Area 15: Savernake Forest and West Woods

Area in the Western part of the AONB, comprising the area of West Woods and Savernake Forest to the South of Marlborough.

A rich patina of layers of human land use. There are a considerable number of later prehistoric sites including enclosures, linear boundaries and field systems which have been recorded throughout Savernake Forest and the immediate area. Two major Iron Age centres are known. In the Roman period the Forest formed the heart of the Savernake Ware Roman pottery industry and there is evidence for two Roman Villa Sites. Early Medieval archaeology is dominated by the Wansdyke. Significant areas of ancient woodland survive. These are an important historical survivals representing the core of the Medieval hunting area, which were subsequently shaped by the Great Enclosure of the 17th century.

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Present Day Historic Landscape Character

Ancient TreeThe centre of the area is dominated by the ancient replanted woodlands, ancient woodlands and designed landscapes of Savernake. These become increasingly fragmented to the East, interspersed with surviving pre 1700 enclosure and post 1900 fields

The areas to the West of the river Dun is formed of small ancient woodlands and a mixed pattern of pre 1700 enclosure and post 1900 enclosure. On the eastern side of the river ancient woodland becomes increasingly frequent surrounded by modified 20th century fields except around the designed landscape 1700 to 1900 AD park at Stype Grange where pre 1700 field patterns survive.

The West of the area is dominated by the ancient replanted woodland of West Woods surrounded by modified 20th century fields with pre 1700 enclosure surviving to the South.

Crofton Beam EngineThe Kennet and Avon Canal is an important historic feature running parallel to the river Dun through Great Bedwyn and Little Bedwyn. The area includes the Crofton pumping station for the canal which was built 1802-09. The engines are the earliest steam beam engines still in working order. Another iconic feature is the Wilton Windmill this was built in 1821 and is the only complete windmill in Wiltshire.

Layers in the Landscape

The earliest archaeological evidence is the recovery of a Palaeolithic hand axe on the North side of Granham Hill to the South of Marlborough. The cropmark remains of a Neolithic causewayed enclosure at Crofton were discovered in 2001 as part of an English Heritage survey. Now entirely plough-levelled it is only visible as a cropmark on aerial photographs. A Neolithic long barrow was excavated above West Overton in the West of the area and one is known within West Woods.

Though sparse and few in number, the potential Bronze Age barrows appear either to be situated in prominent locations on the northern and southern edges of the Savernake massif or at the head of dry valleys. Several other cropmarks of ring ditches, also presumed to be Bronze Age round barrows, are known.

Immediately to the West of Crofton aBarrowerial photographs have revealed the cropmarks of a probable later prehistoric farmstead. A considerable number of potentially later prehistoric sites including enclosures, linear boundaries and field systems have been recorded throughout Savernake Forest and the immediate area. Most of the sites identified outside the woodlands had been plough-levelled and only visible as cropmarks. The largest area of probable prehistoric fields recorded during the NMP survey was seen to the South of the forest around Tottenham Park. Several prehistoric earthen banks and ditches are known to cross the area as well as dykes crossing the valleys.

There are two major Iron Age centres known in the area: Chisbury hillfort, a large multivallate hillfort and the possible late Iron Age oppidum at Forest Hill, possibly the regional capital prior to the Roman conquest large enclosure. The remains of a possible late Iron Age temple enclosure have been identified solely from lidar imagery in a heavily overgrown area within Savernake Forest. Another Iron Age or early Roman shrine has been found to the East of the 2nd -4th century AD villa site at Postern Hill. Another villa site is known at Villa Castle Copse, Great Bedwyn. A Roman road crosses the area cutting the forest.

The forest was the heart of the Savernake Ware Roman pottery industry. This industry almost certainly had its origins in, at the very least, the late Iron Age, and it is possible that some of the enclosures identified within the area were linked in some way to the pottery industry. Within Savernake Forest the combined sources of aerial photographs and lidar derived imagery have recorded a number of enclosures, many surviving as earthworks, probably the remains of small settlements or farmsteads of Iron Age or Roman date.

Early Medieval archaeology is dominated by the Wansdyke which dates to the 5th/6th century AD. It consists of a ditch and a running embankment from the ditch spoil, with the ditching facing North. It ran between Savernake Forest, through West Woods, to Morgan's Hill.

The history of the Medieval hunting forest of Savernake has been researched using documentary sources and more recently lidar derived imagery supplied by the Forestry Commission. Prior to the emparkment of Savernake Forest and the creation of the deer park known as Savernake Great Park in 1570s, there were originally five hunting lodges vaguely marked on early maps, their exact locations have been lost. The possible site of only one, the Great Lodge, is thought to have been identified from aerial photographs. Savernake Forest is littered with the traces of numerous hollow ways, many of which are almost certainly the remains of former routes through the forest. There is also evidence for the Great Enclosure of 17th century. Outside the forest Medieval archaeology includes the deserted Medieval Village of Shaw to the West of West Woods, and Medieval field systems to the East of the river Dun.

The far West of the area is dominated by the ancient woodland of West Woods. This was part of the Savernake Forest at its greatest extent but was disafforested by the 13th century. West Woods has been subsequently replanted. It is surrounded by pre 1700 irregular enclosure the southern part of which has been enclosed from heathland. These early enclosures were irregularly-shaped and slotted into the framework of the landscape that had been established by a dense network of deeply incised roads and tracks and open field boundaries. This suggests that they were enclosed on a gradual, piecemeal basis.

The area between West Woods and Savernake was dominated by pre 1700 regular enclosure which has obscured traces of previous land uses apart from the southern edge of the Kennet Valley where open fields were present. These were probably created following an agreement between local land-holders and farmers to rationalise and enclose holdings in the common fields.

The centre of the area is dominated by Savernake Forest which was an established royal hunting forest by the time of the Domesday survey, and in common with other royal forests was managed primarily for hunting of game, particularly deer by the King. Hunting rights and rights to gather tithes were granted by the king to various noblemen or the church, and the forest was used, abused and trespassed upon by commoners living around the periphery. Commoners and borderers (commoners living adjacent to the forest edge) exercised their rights to graze animals, collect firewood, brushwood and bracken. In 1280 the limits of the forest were much more extensive than now, running from West Overton to Denford beyond Hungerford. By the perambulation recorded in 1301, however, 80% of lands were disafforested, but two of the wooded parcels that remained correspond to what is now Savernake. Whilst there are several thousand ancient oaks and ancient beeches, as well as over a hundred ancient chestnut trees in the present forest, it must be remembered that a Medieval forest was a legal designation rather than a description and did not necessarily imply an abundance of trees. Given the importance of hunting in forests it is likely that in the Medieval period it would have been made up of sporadic copses and coverts for game. It was also likely to have been largely unenclosed until it passed into private hands in the 16th century at which point its deer were not protected by royal forest law and so a park pale was built (completed c 1600), some of which still survives. In the early 18th century there was a vigorous planting regime. 'Capability' Brown laid out the Grand Avenue, in the late 1790s. At its centre Eight Walks radiate out into the surrounding forest.

Historic Settlement Character

The historic settlement pattern is mixed. On the Western side of Savernake it consists of deserted Medieval villages and surviving isolated farmsteads. Isolated farmsteads occur directly to the East of Savernake with common edge settlements further South. In contrast nucleated and nucleated regular row settlements occur along the length of the River Dun.

Historic Farmstead Character

Isolated farmsteads are spread across the area, outside the wooded areas. There is a low-medium concentration of pre-1750 farmstead buildings.