The earliest known inhabitants of the forest date back to the Bronze Age and some remnants of this time can still be seen today in the boiling mounds and round barrows which occupy the modern landscape. Next in the Iron Age, the area was seen as one of opportunity by residents and those in the surrounding area, who cleared vast areas of woodland to begin cultivation of the rich soil. Again in some areas of the forest activity carried out in these times is still evident, especially around the area of Burley where the remains of Iron Age settlements can still be seen. This cultivation led to the soil in these areas gradually diminishing in quality and becoming infertile, which may have been a factor in William I decision to take the land for himself as a hunting ground. www.descol.hr
The Romans sent the area headlong into a fully operational settlement clearing much more woodland and creating a larger community than had been seen before. Pottery was a popular and profitable produce of the area during Roman times and much evidence of their earthenware still exists today and can be seen in museum and heritage centres across the forest. Rare evidence of Saxon settlements have been dug up in the New Forest including spearheads, glassware and a skeleton.
The forest itself was declared a royal hunting ground for William The Conqueror and dates back to 1071. It is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 and is the only forest in the book to be described in detail. This is likely to be due to the nature of its creation. In creating the forest in order to hunt mainly deer, William I tore down 36 local churches and every dwelling in between. A large number of hamlets and individual dwellings were lost, and the inhabitants left homeless. William drew new nicknames after this time, which we shall not share here lest they be unsuitable for the reader.
Forest laws were created to protect William’s deer and other animals for hunting. The animals were given more rights than the inhabitants, who it seems were deemed lucky to be allowed to share the land after their eviction and the decimation of their properties. Locals who could not fence off their land were given the ‘common right’ to graze their animals in the forest, coining the phrase ‘commoners’. This right still exists today and you will see many animals belonging to local residents throughout the forest every day. Forest Law ensured that locals did not interfere with the King’s animals, and penalties for doing so were harsh. William’s son William II (also known as Rufus) introduced mutiliation as a punishment for disregarding his father’s laws, and died in a mysterious hunting accident in the forest, as did his brother…
Many laws and rights created around the 11th century still exist in some form today, and are governed by the Verderers of the Forest. Today the Verderers aim to work in the best interests of the forest residents, while helping to preserve the natural beauty and non human inhabitants of the forest. Agisters are employed by the Verderers to watch over livestock and their welfare in the forest.
The New Forest is an area of major historical significance and outstanding natural beauty. Declared a National Park in 2006 it receives more visitors per year than any other forest in England (figures correct at time of writing) yet you can feel like the only people in the world in places due to the peaceful nature of the forest and the vastness of the landscape. To find out more about this astonishing area and its rich history visit the New Forest National Park. To tour the area 72% of visitors go self catering, many of these visiting with camper vans or caravans so they can easily move around and visit other areas of the forest. A large number of historians visit the area every year moving from place to place soaking up the past and visiting sites of historical significance, often coming back year after year to discover more.