In the wooded footsteps of the Conqueror

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.

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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.

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Drinking in the beauty of the place

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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.

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Long shadows creeping over an area of open grassland, characteristic of medieval Royal Hunting Forests

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Meeting amazing trees

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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.

Woods at sunset

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.

 

 

 

 

 

16 thoughts on “In the wooded footsteps of the Conqueror

  1. Very interesting and lovely pictures too. I used to know Savernake very well. Good to see it still wild. The forest laws are interesting – one reason King John became popular in DEvon was because his disafforested Dartmoor, freeing up much of the land.

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  2. People who think they have it tough nowadays probably should study more history! I had no idea they weren’t even allowed to have a bow and that they’d be blinded if they transgressed.

    I have to say I tend to walk in woods in bad weather as I’m a bit of a sun worshipper and, it there is any, I’ve got to be out in full sunshine all the time! We don’t get much up here though…

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    • That’s one of the reasons I want to live in Northumberland – less sun! My sister is the same as you, but I’m a bit of a sun coward! And I can’t stand the heat, hence one of the reasons I love woodlands.

      True what you say about history. I think sometimes we don’t know we’re born today. Studying history puts things into perspective a bit, doesn’t it? Thanks for reading.

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  3. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your description of Savernake Forest. It made me feel as though I was there. Some smashing pictures too. Have you been to Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor? I think you’d like that too

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for your kind comment! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I haven’t been to Wistman’s Wood before, but it’ll go on my list of places to visit. Thanks for the steer!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You were right! Those old laws – while I do get their intention – seem so crazy today! They always say you can tell a lot about a people by the art they create. In this case, laws tell you so much about the people that made them and the times they were made to control. Very interesting! I love the your photographs in this one – you capture the scale and that great, old gnarly-ness of the trees that fits your story perfectly. And I LOVE that shot of the Great North Road. How cool is it to put yourself back into time like that?!?! I enjoyed this walk through the woods. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The laws were crazy, Linsdsay, that’s right. It is, indeed, very cool to put oneself back in time, and you really do get a sense of the Middle Ages at Savernake. For me, its a wonderful mix of history, nature and tranquillity that’s nowadays is becoming increasingly hard to find. Unless you live where you are, of course! Thanks for reading, and I’m glad you liked the experience of Savernake. 🙂

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