a personal view in 2005
from Mary Spender
The Woods are set high (600ft)
above the valley. Looking down to the North, we can see the
villages nestling below; the A4 traffic is a moving strip in
mid-horizon, and Fyfield Down stretches out almost bare in its
patchwork of large open fields beyond. Natural folds in the
Downs give a wonderful feeling of space without appearing as
bleak, say, as the larger Downs to our West (towards Devizes) or
further South in the County.
on a misty morning, when we woodlanders are alone here, floating
above huge white clouds with no sign of the human world, there
is no feeling of isolation - only peace and rural beauty.
The approaches to the woods are all open fields, with byways and
footpaths giving access, except for the eastern (Clatford) side
along which runs the lane linking Clatford to the Marlborough/
Oare road. This lane has steep sheltered grazing all along the
opposite side to the Woods, much beloved by small chilly lambs
in early Spring.
The setting leads to glorious views as one walks or rides
around and into the woods.
Within the 1200 acres of woods, there is a leafy enclosed
feeling as one explores the various paths and rides
well-maintained by Forest Enterprise (gumboots or walking boots
are still necessary in the winter!). The bluebells in May are of
course famous and attract hundreds of visitors, but every day
the locals pass our property on foot or on horseback, young and
old, with dogs, alone, with large families, on bikes - the woods
are indeed well-loved.
Early in the morning or much later in the day, the deer come
out to graze in the peace and the woodland birds sing their
hearts out (keeping a wary eye open for the buzzards and sparrow
hawks). By nightfall, the place is quiet except for the owls and
the odd cry of a fox. The stars of course are fabulous.
Yes, the woods are a wonderful place to live: the peace and
quiet is unbelievable (and can be unnerving to city-dwellers..)
only broken by happy shouts of visiting children or, not so
pleasantly, by the chicken lorries grinding up to their farm
here on the Lockeridge side. The views are beautiful through all
the seasons, and there is a distinct feeling of timelessness and
history: the Woods have been managed since the Bronze Age, and
villagers first dwelt up here in the early Middle Ages.
The map below, kindly adapted by Nick Stedman from a map
belonging to the Forestry Commission, shows the current outline
of West Woods and all the names of the various woods, groves,
copses, and grounds that go to make up its 1200 or so acres!
Most are self-explanatory (Barrow Copse, Brick kiln Copse etc);
some we know (Mr Pumphrey was the farmer/landowner who built the
Manor farmhouse in West Overton where Michael and Priscilla
Maude now live), some we don’t (Pickrudge ??).
I have copies of more Forestry maps if any one is interested,
and I also have a copy of a species survey done some years ago
and now held in the Wiltshire and Swindon Biological Records
Centre. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to look
at any of the information I have, or if indeed you can add to
our knowledge. By the time you
are reading this, the series of archaeological walks we have
been advertising over our Parish may have taken place (w/e of
August 5th/6th/7th): led by Professor Fowler, they will no doubt
have explained a lot to us, and I for one am really looking
forward to them.
Historical Background to the Woods
West Woods is thought to have hardly changed its boundaries in
4,000 years and people have been visiting here since before the
Bronze Age. A good supply of flints had already tempted our
Stone Age ancestors, and when more sophisticated tools/weapons
were invented in the Bronze Age and then the Iron Age, West
Woods provided excellent charcoal facilities. For more
information on these early days, and also through the following
centuries, consult The Victorian History (volume XI) and Peter
Fowler’s “Lettice Sweetapple” and “Landscape Plotted and
Pieced”. Gill Swanton’s article in the July magazine described
the general history of our Parish.
Throughout this time, the Woods were well managed – yielding
wood for the villagers’ needs, grazing for livestock, pannage
for swine etc – but were also enjoyed: recreational hunting for
rabbits, foxes and deer has always been popular.
By the mid 18th century, the estates of the Duke of Pembroke (Pickrudge
and Pumphrey’s Wood and lands to the
south) and of the Duke of Marlborough (lands to the north) owned
the Woods. Good management continued - for example yielding
hurdles, thatching spurs and faggots from the hazel – and
aviaries flourished to provide pheasant shooting in the time of
the Meux family in the late 19th century. “Cover” for these
shoots could explain the “odd” rhododendron still to be seen.
More recent history shows the end of private ownership. The
Olympic Agricultural Company bought the Woods, and most of the
valley, in 1906. In 1914, their new Farm Manager was Frank
Swanton. In 1928, they sold to a consortium of local businessmen
who clear-felled the whole wood and then in 1931 sold 1008 acres
on to the Forestry Commission who re-planted mainly with beech (
the original oak and hazel coppice can be seen on the edges, but
beech still covers around 75%, with ash and sycamore, some
conifers, red cedar and pine making up the rest).
Pickrudge and Pumphrey’s Wood, 179 acres, were sold privately in
1917 and then sold on to the Forestry Commission in 1940.
Thus the Forestry Commission (now Forest Enterprise) have been
in control for over 60 years now, and their Foresters have been
part of the community: Bill Ayers was born here, in West Bailey,
and David Giles still lives in Lockeridge. In earlier days, two
Foresters lived in the two estate cottages beyond Breach House
and the Ranger himself lived in Forest Lodge.
Written by our own Bill Ayers in 1996, the Forest Enterprise
Design Plan for West Woods seeks to implement their now more
sympathetic attitude to restoration of ancient woodlands: since
about 1985, high density stocking is no longer pursued, and the
impact of felling on the landscape is now seriously considered.
The previous clear-felling policy is replaced by planned
thinning (don’t worry, they know they mustn’t go too far and
undermine the bluebells which so enjoy the close shade of the
Timber prices have been very low and objectives are no longer
only to meet the requirement of the strategic timber reserve and
to remain economically viable, but to grow more varied timber of
good quality, to encourage recreation and to support national
policies such as those covering our AONB (Area of Outstanding
Natural Beauty) and the SNCI status (Site of Nature Conservation
Importance) designated by the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust in 1984.
All good news to us!
(with thanks to Fraser Bradbury and Bill Ayers of Forest