Garden Notes, Designer Eye Blog

Beyond the pale

As part of my first year of study, I had to research a garden. I chose one on the edge of the Ashdown Forest near where I live in Sussex. I had to begin with the history of the Forest itself, which I really enjoyed. Having lived within ten minutes of it for nearly twenty years, understanding its evolvement to the present day makes me see it with new eyes. The ditches, the mounds, the pine trees, the brush and the bracken, they all describe the past.

in the seventh century Ashdown Forest was part of the Forest of Anderida and by 1086 the Weald of Kent, Surrey and Sussex had been divided into rapes, with the forest part of the Rape of the Honor of Pevensey, under the lordship of Count Robert of Mortain – a half-brother of William the Conqueror. He had manorial rights to graze his cattle, collect bedding and fodder and material for building.

Part of a map of Sussex by Robert Morden, dated 1695, showing Ashdown Forest, from Sussex Records Society, .

By 1268 the free ‘chase’, a mix of heathland and woodland providing cover for game, where anyone could hunt, subject to common law, had become a royal hunting Forest, protected by Forest Law, and only the Crown had the right to the quarry. A ‘pale’, a high fence of cleft poles marked the boundary protecting the pigs, cattle and deer within it. ‘Beyond the pale’ were the commons, whose tenants were permitted to access the forest to graze stock, collect firewood, brushwood litter and cut turf. Names of many villages surrounding the forest recall the thirty-three entrances to the forest – Chelwood or Shepherd’s Gate, provided access for cart or horse, whereas Coleman’s Hatch, was an entrance for those on foot.

Renamed Lancaster Great Park when owned by John of Gaunt, in 1372, the park covered some 13,477 acres. In the 16th century parcels of land were sold off or given as thanks for the owner’s part in the defence of the 1588 Spanish Invasion. Ditches marking boundaries are still visible today, as are the Scots pines, planted to replace the lost game cover, resulting from the Commoners’ bracken and litter removal.

An old ditch in Forest Row, marking an original boundary, shown on the 1693 Survey of Ashdown Forest (East Sussex Records Office AMS 4084)

By the end of the Civil War the enclosure fences had been pulled down, and a Parliamentary Survey in 1658 re-assessed Commoners rights to ‘Herbage, or Pawnage, Turbary, or Estovers’. Attempts to re-enclose the Forest met fierce resistance, and eventually over 6,000 acres were allocated as common land, mostly near villages and farms , with the remainder belonging to the Manor of Duddleswell, owned by Sackville, Earl of Dorset. Through the 18th and 19th century disputes rumbled on and by 1875, Ashdown Forest had passed through marriage to George Sackville-West, the fifth Earl de la Warr.

Today the common land, grazed by cattle and sheep, is predominantly heathland, and is overseen by the Conservators fo the Forest. Those properties that border the forest, sometimes within the original pale, still retain their rights for grazing and firewood, according to their landholding, and deer, now wild, still roam.

I continued my research, following the history of the Arts and Crafts house and garden that was my subject. Peering over old maps at the Barbican House Museum, the home of the Sussex Archeological Society, was a joy, as was reading interviews of the Commoners, conducted by William Raper in 1878 for evidence in their dispute with the Earl de la Warr over their rights (Raper, William, Residents of Ashdown Forest: 1878, Sussex Archaeological Society, Susex Room, 201412).

If you want to find out more about Ashdown Forest, I can recommend the following: East Sussex Records Office, especially for old maps including tithe maps,, The Weald of Kent, Surrey adn Sussex database, and, for links to many ancient maps, and information about the Forest,