New Forest

The New Forest is an area of southern England which includes the largest remaining tracts of unenclosed pasture land, heathland and forest in the heavily-populated south east of England. It covers south-west Hampshire and extends into south-east Wiltshire.

The New Forest was proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June 1999, and it became a National Park in 2005.

The towns of Lymington, Lyndhurst, New Milton and Ringwood are within its boundaries.

The name also refers to the New Forest National Park which has similar boundaries. Additionally the New Forest local government district is a subdivision of Hampshire which covers most of the Forest, and some nearby areas although it is no longer the planning authority for the National Park itself. There are many villages dotted around the area, and several small towns in the Forest and around its edges.

Like much of England, the New Forest was originally deciduous woodland, recolonised by birch and eventually beech and oak following the withdrawal of the ice sheets starting from around 12,000 years ago. Some areas were cleared for cultivation from the Bronze Age onwards; the poor quality of the soil in the New Forest meant that the cleared areas turned into heathland “waste”, which may have been used even then as grazing-land for horses. There was still a significant amount of woodland in this part of Britain, but this was gradually reduced, particularly towards the end of the Middle Iron Age around 250-100 BCE, and most importantly the 12th and 13th centuries, and of this essentially all that remains today is the New Forest.

There are around two hundred and fifty round barrows within its boundaries, and scattered boiling mounds, and it also includes about 150 scheduled ancient monuments. One such barrow in particular may represent the only known inhumation burial of the Early Iron Age and the only known Hallstatt burial in Britain.

The New Forest was created as a royal forest by William I in about 1079 for the private hunting of (mainly) deer. It was created at the expense of more than 20 small settlements/farms; hence it was ‘new’ in his time as a single compact area.

According to Florence of Worcester (d. 1118), the forest was known before the Norman Conquest as the Great Ytene Forest; the word “Ytene” meaning ‘”Juten” or “of Jutes”. The Jutes were one of the early Anglo Saxon tribal groups who colonised this area of southern Hampshire. This is the traditionally accepted etymology, however, it is very possible that the name is Celtic and related to the Irish name “Etain”.

It was first recorded as “Nova Foresta” in Domesday Book in 1086, and is the only forest that the book describes in detail. Twelfth century chroniclers alleged that William had created the Forest by evicting the inhabitants of 36 parishes, reducing a flourishing district to a wasteland; however, this account is thought dubious by most historians, as the poor soil in much of the Forest is believed to have been incapable of supporting large-scale agriculture, and significant areas appear to have always been uninhabited.

Two of William’s sons died in the Forest: Prince Richard in 1081 and King William II (William Rufus) in 1100. Local folklore asserted that this was punishment for the crimes committed by William when he created his New Forest; a 17th century writer provides exquisite detail:

“In this County [Hantshire] is New-Forest, formerly called Ytene, being about 30 miles in compass; in which said tract William the Conqueror (for the making of the said Forest a harbour for Wild-beasts for his Game) caused 36 Parish Churches, with all the Houses thereto belonging, to be pulled down, and the poor Inhabitants left succourless of house or home. But this wicked act did not long go unpunished, for his Sons felt the smart thereof; Richard being blasted with a pestilent Air; Rufus shot through with an Arrow; and Henry his Grand-child, by Robert his eldest son, as he pursued his Game, was hanged among the boughs, and so dyed. This Forest at present affordeth great variety of Game, where his Majesty oft-times withdraws himself for his divertisement.”

The reputed spot of Rufus’s death is marked with a stone known as the Rufus Stone.

John White, Bishop of Winchester, said of the forest:

“From God and Saint King Rufus did Churches take, From Citizens town-court, and mercate place, From Farmer lands: New Forrest for to make, In Beaulew tract, where whiles the King in chase Pursues the hart, just vengeance comes apace, And King pursues. Tirrell him seing not, Unwares him flew with dint of arrow shot.”

Formal commons rights were confirmed by statute in 1698. The New Forest became a source of timber for the Royal Navy, and plantations were created in the 18th century for this purpose. In the Great Storm of 1703, about 4000 oak trees were lost.

The naval plantations encroached on the rights of the Commoners, but the Forest gained new protection under an Act of Parliament in 1877. The New Forest Act 1877 confirmed the historic rights of the Commoners and prohibited the enclosure of more than 65 km2 (25 sq mi) at any time. It also reconstituted the Court of Verderers as representatives of the Commoners (rather than the Crown).

As of 2005, roughly 90% of the New Forest is still owned by the Crown. The Crown lands have been managed by the Forestry Commission since 1923 and most of the Crown lands now fall inside the new National Park.

Felling of broadleaved trees, and their replacement by conifers, began during the First World War to meet the wartime demand for wood. Further encroachments were made during the Second World War. This process is today being reversed in places, with some plantations being returned to heathland or broadleaved woodland. Rhododendron remains a problem.

Further New Forest Acts followed in 1949, 1964 and 1970. The New Forest became a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1971, and was granted special status as the New Forest Heritage Area in 1985, with additional planning controls added in 1992. The New Forest was proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June 1999, and it became a National Park in 2005.

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