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New Forest Notes: Uncovering the traces of the Roman occupation

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UNTIL the last few decades virtually nothing was known about the occupation and use of the New Forest in Roman times.

The exception to this was the use of the industrial area which occupied parts of Ashley, Broomy and Eyeworth Walks, and a network of two or three supposed Roman roads.

Now, following years of patient research in the field by the New Forest History and Archaeology Group, we know about 25 occupation sites scattered across the Forest from Cadnam in the north east to Burley in the south west. Most of the sites date from the third to fourth centuries.

We know this because the discoveries include locally made pottery of that period, but what purpose the sites served remains largely unknown. Several in the Burley area were concerned with the manufacture of pottery, but others may have been no more than small farming settlements.

The big problem with research into this period of history is that discovery is limited to the tiny portions of the Forest where the surface of the ground is disturbed and where distinctive pottery comes to light. This disturbance depends upon such things as forestry work, animal burrows and on trees uprooted by storms.

Roman pottery from the Burley area
Roman pottery from the Burley area

All of this is of no use without the skilled people necessary to search for and record the evidence of Roman occupation and they are very limited in number.

The most recent discovery was made last month between Burley and Brockenhurst when, against all the odds, a member of the local survey team (whose eyesight is a great deal better than mine) discovered a tiny fragment of grey pottery no more than 15mm across protruding from an upturned root plate. That led in turn to the finding of several other pieces close by.

When one considers that so little of the Forest is disturbed, but has still yielded 25 sites, there must be many times that number which remain concealed. The photograph shows finds from this newly discovered site.

The New Forest History and Archaeology Group has also been responsible for the only recent excavation work directed to the Roman Forest, under the group’s chairman, Professor Tony King.

He has been working on a site on the outskirts of Brockenhurst which was discovered in 1982. In his latest report, issued last month, he raises the intriguing possibility that this is a small Roman villa. If that proves to be the case (and Prof. King’s evidence seems convincing), it will be the first such site to be found on Forest land.

I don’t think one should imagine a luxurious country house such as figures in the activities of Time Team. This is more likely to have been a small complex of buildings, perhaps including a house and workshops, but as yet the excavations are at a very early stage.

Prof. King has also published some previously unseen research undertaken by the late Arthur Clarke into the Roman roads of the New Forest and in particular that road supposed to have run from Cadnam to Lymington.

Here we are in much more uncertain territory because Roman roads which are followed by modern highways are more difficult to identify than those remote from later disturbance. Certainly some of the evidence in support of this road seems to me rather questionable.

On the other hand, Mr Clarke identified a far more certain Roman road from Godshill to Fritham. That road probably continued to Stoney Cross where it joined another along the line of the A31, but to the east of Fritham much was destroyed by the building of an aerodrome.

It is interesting, but perhaps just coincidence that many of the recorded Roman settlements in the New Forest are within a few hundred metres of the road network, while the road west of Fritham passed through the centre of the later industrial area.

Development at Scrag Hill

Just to the north of Rhinefield House on the Ornamental Drive lies a place which used to be called Scrag Hill Nursery. It was created in the 19th century when the Crown timber plantations were expanding rapidly across the Forest and places were required to nurture young trees for subsequent transplanting.

After the Second World War it ceased to have any commercial purpose and gradually evolved into a sort of low key arboretum.

Shortly afterwards various tourist trails were laid out throughout the surrounding plantation (Vinney Ridge). By degrees all of this began to expand into the major honeypot site it has become today. This occurred without any attempt by the Forestry Commission to consult the Verderers’ Court.

To be fair, I suppose the Court tended to turn a blind eye to what was going on, because the surrounding area was a plantation and not Open Forest.

It contented itself with illustrating, within its policy document, an ‘ornamental’ archway between the lavatory block and the nursery and observing that this was an attempt to gild the lily, saying: “The Forest is a beautiful place in its own right and does not need ‘enhancing’ with sculptures and other urban clutter.”

Perhaps things might have been allowed to rest there, but recently there has been an explosion of recreational development on the site, all without the Court’s approval, financed in part by the National Lottery – presumably on the application of the Forestry England, the national park or both.

The legal status of this development is uncertain, but there can be no doubt about its effect on the character of the Forest.

The work comprises carvings littered about the place (very large fir cones), trails, notice boards, a rustic bridge, innumerable seats, yet more ornamental arches and all the paraphernalia of an urban park.

All this would be ideal in the centre of Southampton and a delight for small children wanting to enjoy a green space in a town environment, but is it really what the New Forest is all about?

The ethos of the national park (recreational use and development above all else) seems to be seeping into every crevice of the New Forest.

I know perfectly well that the statutory purposes of national parks are quite different from this, but practically it is the dominant local theme trying to dictate how the New Forest is managed.

Not for the first time it raises the question of what the forces which should be protecting the unspoilt character of the Forest have been doing. All of this has been going on in plain sight, yet it seems to have raised no questions about either its legality or desirability.

Verderers’ records

Large amounts of precious historical records of the New Forest disappeared in the first half of the 20th century, including all the minutes of the Verderers’ Court prior to 1877. It was a tragedy for which war salvage was probably a prime culprit.

Still, by the early 1970s, there was a certain amount remaining and the modern verderers wisely ensured its survival by sending much of it to the Hampshire Records Office in Winchester. Since that time old papers have initially been transferred to storage in the cellar beneath Queen’s House.

Then, as the small area allocated to the court was put under increasing pressure, the verderers have, from time to time, employed retired people with expertise in records or libraries to sort through the accumulated material. The process comprises recommending some for transfer to Winchester, some for retention by the office, and some for destruction.

I have usually assisted these experts, while the clerk to the verderers sits in final judgement on their recommendations. Several days spent in the cellar, in a thick atmosphere of dry rot treatment fumes, is not an entirely enjoyable experience, although the storage area has recently received an upgrade with much replastering and new filing shelves.

The latest phase of this sorting is now underway and marks something of a watershed in the recorded history of the New Forest. The batch of papers now being packed up for the record office includes the last of the pre-email era and I find that rather sad.

Since the court, like other public bodies, has an email deletion policy and very few people these days write letters, future records are likely to be confined to sanitized public documents with little for future generations of local historians to get their teeth into.

The chilling effect on candid expressions of opinion, caused by freedom of information law, has worsened the situation. Now nobody says in writing what they truly think about some official or policy, for fear that it will be extracted from the court by a FOI application. Instead the telephone is used for many comments and that is not much use to historians.

Bark stripping report

The Forestry Commission has just issued the results of its investigation into the outbreak of bark stripping by ponies in the central part of the Forest, south of Bolderwood (Bark stripping by New Forest ponies produced by Forest Research).

The report records the widespread damage which occurred in the winters of 2015/16 and 2016/17. The assessors found that 665 trees were affected over these two seasons, many of them large and ancient beeches. Photographs of the damage are included in the report.

Following the removal of the individual ponies chiefly responsible for the damage the surveyors found only a small number of newly affected trees in the winter of 2017/18, with only limited damage.

The authors of the report conclude that mineral deficiency does not appear to offer an adequate explanation for the damage observed. They record the suggestion that bark stripping is a learnt behaviour and I think that accords well with the experience of many horse keepers whose animals, despite having excellent nutrition in fields, can start to attack hedges with enthusiasm, often leading to complete destruction.

Once one horse has started on this sort of damage, its companions are quick to follow. At the first signs of damage I apply creosote immediately around the affected stems and that usually stops the trouble at once. Of course, that is not a remedy that can be used in the Forest and removal of the offenders is the only option.

At only 14 pages this is a succinct and useful report and relatively free of the tedious jargon which today infects so much scientific writing about the New Forest. The report was funded by the verderers’ HLS scheme.

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