minor offences and dealt with the day to day forest administration. The role of the Agister is also of medieval origin – the word ‘agist’ means to take into graze for payment. Both Verderers and Agisters continue to play their part in the management of the forest in the present day.
English Monarchs continued to hunt in the New Forest for many generations. The Norman Kings also created a large deer park at Lyndhurst around 1100, which was encircled by the Park Pale (pale being old English for fence). Hunting Lodges were constructed around the Forest – it was likely that these would have been manned by Forest Keepers, a role and title still in use today.
In 1270 King Henry III acquired the Manor of Lyndhurst for his son’s wife, Eleanor of Castille at which time he also granted her the stewardship of the New Forest – he had previously granted her the Manor of Ringwood in 1265. Upon the death of Henry, his son Prince Edward became King Edward I, also known as Longshanks and Hammer of the Scots. By all accounts Edward and Eleanor were a devoted couple who both enjoyed hunting and were regular visitors to the New Forest. Indeed, it was one of the first places they visited after Edward’s coronation in 1274. Subsequent Queens of England held the Manor of Lyndhurst until 1354.
By 1484 New Park had been created for the King’s deer and the “Old Park” at Lyndhurst gradually fell into disrepair. In fact, by Tudor times the whole forest system had fallen into disrepair and its use as a Royal hunting ground was much less significant. It was the Tudors who revived woodland management principally as a result of an increasing need for timber for naval ships and defence works from 1570 onwards. The post of Surveyor General of the King’s Woods was created to increase the commercial focus of Crown woodlands and this in turn gave rise to a second tier of officers, known as “Deputy Surveyors” who managed forest districts – this title is still given to the Head of the Forestry Commission in the New Forest.
In the Stuart period from 1660 onwards the demand for timber production increased significantly and parts of the Forest were inclosed for this purpose – an inclosure is the term given to an area fenced for the growth of timber. The rights of Commoners were suspended within these inclosures and their stock was excluded in much the same way as nowadays. With this increasing demand for straight trees for naval construction, an Act of Parliament was passed in 1698 making it illegal to pollard trees in the Forest together with provision for more inclosures for oak cultivation. Up until that time pollarding had been a common practice by Commoners. This involved cutting back a tree above the browse line causing it to branch in several directions – the resultant leaves and twigs were used for animal fodder and the branches for firewood and frames for their basic homes.
By the 18th century the stock of large oaks had been depleted leading to provision for more inclosures in which to plant oak. Over the next century the British Navy was expanding rapidly with wars against the French and Spanish and also the American Revolutionary War. By 1850 there were 9,000 acres of Statutory Inclosures and whilst Commoners’ stock was excluded from these, deer still presented a big problem by damaging trees and saplings. As a consequence, the Deer Removal Act of 1851 was passed by Parliament to clear all deer from the Forest and the Act also gave the Crown power to statutory inclose a total of 16,000 acres of the Forest for timber production (this total remains in force today), including conifer plantations. Conifers (Scots Pine) had been introduced to the Forest in the 1820s but only as nurse crops for young oak but the 1851 Act gave rise to the big expansion of conifer production.
The eradication of deer from the Forest following the 1851 Act was not completely successful – some Fallow remained and numbers steadily increased thereafter. Meanwhile, in 1861 an event occurred that would have a significant impact on the Forest landscape – HMS Warrior, the first ironclad warship, was commissioned by the British Navy a few miles along the coast in Portsmouth and within a few years wooden warships became obsolete. Many of the oaks that still stand in the Forest today were originally destined for naval ships and it is estimated that it would have taken a 100 acres of woodland to build a ship of similar size as HMS Victory.
It was around this time that the Forest began to witness other changes when the opening of the Southampton & Dorchester Railway in 1845 cut a large swathe through the Forest and, for the first time, opened it up to the general recreation. The Victorians, with their interest in landscape and amenity were also instrumental in introducing ornamental trees or “exotics” to the Forest. Between 1882 and 1889 around 3000 ornamental trees were planted and subsequent regeneration of these exotics has left their legacy. In addition they introduced the invasive Rhododendron which is now being gradually eradicated due to its ability to spread disease to our native tree stock and smother native flora.
Meanwhile, the extent of the Statutory Inclosures deprived Commoners of significant amounts of grazing land for their stock and gave rise to much unrest. As a consequence of this pressure and petitioning of Parliament, the 1877 New Forest Act was eventually passed restricting any further inclosures beyond 16,000 acres and designating the open pasture woodlands as “Ancient & Ornamental“. The Court of the Verderers, which had ceased to exist, was also re-established by this Act as the body to control the exercise of common rights. They also adopted the role of controlling development on the Open Forest. Whereas they once represented the Crown, they now represented the interests of the Commoner – a case of gamekeeper turned poacher!
The next major impact on the Forest came during the War Years of the 20th century. Military manoeuvres had taken place on the Forest around the Boer War, prior to the First World War but nothing on the scale that the Forest was about to witness.
Each of the wars gave rise to high demands for timber to support the war effort as Britain was unable to rely on imports and had to be largely self sufficient in its timber production. During the First World War, about 8,000,000 cubic feet (230,000 tons) of timber were felled in the New Forest and during the 1939-1945 war this increased to 12,500,000 cubic feet (440,000 tons). Charcoal burning which was once common across the Forest returned to provide absorbers for gas masks.
As labour sources became scarce during the First World War a large Canadian Timber Corps unit working with Portuguese labourers supported the local population in felling timber. The iconic New Forest Pony was also requisitioned in large numbers for service on the front line carrying supplies to the troops. Between 1914 and 1918 the Forest was also used as a staging post for troops destined for the Western Front. Hospitals were established at Brockenhurst to treat wounded soldiers, mainly from the British Empire, shipped back from France and Belgium. A Grenade School was formed near Bolton’s Bench in Lyndhurst and the flying school on Beaulieu Heath at East Boldre which had been established in 1910 was acquired by the War Department and training squadrons were based there from 1916. Near the coast, Calshot became an early flying boat base.
Between the war years in 1921 another event had a major impact on the Forest. On its eastern boundary an oil refinery at Fawley was established by the Atlantic Gulf and West Indies Company on land purchased from the Manor of Cadland. It was subsequently acquired by Esso in 1925 and this development completely changed the character of the waterside area which abuts Southampton Water. What was a collection of small rural settlements dating back to Domesday and earlier were suddenly transformed into the large urbanised industrial area that we see today. Fawley Refinery is now the largest in the UK covering 3250 acres of land immediately adjacent to the current Forest boundary.
In 1924, the management of the Crown Land of the New Forest passed to the Forestry Commission, which had recently been formed, and they embarked on implementing the national forest policy which was essentially the conversion of broad leaved woods to conifer plantations to replenish our depleted timber stocks as quickly as possible.
World War Two witnessed the biggest ever disruption to the Forest in its long history. Major airfields were constructed at Stoney Cross, Holmsley, Ibsley and Beaulieu Heath, and another eight smaller airfields were located in, and around the edge of the Forest. Parts of the open Forest were ploughed for food production to help wartime shortages. An Armaments Research Department was established at Millersford and a bomb testing range at Ashley Walk enclosed a very large proportion of the northern Forest. Bomb craters littered that area but today only a few circular ponds provide clues to this part of the Forest’s past.
In the latter stages of the war, the decision was taken to use the Forest as the prime preparation area for the D Day invasion of Europe. This huge complex operation involved a considerable road widening and building programme across the area. Rubble from the German blitz on Southampton was used to build up Forest tracks, of which evidence can still be seen. Allied troops and their machinery swamped the Forest in their thousands as large tented towns were created under cover of the Forest canopy. Tanks and other items of military hardware were stored wherever space could be found and much of the area became out of bounds to the general public.
Nowadays, there is little evidence left of these war years which is a testament to the Forest’s powers of recovery. However, one of the biggest effects of this period was a large depletion of the nation’s stock of available timber. As a consequence, through the 1950’s and 1960’s, in order to comply with national forest policy, there was another huge drive by the Forestry Commission to eliminate broad leaved trees within the inclosures and replace them with the much faster growing conifer, a process that is now being gradually reversed.
Today, the Forest receives special protection in a number of forms and is recognised as a unique area. The Forestry Commission now manages the Crown Land under the terms of the “Ministers Mandate” which places an obligation on them to conserve the natural and cultural heritage together with a high priority on maintaining the Forest’s traditional character. Further protection was afforded in 2005 when it was granted National Park status and its boundaries were extended beyond the Crown Land to an area similar to that of William the Conqueror’s Nova Foresta.
Finally no account of the Forest’s history would be complete without mention of the New Forest Pony which has been ever present since the earliest of times. It is the grazing of these animals plus other Commoners’ stock and the wild herds of deer that maintain the special character of the area. Without them the open heathland and lawns would soon revert to scrub. Pine and Silver Birch would rapidly invade the heathlands, whilst the Ancient & Ornamental woods would become overgrown with dense, understory vegetation. These animals are quite rightly known as the “Architects of the Forest. However, the 21st century has seen a significant increase in the numbers of commoners’ stock grazing the Forest with no one apparently able to impose a cap on numbers. As a consequence, there is a growing voice of opinion that the Forest is being overgrazed which in turn could harm the landscape and prevent natural regeneration of the ancient woodlands among other things.
The actions of man and his animals have forged the unique landscape that we see today. It will doubtless continue to evolve as future generations face different challenges. However, one thing is for sure, it will continue to attract hot debate, controversy and conflicting views on how it should be best managed!