When it comes to a good long walk, if there’s one environment I absolutely love to wander around, it’s woodland. In a quiet forest, you could be at any point in history. You can leave the modern world, with all its noise and stresses behind and walk back in time, surrounded by beauty and magic, and even the odd ghost.
Yesterday we headed off to the enchanting Savernake Forest in Wiltshire. It’s a medieval Royal Hunting Forest with a history stretching back over a thousand years, and one of its best features is its famous inhabitants; the spectacular, ancient oak trees that still survive from the Middle Ages. One, the ‘Big Bellied Oak’ which stands by the main road alongside the forest, is thought to date back to Saxon times.
The Pointing Oak, one of the oldest of Savernake’s dwellers
Walking into the forest from the car park, we quickly lost the sound of traffic and the rest of modernity, and before long I realised the path ahead was just how the main ‘A’ roads of England would have once looked, a woodland passage leading through trees. Soon I felt that if a medieval peasant were to appear ahead with a cart and a pack horse, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. That’s when I relaxed.
Drinking in the beauty of the place
The Great North Road. This is how medieval main roads would have looked.
Of course, back then, the country was covered with swathes of forest, and in medieval times this was a rich source of food, materials and fuel for the Saxon people. But soon after the Norman Conquest, King William introduced the reviled Forest Law. Back then, the word ‘forest’ didn’t refer to an extensive wooded area, but to vast sections of land, including wooded pasture, open heath and scrub, all protected by the new legislation. Under William’s forest system, the hunting of game – mainly roe, red and fallow deer and boar – became the sole right of the Crown. The strict laws were policed by a plethora of wardens, foresters and subordinate officers, and punishments for offenders were harsh. The Anglo Saxon chronicle noted that William: “laid down laws therefor, that whoever should slay hart or hind should be blinded”. If they hadn’t been evicted, the poor local inhabitants of these areas could no longer hunt the land that had sustained them, or fish from the rivers that flowed through the forest. As if that wasn’t bad enough, their rights to cut wood for building and fuel were restricted. They couldn’t even possess a longbow and arrows, lest they offend, nor could they enclose their own crops to protect them from invading deer. No wonder it was the most despised and resented of Williams innovations.
As we journeyed deeper into the forest, we passed those areas of open grassland which are characteristic of Royal Hunting Forests, bathed in the gilded sunshine of a mild late February day. And one by one, we came across Savernake’s oldest inhabitants who bore witness to the dramas and spectacles that the Forest Law brought about, the majestic medieval trees. Among others I met the White Road and the Pointing oaks. For me, it’s humbling to meet something that was alive as those royal hunting parties pounded past in pursuit of their quarry, or the odd wary peasant trod the forest floor in search of food for the table.
Long shadows creeping over an area of open grassland, characteristic of medieval Royal Hunting Forests
Meeting amazing trees
The White Road Oak. A silent witness to medieval events…
According to local legend, Savernake Forest, like many other ancient woodlands, has its share of dark tales, and ghosts that appear at dusk. There are stories of eerie sounds emanating from the depths of the woods, witches’ covens and spectral apparitions flitting around in the shadows. One prominent ghost is that of a headless medieval girl who rides along one of the avenues of trees on a white horse. The story goes that she was decapitated as her mount bolted through the trees during a royal hunting expedition. We didn’t see her, but the lengthening shadows and creeping dusk told us it was, sadly, time to head back.
As we walked along the final wooded stretch back to the car the sun was sinking into a crimson sky, and in the dimming light a roe deer crossed the path ahead. It froze as it saw us, considering whether we could be friend or foe. We froze too, and for a second we regarded each other in silence before the animal darted off into the trees and disappeared. I think it realised it had nothing to fear from my longbow.