The English Forest

by frankbeswick

Woods and forests play important roles in English tradition and culture

England is geographically a land whose natural tendency is to be forested, [at least those parts that do not revert to bog] so if you were to leave a patch of England to its own devices for a few years the natural evolution of the land would be first to turn to scrub and then to go through a series of changes as trees of different kinds spring up.So the England of green fields is an artificial human construction. Only the hills of the North and South Downs can reliably be regarded as grasslands.But the woods are thinner than they once were, due to agricultural expansion and ship building, and strides are being made to re-grow them as an ecological and cultural resource.

Photo courtesy of geralt

The Wood as Robin Knew It.

A few years ago a historical researcher poring through the court records of Wakefield, a South Yorkshire town on what had been once the northern edge of Sherwood Forest, came upon a name familiar from legend. In 1226 one RobHod had declined to arrive for trial at the Sheriff's court and had been declared an outlaw. In 1227 he again neglects to arrive at court, this time going under the name HobdeHod. It seems likely that he had "done a runner" as modern English parlance goes, and his refuge was Sherwood Forest. Is this malefactor the source of the Robin Hood legend?There are  several claimants. It seems likely therefore that the legends of various outlaws all became fused into the legend of the archetypical outlaw and challenger of authority. But what was the wood into which Robin fled like?

When we were children we watched the Adventures of Robin Hood, which showed the glamorous outlaw dwelling in a forest empty of other humans. But this was nothing like the woodland of Robin's time. The woods were a thriving hive of economic activity, packed with people engaged in their chores. It was in this seething mass of humanity that outlaws such as RobHod blended with the common folk and were camouflaged. 

The woodland folk were known as the Sylvatici, Latin for the folk of the wood.  They never submitted easily to Norman rule and were hard to control.They were wild men who dwelt in tents and wattle and wood shelters, making their living as  best they could, but proud and free. As a group these little documented people existed throughout the Middle Ages only slowly merging into conventional society as woodlands slowly shrank under economic pressure. But as such wild  men made great fighting men many took the "king's shilling" and made money from his foreign wars. Only some returned. 

But the woods were full of woodland craftsmen. Is your family surname Turner or Sawyer? If so your ancestors were from this independent-minded social class of crafts people with wood. Or are you named Forester or Foster. You descend from the tough woodland managers employed to protect the king's deer. Hoggards were officials who guarded noblemen's hogs, tough guys capable of handling themselves in a fight with rustlers. Cattle and sheep rustling survived in Britain until the nineteenth century when trains made animal transport safer. There  has recently been revival of it as meat prices have risen. There were also charcoal burners, whose trade lingers on into the present day,mainly as a revival of tradition. Moreover, woodland gave us the oak for our traditional wooden warships, hearts of oak as they were known.

But in Autumn/Fall English families sent their teenage children,male and female, out into the woods to feed their pigs on the acorns shed  by oak trees and the beech nuts, known as mast, deposited by beech. Many a teenager learned independence as they snuggled down at night beneath a blanket besides a fading fire. However, lonely teenagers often got together on cold woodland nights, the results being evident nine months later! The woods were not silent and empty places, but filled with human noise and bird song.  


The term forest now denotes a large expanse of woodland far larger  than a small wood, but in older times it signified an area kept as a hunting preserve by the king, who fed his court on venison and entertained his courtiers by leading them on the hunt. To preserve the deer for his own use he needed to defend it against men such as Robin Hood, who was said to have a taste for  royal venison. So the king's foresters were appointed to defend the forest. Some of them took a liking to royal deer as well, so there were a few prosecutions.The kings also liked to hunt wild boar, a foe more dangerous than deer,and the prevalence of boar hunting contributed to the extinction of the species in Britain [it has been reintroduced.]

In Norman times forest laws were brutal, but their severity was reduced by Henry the Third, who banned the  blinding of miscreants. But severity was always the last resort. More often there were fines, as kings were in perpetual need of money. Moreover, a skilled poacher made an effective fighting man, so some convicted deer poachers finished up doing  stint in the army, which was a better choice than a couple of years in a stinking dungeon. But it was not just poor people who robbed the king's deer. Knights,monks and at least on one occasion an abbot were fined for breaking the law.  

But forest was not unremitting woodland. The area of a forest would be a mixture of woodland, possibly ancient, coppice[ copse] farmland, parkland and in some cases moorland. Areas of forest might be assigned to farmers in arrangements known as assarts. If they were used for cattle they would be called vaccaries.

Savernake Forest, in the southern county of Wiltshire is unique. It was known as a woodland in Anglo-Saxon times, but after the Norman Conquest it passed into the hands of a Norman, who became warden of the forest, and in the nigh on a thousand years since has never been sold, passing from father to son and in four cases daughter. The title warden of the forest still exists, and it is the only royal forest in private hands. The wardens have  for a thousand years managed it well.To legally preserve it as a private forest it is closed to the public one day a year.  

The New Forest is unique in that it was created by William the Conqueror. It is composed of areas of trees with expanses of grazing land. Commoners, certain ancient families of ordinary folk who have dwelt there since the afforestation, enjoy commoners' rights to graze their animals in the forest, and they guard these rights jealously. The forest has its own breed of ponies, New Forest ponies, which wander at will through the ancient woodland. In recent years there has been a need to manage invasive plant species, but the forest authorities have introduced carefully controlled ginger Tamworth pigs, whose exceptional snouts can clear ground of invasive roots very quickly. Wild boar have been reintroduced to the forest. They are great at clearing patches of ground, but not everyone loves them,  for they can be dangerous and invade vegetable gardens. 

Sherwood Forest

Sherwood Forest
Sherwood Forest

An Ancient Oak

An ancient oak
An ancient oak

The Modern Forest

Let us imagine that Robin Hood returns for the day and seeks to renew his acquaintance with the English forest. Modern technology would of course astound him, but he would like to know how the wood has changed since he roamed Sherwood. 

He would be dismayed by the shrinking of Sherwood Forest into a mere two thousand acres in Nottingham, whereas it once spread north into Yorkshire.But note the pictures above. The ancient oak is one that he may well recognise, but the self seeded birch that abounds in the other picture may not be as familiar.In his day it would have quickly been burned for firewood. Also unfamiliar to  Robin would have been the profusion of bracken, which is an  unwelcome expansion of a tricky native plant. But the woodland flowers, wood anemone, foxglove and wood sorrel would have been present. He would recognise oak and beech, and the presence of holly on the woodland fringes would have been familiar. He might puzzle why farmer are not feeding this nutritious plant to their animals, though he would be inspired by those still feeding it and other forms of "tree hay" to them. In fact he would be bemused by the modern failure to use woods as pig forage as he would see masses of acorns and beech mast going to waste. 

But if he wanders with us through the forests of England there is much  that he would recognise. The deer still abound in England's forests, but he would be surprised by the dog-sized barking deer the muntjac introduced from Asia. He would recognise the wild ponies  in the New Forest. Wild boar would not be strange to him, though he might think that there are a few too many in the Forest of Dean. On seeing one he might unthinkingly reach for his longbow!

The night-time noises of the forest would be well familiar.  Owls would hoot, there might be nightjars a-churring in the trees and bats would still flitter as they did in his day. The nightly chorus of strange woodland chitterings would still continue. 

However, it is the use of the forest for simple leisure purposes that would astound him. Families strolling where once he marauded, robbing the rich to help the poor, as we are told that he did.The absence of royal and noble hunting parties would be a complete novelty. He would shake his head in surprise. 

Robin finishes his day release back into this world and returns to wherever he is. He was our childhood hero. We wish him well. But we walk back through the darkening forest to our modern homes, as the moon rises casting its silver blessing over the forest night.  

Updated: 02/13/2019, frankbeswick
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


Only logged-in users are allowed to comment. Login
frankbeswick on 01/26/2024

I don't know the various amounts, but peat bogs are hig0h in absorption capacity.

DerdriuMarriner on 01/26/2024

Thank you for your answer Feb. 22, 2019, to my previous question Feb. 21, 2019!

Your answer alludes to bog restoration as carbon sinks.

Some online articles describe oceans, plants and soil as major absorbers of atmospheric carbon. They encounter 25% contributions each from oceans and soil.

Might you know -- at least for the eastern-pond side ;-D -- what amounts plants such as forest trees realize?

frankbeswick on 04/19/2019

I have just stumbled upon the original meaning of a modern colloquialism, acker, which is money placed as a bet. In mediaeval forests people could rent an acre of land, which was a source of wealth, hence an acker was wealth. The word has lingered on as a remnant of forest law, but changed its meaning.

Mira on 03/17/2019

Frank, you're quite a storyteller. I know so very little of the nature surrounding us (and its history) and Wizzley articles such as this one are invaluable to me.

frankbeswick on 02/22/2019

Some bogs are being restored as carbon sinks.This is happening on Kinder Scout, a moorland twenty miles from my home.

Farmers gave up on holly because hay was cheaper. Also holly used to be grown in plantations for fodder, but this is not done now, so holly fell out of use as fodder. Some farmers use tree hay as a supplement, but these are mainly organic farmers.

DerdriuMarriner on 02/21/2019

frankbeswick, Thank you for the backstories, front-stories and products. Are there similar efforts for lands that revert to bogs? Why do farmers not use holly and other "tree hay" for farm animals?

frankbeswick on 02/14/2019

What we are doing with forests is that we are eliminating many non-native conifer plantations in favour of native British species. Conifer acidifies the soil quite badly and is bad for life at ground level.

frankbeswick on 02/14/2019

Acid rain is not as large a problem as it was, due to a general decline in coal usage in favour of gas and green power. Sulphur dioxide emissions are down 74% since 1970 and nitrogen oxides down 37% in the same period. Upland streams, which were the prime victims of acidification, are recovering. It has been noted that acid sensitive water plants and mosses are reviving in habitats where they were once extinct.

Prevailing winds come from the Atlantic, but others at times come from Scandinavia, which is quite a green place,so it is not producing the worst kind of emissions.

dustytoes on 02/14/2019

Clever writing to bring Robin back and compare his forest then and now. I do tend to think of England as rolling green hills, but of course you do have beautiful forests. Once the trees are gone all that can be done is to plant again, as you mentioned in the comment below.

blackspanielgallery on 02/14/2019

Considering England's geographical position with the prevailing wind, hence weather, coming off the Atlantic, perhaps acid rain is not doing as much damage as elsewhere. I noticed you mention a thinning due to humans, but no mention of such ecological damage from downwind. Are your woodlands sheltered from environmental issues?

You might also like

Explore The Thames Foreshore - Find Hidden Treasure

Coming to London? Why not visit the Thames foreshore and discover the fragme...

Some Scenic Areas in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland, with its hills and loughs, is an attractive place well wort...

Disclosure: This page generates income for authors based on affiliate relationships with our partners, including Amazon, Google and others.
Loading ...