This is the first in a series of posts about the Mortimer Forest. It is the only post of the series where I will be expressing my personal opinions and explaining why I think this beautiful, historic place deserves to be preserved. Then its back to business as usual, gathering the wool that is our medieval past together, preparing it and weaving it into a narrative that tells the story of the people who lived there.
WHY I’VE CHOSEN TO STUDY THE MEDIEVAL HISTORY OF MORTIMER FOREST
The Mortimer Forest covers an area of approximately 16km2 across the borders of Herefordshire and Shropshire. The remaining land comprises the medieval hunting parks of Bringewood Chase and Norbache Park. In the medieval period, these parks were part of a network of woodlands, other hunting parks and shoots, narrow passages for moving deer. Much of the medieval forest was held by an important March family, the Mortimers of Wigmore. They had a hand in some of the most tumultuous episodes of English history. Yet the history of the Forest which now bears their name appears under explored. David Lovelace, has written an excellent paper focusing on Bringewood Chase, which covers the post medieval period in detail. Therefore I plan to investigate and draw on the surviving medieval records to construct a picture of the forest, its people and its communities.
My reasons for embarking on this project are many. I have an interest in Forest Law and had been undertaking related research for a colleague. I was also looking for information about the area in the early 15th century to expand my research into the Poynings family. Finally I had discovered that despite being pretty much undeveloped since Domesday, Juniper Hill within the Mortimer Forest, is threatened with development. Any additional information I could find, may prove useful.
Mortimer Forest is known to be ecologically sensitive and valuable, supporting many rare and endangered species. A recent short research trip to explore the forest and its environs, really helped me to understand the impact of the proposed development of “high end” holiday cabins with hot tubs, by Forest Holidays, a company part owned by the Forestry Commission, a government body which manages woodlands throughout the country. To their credit they have been restoring much of the ancient woodland within Bringewood Chase and working hard to conserve the rare and endangered fauna and flora.
The area surrounding Mortimer Forest is a patchwork of fields, some growing crops and others supporting livestock. The hedgerows were in full bloom, with May blossoms, cow parsley and bluebells. Dotted amongst the greenery are small communities full of black and white houses and ancient churches. Mortimer Forest, lying at its heart is the jewel in the crown. Beautiful ancient woodland and pine plantations, are criss-crossed by lanes and pathways that have been present for centuries. Sitting beneath the trees, the only sounds, I heard were a rich mixture of birdsong. The atmosphere is like an ancient church, conveying a depth of history, a sense of all that has gone before, overlaid with a deep peace. Although in truth, the peacefulness belies much of its story.
Mortimer Forest does not fulfill Natural England’s criteria for ancient woodland (8). A complex assessment involving the study of old maps, information about the wood’s name, shape, internal boundaries, location relative to other features, ground and aerial surveys, shows changes in land use since the 17th century, which are mainly agricultural. Leaving only the western fringes and a small area in the parish of Richard’s Castle which meet the UK government definition:
“Any area that has been wooded since 1600AD, and includes any ancient semi-natural woodland mainly made up of trees and shrubs native to the site, usually arising from natural regeneration. Any plantations on ancient woodland sites – replanted with conifer and broadleaved trees that retain ancient woodland features, such as undisturbed soil, ground flora and fungi”. *
However the National Planning Framework states that “when designating conservation areas, local planning committees should ensure that an area justifies such status because of its special architectural or historic interest”.
I would argue that the complex history and ecology of the area now known as The Mortimer Forest and Juniper Hill is of special interest. Its sensitive ecosystem is protected by laws supporting the conservation of the rare and endangered species found there. The surviving medieval buildings, earth works and ruins in its immediate environment are protected by strict laws, which prevent their destruction.
The changes in the landscape tell an important story. Not just of the immediate area but of England and Wales. Of historic struggles between the peoples of both nations and the complex relationships between them. The story of the people who lived through complex and troublesome times. Who knew both security and fear. Plenty and famine. Life and death. People who adapted an ever changing world. The surviving medieval documents allow us to know some of their names. To glimpse the complex social hierarchy many of them navigated on a daily basis. To construct an impression of their families and their lives.
The proposed development will undoubtedly impact on the environment and ecology of the forest and its environs. Juniper Hill, currently a conifer plantation is said to have little conservation value in its own right. However it is a rutting ground for a rare subspecies of fallow deer exclusive to this forest. It is also part of the lands held by the Mortimers of Wigmore, which became Royal Forest by the mid-fifteenth century, with the accession of Edward IV, giving it historical worth.
In addition to the cabins, Forest Holidays, want to create tarmac hard standings for cars, which will impact on land drainage. Locally, there are many homes displaying large red placards calling for the proposed development to be halted. Their objections are not due to NIMBY-ism. They understand the land, their community and its infrastructure. Viewing the area which will be affected by the proposal, an area of high ground overshadowing the ancient woodland of High Vinnals has given me a better insight into its potential problems. The presence of the cabins will affect the rutting deer. The local infrastructure is not designed to support the extra traffic. The only road to the site is a single carriageway A road. Heavily congested in the summer, it is the main route to the nearby historic town of Ludlow.
Developing green spaces also affects quality of life and sense of wellbeing. Many successful mental health programmes include the opportunity to access nature, work on the land and grow things. Exercise is also known to improve physical health and aid weight-loss. As a nation we are facing a health crisis, where demand for services across the board outstrips availability. We should be jealously guarding all beautiful green space that encourages Britons to get outdoors, especially unique areas like the Mortimer Forest. We need its special combination of green space, birdsong, serenity, closeness to the natural world, and history. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to fight for these places. These special wild spaces are our legacy, in a way holiday cabins will never be.
The benefits of preservation significantly outweigh the risk of damaging the forest with development. Once damaged can it truly be restored wholly to its former glory? Can we revive the ancient species its destruction will make extinct? Essentially no. We need to reframe the questions we ask when planning such significant changes. Since the Industrial Revolution reached its zenith, we have expected nature to bend to our will. Progress and new technology are seen as the way forward. Now we are reaping the results and as outlined above, they aren’t great for us as a species.
We have a responsibility to protect a complex environment, that includes ancient woodland, wood pasture, chase, parks, common land and enclosed farmland. This does not make the area any less historically valuable than if it was wholly ancient woodland. On a positive note, the campaign to save Juniper Hill from development has really awakened interest in the history, archaeology, biodiversity, and ecology of this complex landscape, that is still to reveal many secrets. (With thanks to David Lovelace for the additional information and guidance)
We can build the cabins, that’s a given. But it is better to ask whether we should.
Asking “Should”… provides the opportunity to ask deeper questions and arrive at a more considered response to the idea. Should… encourages us to consider the impact of damaging our environment further. It challenges us to leave a better planet for our descendants. Allows us to learn how this land benefits the local community, the nation and the world at large. Arrives at answers which put both land and communities at the heart of the decision making process.
All images (c)Bev Newman 2018 unless otherwise stated
 Lovelace D (2005, 2017) Bringewood Chase and Surrounding Countryside.
 Walling J (ed) (2015) The Life and Times of Mortimer Forest in a Nutshell. West Midlands Butterfly Conservation. http://www.h-trees.net/pub/Mortimer%20Forest%20In%20A%20Nutshell.pdf accessed 18.5.2018
 Forest Holidays (2018) Forest Holidays and the Forestry Commission – A deep rooted partnership. [Online] https://www.forestholidays.co.uk/about-us-for-guests/forestry-commission accessed 25/5/2018
 Department of Planning and Development (2018) Ancient Woodland and Veteran Trees: Protecting Them From Development [online] https://www.gov.uk/guidance/ancient-woodland-and-veteran-trees-protection-surveys-licences Accessed 16.5.2018
 Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (2012) National Planning Policy Framework 12 – Conserving and Enhancing the Historic Environment [online] https://www.gov.uk/guidance/national-planning-policy-framework/12-conserving-and-enhancing-the-historic-environment Accessed 16.5.2018
 The James Hutton Institute et al (2014) Green Health Information Note 7 – Contribution of Green and Open Space in Public Health and Wellbeing [online] http://www.hutton.ac.uk/sites/default/files/files/projects/GreenHealth-InformationNote7-Contribution-of-green-and-open-space-in-public-health-and-wellbeing.pdf accessed 25/5/2018
 Natural England (2016) Green Space and Health [online] file:///C:/Users/User/Downloads/POST-PN-0538.pdf Accessed 25.5.2018
(8) Natural England (2018) Natural Woodland Inventory https://data.gov.uk/dataset/9461f463-c363-4309-ae77-fdcd7e9df7d3/ancient-woodlands-england
(9) Walling J (ed) (2015) The Life and Times of Mortimer Forest in a Nutshell. West Midlands Butterfly Conservation. http://www.h-trees.net/pub/Mortimer%20Forest%20In%20A%20Nutshell.pdf accessed 30.5.2018
file:///C:/Users/User/Downloads/POST-PN-0538.pdf Accessed 25.5.2018