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Springtime Sundays with Roger Nash#2

This week, local historian and geographer Roger Nash asks:

"Why is this area so wooded and was it always like this?"

Yes, and no!

The manorial system created a useful mixture – the lord’s house and estate, hunting parks, farmland, commons, mills, fisheries and extractive industry. The manorial courts run by a steward oversaw the administration. Manorial woodland was part sporting park, part timber resource, part industrial. Woodland was located in the outlying parts of the manor’s commons. It had some of the saleable assets – timber, clay (brick making), sand (glass making), animals such as deer and boar, with the associated sport.

The medieval ‘mens’ or gemaennes, was land held in common, for example The Mens, a tract of woodland, in the manor of Amberley, between Wisborough and Fittleworth, an SSSI included in the South Downs National Park. The Loxwood woods are similar, if not so big.

The amount of woodland cover has changed with the intake of assarted fields (though often still surrounded by wide wooded shaws valued by the farmer for their faggots and other timber). The farm names give the game way: Woodlands, Woodhouse, Songhurst (hurst meaning wood). By about 1800, the woodland had shrunk to its minimum. The rising value of timber in the Industrial Revolution and the Railway Age greatly reduced woodland cover but was followed by replanting on an unprecedented scale by the major landowners. Surviving Ancient Woodland (AW) can be found in the mosaic of this wider forest.

Above shows the AW clusters in the wider landscape.

AW in Loxwood includes Pephurst Woods, the Songhurst woodland, Woodlands Furze, Hurst Wood, Beggars Copse, Halffurze Field, and further woods nearer the river south of the Loxwood-Rudgwick road, and to the north on the Surrey border. Official designation of AW is an inexact science. In our area, constant exploitation of timber meant that for example Songhurst Furze and The Caddicks were semi-open woodland known as furze because of the encouragement of gorse and bracken for livestock bedding and because of the ancient practice of coppicing the underwoods of hazel and hornbeam.

This encouraged the ancient woodland indicator plants we love to see in Spring (photo: early purple orchid, at Brickkiln 2006).

The woodland is a mosaic of habitats and timber resources. Replanting in the Victorian period joined up the woods with new named areas: Great Scrubbs, Great Birchfield, The Caddicks. Long-term investments for sporting pleasure managed by the gamekeeper, and timber resources for future generations and in the 20th century, conifer plantations. Loxwood Clay Pits Ltd and or their owners, have been able to exploit this resource over the last 30 years, entirely due to their predecessors. To their credit they have replaced harvested conifers with native trees.

To side is an extract from the Wisborough Green tithe map, 1840, (source West Sussex County Council).

It does not show woodland very clearly, but look for Songhurst Furze, some of which is in the proposed pit site.

Symbols used indicate woodland, also in Great Scrubs, Hurst Wood, Woodlands Furze and Beggars Copse. Caddick Copse was not wooded at this time, classed as a field.

Written by Roger Nash, local historian and geographer as part of the Sussex Spring Watch programme.


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