Flying in to Gatwick airport, over Sussex, Surrey and Kent, I’m often struck by how the elaborate tapestry of fields and woodland below belies the fact that this is the most crowded corner of the British Isles, home to millions of people.
It’s the same on the ground here in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), which stretches across most of Sussex and parts of Surrey and Kent. I know that I’m standing within one of the most densely populated protected landscapes in the UK, but I just can’t shake the feeling of peace, tranquillity and solitude. Rolling ridge lines that gently oscillate into the distance are interspersed by secluded valleys that support an irregular pattern of meadows, heathland and farmland divided by hedgerows and copses of ancient woodland.
Driving along one of the many roads that crown these ridges, it quickly becomes clear that you’re never far from someone’s home. Your eye is frequently drawn to the white tip of an oast house peeping from behind a hedgerow, an attractive timber-framed farmhouse nestling at the end of a lane, or a weather-worn sandstone church that looks as if it’s been hewn straight from the ground.
‘The High Weald is a very human landscape,’ says Sally Marsh, joint director of the AONB. ‘It has one of the highest population levels of any protected landscape, but it doesn’t feel like it. The reason is our dispersed historic settlement pattern. Ever since people settled here, they’ve been living and intimately working in this landscape, which meant they needed to be close to it.’
With an estimated population of 121,000, the AONB is, indeed, well populated for a protected area, but because most live among scattered farmsteads, hamlets and villages, it retains a surprisingly rural feel. The region’s largest built-up area, the historic market town of Battle, is home to just 5,500 people, and there are around 100 villages to be found here, yet 38 per cent of the population lives outside of the villages in the countryside on historic farmsteads.
Since April 2006, the AONB has been running a research project into the character of High Weald settlements. ‘We’ve surveyed all of the historic farmsteads on the High Weald using GIS,’ says Marsh. ‘We’ve counted between 2,500 and 3,000 dispersed across the AONB, which means you can’t walk very far without being able to see one.’
The underlying geology has dictated the appearance, water resources and vegetation of the High Weald, which, in turn, have determined the settlement patterns, economic activity, accessibility and even architecture that, over thousands of years of human colonisation, have given the region its unique character.
‘You have the North and South Downs on either side of the AONB, stretching from Horsham in the west to Hastings in the south, then you have the Low Weald, which encircles the High Weald – a very resistant dome of sandstone,’ says Jason Lavender, joint director of the AONB.
This resistant rock is exposed at regular intervals across the AONB as distinct sandstone outcrops, such as High Rocks near Tunbridge Wells and Harrison’s Rocks near Bewl Water. Elsewhere, particularly in the AONB’s wooded parts, the sandstone ridges have been exposed to the action of fast-flowing water over millions of years, creating steep-sided ravines, known locally as gills.
The streams that run in the gills are fast flowing in winter and gentle trickles in summer, but remain sheltered, shaded and damp for most of the year, providing the perfect conditions for a variety of rare and unusual plant species. ‘The gills are internationally important for cryptogams, mosses, liverworts, ferns and lichens, as well as for particularly rare species such as the Tunbridge filmy fern,’ says Marsh.
The hard sandstone also proved to be a first-rate building material. ‘There’s only one sandstone quarry remaining in use, very successfully, in West Hoathly [West Sussex],’ says Marsh. ‘But there are a multitude of old quarries dotted across the landscape – you might see a barn that has an oast house fitting, and nearby there’ll be a little quarry supplying whatever material its construction needed at the time.’
The soils are also rich in iron ore, which not only gives the gill streams a faint orange hue, but also led to the establishment of a flourishing iron industry, visible today as disused hammer ponds and slag heaps.
Stone and brick to build the furnaces was hauled straight from the ground; the woodland provided the charcoal fuel; and the numerous small streams powered the bellows and hammers of forges and furnaces. This fortuitous set of geological circumstances ensured that for two periods – in the first 200 years of Roman occupation and during Tudor and early Stuart times – the Weald was the main iron-producing region in Britain.
But the woodland is the real jewel in the crown of this AONB. Any visitor walking from the exposed open countryside of the North or South Downs into the Weald is immediately confronted with patches – known locally as shaws – of mixed woodland, which are considered to be a key component of the AONB’s character.
‘This is one of the most wooded areas in the country – it has seven per cent of the UK’s ancient woodland,’ says Marsh. ‘Three quarters of that is ancient – which technically means that it has been wooded since the 1600s – but we know, ecologically and culturally, that these woodlands have been wooded a lot longer than that.’
Some of the oldest trees in the woodlands have only survived because of frequent human intervention. ‘You can get coppice stools that are around 400 years old, showing that the woodlands have been managed for hundreds and hundreds of years,’ says Lavender.
While the Downs, and indeed much of England, became permanently settled and flourished as farming communities, the Weald stayed relatively uncultivated. By Domesday (1086), it remained the most densely wooded area of England. On the Downs, settlers were able to graze livestock and cultivate the well-drained soils found there, while the heavy clay soils of the Weald, along with the undulating, closed nature of the landscape, made agriculture almost impossible and access, particularly during the wet winter months, very difficult.
“This is one of the most wooded areas in the country – it has seven per cent of the UK’s ancient woodland”
But what the Weald lacked in open fertile agricultural land, it more than made up for in raw materials. Even the earliest known people to arrive in the area were quick to capitalise on them, periodically coming in to take what they needed before returning to their settlements.
Early Anglo-Saxon settlers from outside the High Weald began to exploit the area’s woodlands, not only for timber, but for a seasonal source of food for their livestock – mast from beech trees and acorns from oaks, which grow profusely in the Wealden clays.
From as far back as the Neolithic period (4300–1400 BC), farmers from the South Downs, North Downs and coastal plains would drive their pigs into the woods each year in late summer or early autumn to fatten them up; a practice called pannage. The area became known as Britain’s pannage stronghold, and by 1086, Domesday records indicate that about 150,000 pigs would have been driven to and from the woods of the High and Low Weald each year, with many farmers returning to the very same clearings – known locally as dens – in the Weald year after year.
‘We’ve done some initial work [on the droving routes], but this is an area we want to look into,’ explains Lavender. ‘The story goes that the Downs tended to be more permanently settled, because it was easier to live there, but through transhumance, these traditional routes started to develop and certain villages on the Downs had traditional grazing grounds that they would keep going back to.’
This frequent passage of pigs and drovers led to the formation of tracks, known as droves, connecting the dens to their parent villages on the Downs. ‘Gradually, the clearings at the end of the route ways were settled for longer parts of the year, and they eventually separated from the manors back on the Downs and were sold on,’ explains Marsh. ‘So you have these small settlements springing up and being inhabited for longer and longer periods, and buildings going up, which is why you have so many of these special little settlements around the Weald.’ Today, villages with the word ‘den’ or ‘hurst’ in the name are testimony to this historical practice.
“The High Weald is a very human landscape. It has one of the highest population levels of any protected landscape, but it doesn’t feel like it”
Centuries of erosion from countless trotters, feet and hooves – and, later, cartwheels – have worn the soft ground away so that, today, many of the routes have deeply sunken tree-lined sections that can be seen today as bridleways, lanes and pathways that provide a perfect habitat for wildflowers such as wood anemones and dog’s mercury.
Wildflowers can also be found in the unimproved grassland found in the High Weald – another of the AONB’s key components and the subject of another project, the Weald Meadows Initiative, which is aimed at regenerating and linking up the complex of semi- and unimproved meadows.
‘More than 95 per cent of this type of grassland habitat has been lost in the UK,’ says Dawn Brickwood, the AONB’s meadows officer. ‘Much of this happened after the Second World War, so we’re trying to advise farmers and landowners to carry out positive grassland management, such as cutting the grass for hay and light grazing, to help conserve the rich diversity of species they contain. We’re also conducting seed harvesting and reseeding programmes.’
This is great news for rare plants such as the green-winged orchid and adder’s tongue fern, as well as the battalions of crickets, butterflies, bumblebees and other invertebrates that thrive in the High Weald grassland, and which, in turn, attract and support birds and mammals.
Even though many past practices, such as pannage and charcoal making, are no longer in use today, they’ve helped to create a mosaic of habitats that have remained relatively unchanged for centuries. And with the many projects striving to safeguard them, it should be possible for future visitors to England to look down on the High Weald from the air and appreciate the astonishingly rural scene below – although it’s far more impressive from the ground.
This was published in the May 2008 edition of Geographical magazine.