History of the Wychwood Forest

18th century map of WychwoodA range of maps covering the Wychwood area have been produced over past centuries.  One of the more detailed is the map of Wychwood Forest prepared in the early nineteenth century, itself based upon an earlier eighteenth century map prepared by Thos’ Pride in 1770.

We are grateful to Mr Harry Menrick for allowing us to reproduce an image of his copy of this 1815 map of Wychwood entitled

“Whichwood Forest with the Park and Purlieus in the county of Oxford, drawn for the Right Hon Lord Francis A. Spencer, Lord Warden and Ranger”.

This image is particularly interesting as it retains the original colour coding for different land ownerships at that time. The image also shows clearly the distinction between the formal managed coppices and other Forest land.

 

A brief history of the Wychwood Forest

Neolithic age

Long barrows and later Bronze age round barrows show the area was settled from at least 3000 BC. 500BC to 40AD: This period saw an increase in social organisation and, towards the end of the period, earthworks such as Knollbury Camp and Grim's Ditch were constructed. The latter is a series of earthworks enclosing 22 sq. miles.

Roman

There was a strong Roman presence in the region, which was well placed on the road network with Akeman Street (Verulamium/St Albans to Corinium/Cirencester) crossing it. C4th Roman villas have been found at North Leigh and Stonesfield and would have been highly elaborate, with mosaic floors, bath suites and central heating. Other villas date from earlier centuries.

Saxon

After the decline of Roman control much of the open land reverted to woodland. Later Saxon settlements were restricted to the woodland edge or large clearings.

The name Wychwood (Hwiccewudu) derives from the Saxon name for the Hwicce tribe that inhabited the region at this time. The Wychwood Forest is thought to have supplied wood for the Droitwich salt industry. Hwicce princes had a monopoly on salt production in the Droitwich area.

In the reign of Ethelred II (978-1016) a royal hunting lodge was established at Woodstock.

1086

By the C10th the Wychwood area had royal associations and in the Domesday Book of 1086 it was recorded as Royal Forest. At this time it stretched over 182 square miles, about 120,00 acres, from Taynton in the west to Woodstock in the east.

The term "forest" was a legal one referring to a tract of land outside (from the Latin word foris) and did not mean that the whole area was wooded.

The King had hunting rights over the whole are designated as Royal Forest, even though much of the land was held by various Lords of the Manor. Only the woodland at Woodstock (later Blenheim), Cornbury and a large area near Kingstanding Farm belonged directly to the King.

C12th and C13th

The pressures of a growing population led to increasing demands for land. Many of the forest villages date from these centuries. Finstock is first recorded in 1135; Ramsden (1146), Fawler (1205), Leafield (1213), Crawley (1214) and Hailey (1240). These villages are often quite straggling in form, reflecting their origins as assarted fields cleared from woodland. Many of them did not have village churches until the C19th.

Henry I (1100-1135) created the park at Woodstock, building the first park wall in about 1110. The park was used to house his collection of wild animals from many parts of the world. The chronicler, William of Malmesbury refers to lions, leopards, lynxes, camels and even a porcupine.

1154 to 1189, the reign of Henry II

The size of the Forest was at its greatest.

1300

By this time it was divided into 3 portions, centred on the parks of Woodstock, Cornbury and a part which included the Bishop of Winchester's Witney estate.

At the perambulation of 1300 the forest ran from Woodstock in the east to beyond Burford in the west, and from Chadlington in the north to Witney and beyond in the south. The Forest covered some 50,000 acres.

1535

From records we know that a sale of 11 hectares of underwood realised £4 2s 3d, but even in those days coppicing was not always profitable for the cost to enclose the same area was £9 9s 0d.

1704

Woodstock Park was given by the Crown to the Duke of Marlborough. (Cornbury was already in private hands).

1778

The navy procured 500 trees from Wychwood yet by 1792 a scathing report by the Crown Commissioners found only 173 oaks of ship building quality, with fences down, coppices full of deer, cattle and swine, and the locals helping themselves to firewood. By 1809, a surveyor could not find "one fine tree of navy oak" in a ride of sixteen or seventeen miles.

1792

Only 1501 hectares of the Forest remained.

1857

The 10 sq. miles of Wychwood remaining as Royal Forest was taken out of Forest Law by a Parliamentary Act of Disafforestation. Ancient forest rights, granted to commoners, were ended and the the commoners compensated.

Within 2 years 2000 acres of woodland was converted to farmland and housing, with the timber felled from this acreage sold for £34,000. 10 miles of new roads were built. Seven new farmsteads were built, including King's Standing Farm. The parish of Leafield and its church dates from this time.

1864 to the present day

The remaining woodland was enclosed in 1867 and still exists: all that is left of the ancient Forest of Wychwood. At 870 hectares it is the largest area of ancient woodland in Oxfordshire. The central part forms a National Nature Reserve containing over 360 species of flowering plants and ferns, and most of the rest is a site of Special Scientific Interest.

 

Thanks are due to Alan Spicer, co-founder of the Project and co-author of Oxfordshire Country Walks (Evenlode and Wychwood), published by Oxfordshire Books, ISBN 1-873-222-009, for granting permission to borrow liberally from his text in the preparation of these historical bullet points. Other details have been incorporated from the Information Leaflet produced by the Oxfordshire Woodland Project, written by Eric Douglas.