Introduction by Charles Keighley
Discovering Wychwood - the Cotswold Forest
The next time you drive along the A40 from Witney to Burford, look north east beyond Swinbrook, the woodlands you see are some of the remnants of Wychwood.
Wychwood was a Royal hunting Forest - in the medieval sense, a place where deer were reserved for the King’s use, and where the Forest Law, laid down to protect the deer and their environment, operated. The Norman monarchy used Forests to stamp authority on their subjects, with deer being the supreme status symbol.
Nowadays the Wychwood Project uses the focus of the former royal hunting Forest to encourage local people to conserve and restore its rich mosaic of landscapes and wildlife habitats. The Project’s aim is to create benefits now and an inheritance for future generations.
Medieval Forest boundaries were usually physical, so that locals knew when they were entering an area where deer were protected. Forests were rarely sited on prime agricultural land. In the eleventh century the boundaries of Wychwood were the River Glyme to the east, the River Windrush to the south west, the smaller Sars Brook to the north and a section of the Thames to the south. The Wychwood Project has adopted these boundaries, running from Woodstock in the east to Burford in the west, from Chipping Norton in the north to Newbridge near Stanton Harcourt in the south. The area includes 41 parishes, much of modern West Oxfordshire.
Wychwood was far from entirely wooded, and yet it was one of the most wooded Forests in England. Historical research has located nearly eighty of the Forest’s copses, some of which still remain - for example Cogges Wood near Witney to the south, Widley Copse near Fulbrook to the west and at Ditchley to the north. The area of woodland lying between Charlbury, Leafield and Finstock - nowadays known to many as 'Wychwood Forest' and marked as such on the Ordnance Survey maps - is another such remnant, which remained under the Crown until the nineteenth century.
As well as woodland, the medieval Forest included a rich patchwork of meadows, cultivated open fields, heaths and downs - a wide range of wildlife habitats, and important aspects of the Forest’s landscape.
Many of the settlements and woods belonged to owners other than the King, and by the end of the thirteenth century these owners were pressing to be freed from the restrictions of the Forest law. Edward I was eventually forced to agree, and Wychwood was split into three parts. One of these was the Royal Palace, park and woodlands at Woodstock. Another was around Crawley and Hailey, north of Witney, and the third consisted of the Royal park and woodlands to the west of Cornbury.
Assarting, the piece-meal clearance of woodland for agriculture, began to reduce the woodland cover. Rather than insist on reinstatement of the woodand, records show that the Crown levied fines for assarting, which became in effect a source of rental income. In the middle of the fourteenth century the Black Death stopped much of this assarting, and even led to the shrinkage and desertion of several villages around the woodlands, for example at Tangley north of Burford and Tilgarsley near Eynsham.
After an attempted revival under the Stuarts, the Forest woodlands fell into a gradual decline, interrupted in 1705 when the manor of Woodstock was conferred upon John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, to create modern Blenheim from that part of the Forest. During the Napoleonic wars, timber for the navy was extracted elsewhere from neglected Wychwood. The remaining Forest became renowned – rightly or wrongly - for villainy and poaching, and its reputation fell further into disrepute when increasing numbers of people attended the annual Wychwood Forest Fair, held in mid-September - until Lord Churchill felt compelled to stop it in 1856 because of its drunkenness and debauchery.
In parts of Wychwood around Leafield, the Enclosures were delayed by a legal dispute between the Churchills and the Crown over land adjoining Cornbury. Eventually the dispute was arbitrated by John Clutton, a surveyor, who carved up the disputed land equally between the Crown and the Churchills – with the surrounding villagers getting meagre allotments to compensate them for lost woodland rights. Subsequently in 1857 nearly two thousand acres of the Crown Forest land were cleared with the help of ‘tree throwing machines’ for agriculture and model farms created. Leafield’s powerful church, designed by Sir GG Scott, was finished in 1860 and became the focus of the Wychwood area.
Despite early successes, the agricultural improvements proved short-lived. The land was poor, and in 1916 a local farmer said it was ‘a mistake that the trees were ever grubbed up, since the return on capital expenditure has proved inadequate.’ Perhaps the Normans had a better grasp of the limitations of Wychwood’s agricultural fertility than the technological Victorians.
Nowadays farming faces more changes, with moves from subsidy of production towards payments for environmental stewardship. Wychwood, with its wide range of habitats and existing ancient woodland remnants - all within a relatively compact and identifiable area - provides an ideal target area for such stewardship of the countryside.