Tag Archives: new forest

England’s green and privatised land

New Forest Autumn

Image by danny george via Flickr

The Government is currently consulting over proposals to sell off a large proportion of our nationally-owned forests. As far as I can tell the plans are ill-defined, ideologically-driven and risk casting a scar upon the landscape of this land forever. In the consultation document Caroline Spelman describes them as ‘treasured woodlands’, but if thats so, why flog them?

Historically Britain – or at least England – has been one of the most heavily forested countries in Europe. Forests and trees are a strong central thread in British history – look at Robin Hood and his merry men hiding out in Sherwood Forest for starters. For hundreds of years the Forests sustained Royal Hunting, with plenty of lodges and a supportive infrastructure. And then we have the crucial role that Royal Forests played in supplying timber for the burgeoning Royal Navy. Not for nothing is the Royal Navy’s march entitled ‘Heart of Oak‘.

The Government, through the Forestry Commission, currently looks after 18% of Britain’s woodland – 258,000 hectares. The other 82% is privately owned (how much of it is on Tory MP’s and Peers estates, one wonders?). Near me there are a couple of ancient Forests – the Forest of Bere and the New Forest. The Forest of Bere was for hundreds of years an ancient hunting reserve. And the New Forest is an enigma all of its own. There are so many ancient customs going on there, and its a real gem of this country that we should be so proud of and protect to the hilt. Particularly at a time when so many people, especially young people, dwell in inner cities and never get to see the countryside – we should be encouraging them to get out and walking in the mud of the Forests. Maybe in this sense communities could take over and run small forests – particularly those on the fringes of urban areas. But only wealthy, well-adjusted communities will have the time, funds and resources to do so.

I cannot understand what the Government hopes to achieve, aside from saving a few quid. Actually, I’ve answered my own question there. Surely some things should be sacred beyond mere penny-pinching? I am in no way convinced about the safeguards in place to prevent private companies – in all likelihood foreign – exploiting and asset stripping the very fabric of our land. We were told before the privatisation of public transport that it would lead to better services and investment, and to be quite frank that was bollocks. The countryside is not an amenity, it IS part of the country. Are we to see ‘the [insert name of faceless company] New Forest’, complete with huge advertising hoardings, blocking access or charging for the right to visit, or exploiting the hell out of the Forest’s resources? We might not, but once control is handed over, what is there to stop it? The consultation talks about ‘alternative models of ownership’, but past experience shows us that this is window dressing for getting something off the balance sheet, and to hell with the consequences, and if someone can profit from it as well, even better.

Is anything about this country sacred? If we are being consulted about selling off our trees, heaths, fields and pastures, had we might as well consult about privatising the oxygen supply as well. For me this goes beyond politics, it’s just plain wrong. Yet only the other day a majority of MP’s in the House of Commons – aided by a large number of Tory MP’s who have rural constituencies and a vacancy in brain cells – actually backed the Government’s plan. Evidence, if any is needed, that MP’s will just go along with whatever their political masters tell them to vote for.

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The Forest by Edward Rutherfurd

I’m a big fan of Edward Rutherfurd‘s style of historical fiction (London, New York), and also of the New Forest. So I’m not really sure how its taken me so long to pick this book up.

In terms of historical and geographical spread, writing this book must have been a more trying task than one would imagine. The New Forest is simply full of so many towns, villages, hamlets, streams, rivers, hills, trees, and all manner of other features. The shipyard at Bucklers Hard, the dense forests, the port of Lymington, the heathland… and there are so many ancient customs peculiar to the New Forest that are simply mind-boggling – verderers, agisters and pannage to name but a few. But Rutherfurd manages it very well – and a credit to the New Forest Museum in his acknowledgements suggests how far the author has gone in his research.

Some chapters are stronger than others. The opening chapter focusing on William Rufus and Walter Tyrrell sets the scene convincingly, and the Jane Austen style chapter on the Georgian era New Forest is also well crafted. Other chapters do feel as if they are marking time, but it is always inevitable that some chapters will be more pivotal than others.

I have always enjoyed the technique of following a small number of families through generations, as it allows us to see how societies and classes change over time. And social history is something that Rutherfurd does very well too – we can sense the conventions of Norman Britain, the growth of a merchant Class in the fifteenth century, and the quaint world of Georgian England. Social History in fictions- needs to feel right, and this something that many authors neglect.

I enjoyed this book very much, and I am sure that anyone who has squelched through peaty bogs, tramped over heathland and battled through gorse and bracken will nod with warm agreement with what they find evoked here.

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The New Forest at War: John Leete

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the New Forest – its a great place to go and walk out in the country, see the famous Ponies, have a pub lunch and generally spend some time away from the rat-race. However I must confess that I know very little about the history of the New Forest beyond Willam Rufus. Therefore this book by John Leete is most timely – especially with spring and the walking season rapidly approaching!

As a huge expanse of woodland and heathland, the New Forest proved to be an ideal training area in wartime, particuarly for the Army. The wide open spaces also provided space for numerous airfields – the traces of some can still be seen today. The House at Beaulieu provided the training base for the Special Operations Executive, and Exbury House was an important Naval Intelligence centre. General Patton even used Braemar House as a Headquarters for some time. The New Forest was also an embarkation centre fo prior to D-Day. The volume of traffic flowing through the forest, and the amount of men based there, also led to many of the main roads being widened – a lasting physical impact. In fact, I must confess to getting out my Ordnance Survey map of the Forest to look for some sites to explore!

This book is illustrated with some wonderful images of the New Forest in wartime, and complemented by numerous oral testimonies. I’m a big fan of oral hisory, theres no better way to present the rich tapestry of ordinary people’s experiences than by letting them tell their story, in their words. Hence this book is not just about buildings, generals and elite units, but also about evacuees, Air raid precautions and rationing.

When I go down to the New Forest in the summer this book will almost certainly be in my rucksack!

The New Forest at War is published by The History Press

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