July 2015

Hollybank Woods, Emsworth, Hampshire.

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The Forest of Bere

The Forest of Bere countryside occupies a delightful, yet undiscovered corner of Hampshire. Its uniqueness is a part of its extraordinary past and its claim to our hearts lies in its remarkable story. It is a hidden treasure, comprising over 100 square miles of countryside. More than 40% of Hampshire residents live within 10 miles of its centre, yet very few people know much about it.

The Forest of Bere is now a landscape scale conservation project that enhances and protects the quintessential character of the Forest of Bere, which was once a Royal Medieval Forest. Through protection by the County Council, local boroughs and individual conservation groups such as the Friends of Hollybank Woods, the soul of this ancient forest lives on today.

From east to west, the Forest of Bere stretches from Eastleigh to West Sussex. It meets the South Downs at its northern boundary and borders the cities of Portsmouth and Southampton and the village of Emsworth at its southern boundary.

A History of Bere

This is a landscape with a unique and engaging history. From Roman times, and certainly when the Saxons occupied Britain, the Forest of 'Baer' (as it was then known) was a landscape, managed and organised specifically to support its communities by sharing the lands resources over a very large area. This was achieved by the creation of many commons. The result was an open landscape of trees, heathland, farmland, wood pasture and coppice.

The word 'Baer' comes from an old English word meaning 'swine pasture', as many livestock including pigs, cattle and oxen would have grazed freely around the commons. The woodlands would have looked a lot different than they do today.

Because of the grazing animals, the trees would have grown in an open pasture type landscape. Many of the trees were pollarded; cut off above the level of browse by cattle and deer (about head height) every 10 years or so to provide wood fuel and timber.

Some trees were coppiced; cut off at ground level, but these needed to be protected from the grazing animals by fencing, to stop them being eaten. Small Saxon farmsteads would have scattered the landscape; flowers, birds and insects would have thrived amongst the heathlands, woodlands and meadows.

Bere as a Royal Forest

When the Normans invaded in the 11th century, the aristocracy decided to create Royal Forests. These forests covered vast tracks of open landscape. They provided a suitable place for the king and his noblemen to hunt wild beasts, including deer, boar and even wolves. 'Baer' was seen as an ideal location and was renamed the 'Forest of Bere'.

What does the word 'Forest' Mean?

Despite what we might think, 'Forest' does not mean trees.

There are more trees in Bere today than there were during its time as a Royal Forest.

The word was actually a legal term. It meant land designated for hunting of game.

The Forest was a managed landscape, with official boundaries and its own laws. It had Keepers or Rangers that would roam the land and protect the king's beasts from poachers and those generally up to no good. It also had a court of Verderers, just like the New Forest, who enforced the king's Forest law.

Punishments were very severe for poachers in Bere and a man could be hanged just for being found in possession of a hunting weapon.

What had made Bere unique?

What is special about Bere is how badly it was managed.

It wasn't very popular as a Royal Forest with the king, who preferred to hunt elsewhere.

Bits of land had been given away to various noblemen and the management was at best disorganised as a result. It became neglected, and the crime rate, including poaching soared.

The old A3 London Road that today passes Waterlooville was the only route through the forest from the coast to the South Downs. It was a rough muddy track notorious for highwaymen, so much so that coaches were provided with heavily armed guards.

Documentary records indicate it was the worst managed Royal Forest in England. Rather than deal with the problem, it was swept aside with a view to deal with it later.

Local people as a result continued to farm under Forest law and grazing on commons continued.

The plants and animals which had specifically developed over hundreds of years to thrive under these conditions of land management continued to do so uninterrupted. The very act of neglect had a profound and beneficial effect, resulting in a rich and diverse wildlife habitat free of major environmental change.

The End of the Royal Forests in general

Eventually, Royal Forests lost their popularity; many were broken up and the land sold off and divided amongst gentry and farmers.

Much of the wildlife in many of these Forests was lost, as woodland and farmland were cleared for other uses and agricultural practices and techniques were modernised.

However Bere lasted for much longer. In fact, it was the last Royal Forest in England to be broken up.

The reason probably being its mis-management and unpopularity with the crown. Why deal with something that is so complicated, when the paperwork for the other more superior legally managed forests would be so much easier to complete?

Only in 1810 was Bere finally broken up.

The Bere today

The mosaic of old habitats, despite recent change, still remain; some beneath the surface. Small fields and hedgerows with standard trees are still a familiar site. The plants of traditional wetlands and watermeadows are in some places thriving and in others waiting, ready to emerge with their restoration.

The ancient wood-pastures, although changed by modern forestry, still contain a wealth of plants and insects that can be restored by appropriate management; the signs of old pollarded trees and coppice can still be found. The ancient and irregular patterns of long changing woodland boundaries can still be spotted on maps today.

The drovers roads, once used to drive livestock to new grazing sites, but now often overgrown and forgotten, can still be seen between two raised banks, edged by gnarled old trees.

The seeds of the formerly abundant heather plants still hide in the soil of dark conifer plantations, awaiting light to start their life cycle once more and the butterflies are ready to migrate back to their old home.

The Forest of Bere is a landscape that has survived in the face of modern changes. Much of its character still remains visible in the landscape today; a landscape we often think is entirely the product of nature.

Why Hollybank Woods are so important

Hollybank Woods date back to the original wildwood of Britain (between 7000BC and 4000BC), making it of extreme international importance, and essential for wildlife species specific to such habitats.

Its character is a part of its past and our past use of it, and in this the ancient Forest of Bere lives on.

So when you stand under one of the older Yew trees in Hollybank Woods, take a moment to remember that, in 1028, when England's first Norman king William I was born, and long before he became known as William the Conqueror, some of the Yew trees here in Hollybank Woods would have had wild boar roaming past them.

Whilst so much of the ancient Forest of Bere has been changed beyond recognition, Hollybank Woods Yew trees stand testament to just how old this woodland is, and it's true heritage as one of the few remaining remnants of not only the Forest of Bere, but of the wild wood that covered Britain in pre history.

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Meeting point for work days and walks.

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Wood Anemone. (Photo: AB)

Weekly walks in Hollybank Woods:

Walking To Health.

Every 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month. Short, free and safe guided walks in Hollybank Woods. Meet at 10.15am, SYRCH Centre, Cotton Drive, off Southliegh Road in north Emsworth. (SYRCH Centre is sign posted and there is a free car park).

A great way to keep fit, all ages welcome! Improving your health whilst enjoying an autumn/winter walk in the woodland.

Organised by Walking to Health.
(Supported by the British Heart Foundation and the Countryside Agency.)

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2014 | AB