The friends of Lydiard Park tell us, on their website, that the great forest of Braydon once extended across north Wiltshire. It covered much of the ground where Swindon now stands as well as the land destined to become Lydiard Park.

Indeed, as they go on to tell us, the Domesday Book of 1086 records the manor of Lydiard as having woodland of 1 league long and a half a league in breadth. Come the 13th century and Braydon had become the second largest forest providing timber trees in the whole of England. Further, it abounded with red and fallow deer. In 1254-56 King Henry III gave Lydiard’s owner, Robert Tregoze, forty-four deer from the Royal Forest of Braydon to restock the park at Lydiard.

Now follows a post from my occasional guest blogger, Rebecca Davies BSC. (Hons) about Braydon Forest – and about forestry in general.

See also from Forestry England: https://www.forestryengland.uk/forest-planning/braydon-woods-forest-plan

And visit a fragment of Braydon Forest in West Swindon in Peatmoor community woodland – as featured in Swindon: A Born Again Swindonian’s Guide.

BRAYDON FOREST, By Rebecca Davies BSC. (Hons)

Introduction

I am a true Purtonian, and so have made a light study of the local history. Some of my knowledge, though, isn’t so much overtly learned as comes more from immersion.

Part of that is about the forested land below Pavenhill in Purton. This forest land is Braydon (or Bradon) Forest – a one-time royal hunting ground. This much I learned as a child. Yet no-one could tell me much about the place. There is a booklet published on the forest, by Thomson in 1953. It is 30 pages long and is about the only dedicated history of this area. Thus I am hoping this little article will make a difference.

Braydon Pond - The Great Forest of Braydon
Braydon pond

Forest Law

FOREST: Hunting preserve of the king or lord-marcher, subject to forest law but not necessarily woodland. Originally an area of land in which only the owner had the right to hunt deer and boar. Special laws were applied in this area as it lay outside the jurisdiction of common law.
(Forests and Chases glossary)

Every schoolboy is taught that forests existed to provide deer and other game for the king’s hunting. And that all Plantagenet kings rode to hounds, like Jorrocks, four days a week, and the royal keepers roamed the land inflicting capital and surgical penalties on any peasant caught doing anything that might, however remotely, interfere with the deer.
This idealistic picture has never been confirmed by critical research.
(Rackham)

The animals preserved included Red deer, Fallow deer, Roe deer and Wild boar. Fallow Deer are not natives. The Normans introduced them from southern Europe.

Organisation of The Forest

Political

· Warden/Chief Forester. Often an eminent magnate, a deputy often exercised his powers.
· Foresters, under-foresters. They went about preserving the forest and game and apprehending offenders against the law.
· Woodwards, Rangers. Woodwards is a common place name in the forest.
· Agisters – supervised pannage and agistment
· Surveyors – determined the boundaries of the forest.

Forest courts

  • Court of attachment, (Forty-Day Court or Woodmote). Presided over by verderers and the Warden, or his deputy. It did not possess the power to try or convict individuals, and such cases passed to the swainmote
  • Court of regard, held every third year to enforce the law requiring declawing of dogs within the forest.
  • Swainmote or Sweinmote – held three times a year and presided over by the Warden and verderers.
  • ·Court of justice-seat or eyre was the highest of the forest courts. It was the only court that could pass sentence upon offenders of the forest laws.

    In practice, these fine distinctions were not always observed.

Rights and privileges

Payment for access to certain rights provided a useful source of income to the King. The common inhabitants of the forest possessed many rights:

  • Estover, the right of taking firewood
  • Turbary, the right to cut turf, rights of pasturage
  • Wood pasture (Agistment)- the practise of grazing livestock in mixed grassland and woods.
  • Swine forage (Pannage) – both beech and oak trees give nourishing seeds for pigs.
  • Warren – rabbit warrens, managed by the warrener …
  • … and harvesting the products of the forest.

Lastly, land might be disafforested entirely. That else permission could be given for assart (small clearance) and purpresture. (Building)

Environment

The geology is Oxford clay, a stiff clay – not easy to plough. Forests did not get established on useful land. The topography has a gentle roll with a few streams going through it, often forming borders. The main stream is the River Key.

The Great Forest of Braydon - river key

Industrial and Social History

Industry

In modern day forestry reports there is little discussion of economic activity. Indeed, we might say that forests arewastelands, as per the medieval definition – in that they created no income for the Crown.

In times past the people, whether king or inhabitants, could not afford the luxury of unproductive land. In fact for many forest people their immediate environment supplied all their needs. Probably, apart from grain and metals, the only products imported were luxury goods.

*Fuel wood
*Timber – building materials
*Wood – coppiced wood & small crafts
*Charcoal
*Herbs
*Wild honey/wax
*Fungi and truffles
*Nuts & fruits
*Stone and clay

Wood management

In Coppicing, the trees get cut back to regrow into poles. Then, from time to time, recut. It’s possible to treat most deciduous trees this way. The practice produces small pieces of timber for a variety of uses. Such as:

  • Firewood
  • Pea and beansticks
  • Wattle fencing
  • Posts
  • Charcoal
  • Wood turning
  • Small woodwork

We see this practice in Ravenshurst Wood.

New cut coppice
new cut coppice

Social History

Forests were places outside common law and the inhabitants were likewise unconventional, often described as non-confirmist or even atheists. Most royal forests were extra-parochial and had no church. The first built in Braydon forest came at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Great Forest of Braydon - braydon church

The royal forests attracted the Romanies for their resource rich environments with little outside interference. There’s irony in the fact that land established for the elite had the side-effect of creating a desireable abode for the marginalised.

Perambulations

Thomson gives a lot of his book over to the perambulations. This is an official record of a boundary – all done without the use of a map. This is an official record of a boundary – all done without the use of a map. The perambulation is followed on the ground and marked by describing landmarks, such as distinctive trees, earthworks or natural features such as ridgelines or streams.

Thomson's braydon forest map
Thomson’s braydon forest map

In conclusion

As Rackham says, the royal forests, though of importance to the owners and inhabitants, have been little recorded or documented. We have no idea how many there were in total or for how long they were afforested. Nor where the borders were.

The Great Forest of Braydon - view from Pavenhill in Purton.
The Great Forest of Braydon – view from Pavenhill in Purton

Braydon is not a big forest with distinct laws and culture.  It is not a small, famous forest.  However, it is my forest.

** All photos by the author, except the fallow deer photo. And the map is from Thomson’s booklet.

Bibliography

  1. 1.Ravensroost Wood. RAVENSROOST WOOD including Avis, Distillery and Warbler Meadows, Malmesbury | Wiltshire Wildlife Trust (Accessed 23rd November 2020).

    2. Joseph Wright https://www.josephwright.co.uk/ (Accessed 23rd November 2020).

    3. Rackham, O. (1976) Trees and Woodlands in the British Landscape, Dent, London

    4. Thomson, T. R.(1953) Bradon Forest, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

    5. Forests and Chases of England and Wales. Forests and Chases of England and Wales (ox.ac.uk) (Accessed 23rdNovember 2020).