Always a pleasure to break off from copywriting, drive into Bowland and stop off at the Inn at Whitewell for lunch. It’s not just that Whitewell is such a fantastic pub, with wonderful food, beer, views and ambience, it’s that when you enter Bowland you’re entering a place with a unique and distinctive heritage. The Forest of Bowland is a world unto itself.
Perhaps a word of explanation is in order. England is not famous as a wooded country – many of our European neighbours have a far higher percentage of woodland cover than we do. This leads many folk to become bemused when they look at an OS map and see the term ‘Forest’ liberally printed across tracts of
Of course the answer lies deep in the middle ages, when ‘forest’ denoted land preserved as the monarch’s hunting country. In those far-off times the term did not necessarily indicate trees at all; in fact, forests might include moorland or heath, with occasional copses, patches of marshland and wooded valleys. If the nobility set a piece of such land aside for hunting, this was referred to as a ‘chase’ – and places such as Cannock Chase and Hatfield Chase are still worth a visit. If a king did the same, then it was a ‘forest’ – sometimes called a ‘royal forest’.
It was the Normans, led by William the Conqueror, who introduced the forest system after their conquest of 1066. Previously Anglo-Saxon kings had retained territories for hunting, but not on the massive, systematic scale of the Normans. Perhaps a third of England’s territory had become royal forest by the thirteenth century! Of course many among the Norman nobility became obsessed with hunting deer and wild boar, because for them the hunt was practice for warfare. In the middle ages everyone from the rank of knights and nobles went to the battlefield on horseback, and the skills they needed were honed in the chase. If Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, maybe Agincourt was won in the medieval hunting forests of England?
Falconry was central to forest culture too and kings and nobles employed falconers whose lives revolved around preparing birds to hunt the smaller quarry (T.H. White’s The Goshawk paints a memorable picture of the life of the medieval falconer). It is probably not too much of an exaggeration to claim that life for the nobility of the middle ages revolved around the great culture of the forests and the pursuit of game. Many an ornately-woven medieval tapestry, hanging on the walls of some castle or country house, portraying horsemen, hounds and hawks, gives us an insight into the great forests and the hunts that went on in them during that long-gone period.
Each forest was overseen by a chief steward or master forester and for Bowland some of the great names among the local nobility of Lancashire and Yorkshire held this role – Stanleys, Shireburnes and Towneleys. The steward (or sometimes his deputies) would attend the Courts of Woodmote and Swainmote which met three times each year to deal with offences against the ‘vert and venison’ of the forest (vert meant all plants and trees, venison all animals). The house of the steward of Bowland Forest still exists: it’s the Inn at Whitewell! Few of the customers frequenting it know of its central role in overseeing the forest in the past.
But perhaps the very best place to go to appreciate the royal forests is Browsholme Hall, not far from Whitewell. Here the aptly-named Parker family lived and worked. Their highly appropriate coat of arms was three stags’ heads on a green and gold shield. They claimed the title of ‘Bowbearers of Bowland’ – essentially they ran the forest and all its business. Browsholme Hall displays the famous ‘dog gauge’, a metal ring through which all locals’ dogs had to be able to pass. Those too large were seen as a potential threat to the game of the forest.
Of course the royal forests couldn’t last forever. By the time of the Industrial Revolution the forest system had all but ended. Fields divided by dry-stone walls or hawthorn hedges covered the land where red deer once roamed. Yet the atmosphere of the past lingers on. And when I see one of those tapestries showing lords and ladies, horses, hounds and hawks, in a beautiful forest setting, I can’t help but think that the forests of the middle ages must have been wonderful, pristine places – but then I never did like the modern world of malls and motorways ……