The New Forest is a National Park of mixed woodland and heathland covering a large area between Southampton and Ringwood. But it is not new, and in many parts not a forest!
The forest areas are remnants of the forest proclaimed by William the Conqueror in around 1079 as a royal hunting park. At the same time he introduced strict forest laws. On pain of death, individual peasants were forbidden to enclose their crops, take timber for building, or catch game for food.
However, they were granted a number of rights which were held jointly. These people became known as commoners and they were allowed to gather firewood, to cut turf for their fires and to pasture their animals on the open forest.
How did the iconic heathland come about?
As usual, the landscape was changed by man.
Early agriculturalists cleared the woodlands. Cultivation on what were already poor soils, without any return of nutrients, created ground that became increasingly impoverished. A limited range of acid-tolerant plants and shrubs took hold. The iconic heathland developed.
A special system of agriculture
Today’s commoners have over 5000 of their ponies and cattle out on the Forest helping to maintain the heathland clearings. And in autumn pigs are turned out to eat the acorns fallen from the oak trees.
A secret place
The New Forest has long been an out of the way place, with its own way of doing things. In the 18th and 19th century the New Forest was a haven for smugglers and their contraband goods of brandy, tea, tobacco and silks. Secret hiding places and even markets were held in the Forest. Much of the Forest and its villages became a “no go zone” for the customs men.
The Corkscrew Railway and connections
In 1847 the Corkscrew Railway wound its way between the Forest’s small towns and connected the local communities and markets bringing more connections and increased prosperity to this area.
Today the New Forest is a major leisure resource for locals and visitors while continuing to support its local communities.