Landscape history fascinates me. The use to which the land has been put over time, the changes it has experienced, the tales it can tell are all extraordinary elements of our history. One thing I particularly love is walking through ancient woodland, taking tracks that have been used for centuries.
Last weekend we visited Bentley Wood and Blackmoor Copse. Bentley Wood was known to have existed before 1200AD when it was part of the ancient Forest of Melchet which in turn adjoined the Royal Forest of Clarendon. This woodland had probably been as royal chase as far back as the Saxon era. On the crest of a steep chalk hill that gives a distant view of Salisbury stood Clarendon Palace, the King’s residence when he came hunting there. This is now no more than an overgrown ruin.
The first King who is recorded as staying at Clarendon is William the Conqueror but the great days of Clarendon took place under King Henry II. For three or four centuries from the 1150s it was a favoured country palace of English royalty. It fell into disuse during the Wars of the Roses and by the time Elizabeth I went hunting there in 1574 the palace was in ruins. A map of 1667 shows rides through the wood, one of which was called “cock road drove,” a glade or clearing where woodcock were caught in nets. A later map of 1811 shows two cottages and an orchard in the wood.
The Forest held red deer, roe deer and fallow deer, wild boar and rabbit warrens. Fallow deer still roam the woods and we saw a herd there. There are also a number of beautiful ancient yew trees that date back centuries. In Blackmoor Copse is King Charles’ Pond, a gorgeous peaceful little spot where we saw some beautiful dragonflies and butterflies. It is said that the pool derives its name from the fact that this was where Charles II, on the run after the Battle of Worcester in 1651, deceived parliament troops hunting for him by disguising himself as a farm labourer. It is said that on some twilight evening the ghosts of the troops have been seen searching for him through the woods! We saw no ghosts on our trip but it was certainly atmospheric enough to imagine all sorts of spooky possibilities!