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.
Even 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 beech!).
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 Enterprise)