Ancient and still surviving – The Great Forest of Middlesex

Well, when I say surviving,  I actually mean pockets of a great forest still survive.  It would be a parallel universe where an ancient forest , especially around London, still exists in its original form!  By pockets, I mean fragments now protected by being country parks and nature reserves such as Harrow Weald Common, Scratchwood  in Barnet and Queen’s Wood in Haringey.

Fragment of an ancient forest – the trail through Harrow Weald Common  (©Des Blenkinsopp)

The forest is mentioned in the Domesday Book as parcels of land – valuable land that provided fuel, industries, food and shelter.  Domesday Commissioners gave value to wooded land by the amount of swine it could afford to support during Autumn (pannage woods).  It seems that Middlesex, a rather small county compared to others at the time, had the larger pannage woods and could support approximately 20,000 swineherds!

Middlesex Coat of Arms, incorporating the seaxe, the preferred weapon of the Saxons


For those that know the County of  Middlesex, you will know it is basically now Outer London, Greater London etc etc and to think of all that London hubbub going on today, one cannot imagine a green oasis with streams, ancient oaks and valleys.  British History Online state there is no evidence of Anglo-Saxons using a ‘royal forest’ as such; William the Conqueror introduced  forest laws (royal forests) to protect their voracious passion for hunting;  this same source states that The Great Forest of Middlesex wasn’t actually a royal forest either.  A large area was owned by the de Mandeville and later the de Bohun families, whilst another large tract of forest, including Harrow, was owned by the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Whilst researching for my book, I came across the following quote:

The twelfth-century cleric and administrator in the employ of Thomas
Becket, William Fitzstephen, once wrote: ‘Not far off spreads out a vast forest, its
copses dense with foliage concealing wild animals – stags, does, boars, and wild
bulls.’ He also noted the hunting rights within Middlesex for citizens, thanks to
chase charters granted by Henry I and II. However, in 1218 the Great Forest of
Middlesex was disafforested by Henry III, thus losing its status as a royal forest
and became ordinary land.

Extract from ©Secret Hayes by Louise Wyatt

Watling Street was once an ancient trackway from Dover to Wales that cut through part of the Forest of Middlesex.  The Romans paved Watling  Street and parts of it are still in use today (not the Roman pavements, obviously!); sources state that Kilburn High Road and Edgware Road follow the old route through Middlesex.  Alfred the Great also used Watling Street in his partition treaty with the Danes.

The Domesday Book also recorded 38 vineyards, 6 of these being in Middlesex – would be interesting to know where exactly.  But that will be for another day.



Secret Hayes by Louise Wyatt




©Louise Wyatt



7 thoughts on “Ancient and still surviving – The Great Forest of Middlesex

  1. I can identify with this post, Louise. I live near a little village called Liss, that supposedly had a forest, but these days there just isn’t one. They still refer to the place as Liss Forest though!

  2. The Romans apparently used to grow grapes on Horsenden Hill, so that would likely account for at least one of the vineyards. Another fragment of ancient forest is Perivale Wood.

  3. This is an interesting find, Louise. It had me thinking I must be a son of Middlesex as I just got in before its absorption into Greater London. The wooded area to the north of Harrow Weald was known to us as Old Redding, we used to camp there in the Scouts. I was actually born nearer Ruislip and I guess the woods there must have been part of this ancient forest. The curiously named Mad Bess Wood which is now a nature reserve. According to wikipedia, timber from Ruislip’s woods was used to build the Tower of London. And evidence of a bronze age settlement which would predate Roman Britain.
    It’s a terrible history in its way when you think the ancient forests were decimated to make way for farmland, and, in turn, all that farmland was decimated to make way for Metroland, London suburbia. You might know the 19th century nature writer, Richard Jefferies, in his novel, After London, imagined a dense reforestation around London following an unexplained environmental catastrophe.

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