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
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
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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