Alone of the medieval forests of Wiltshire, Savernake conforms to our notion of what a royal hunting forest was like. Guidebooks have eulogized it: there is nothing like it in England, its magnificent expanse, with glorious old oaks and beeches, and in other districts, wild forest growth of thorn and bracken and bush, with beautiful open glades where deer wander. That was published in 1911, but despite the subsequent vicissitudes of war, tempest and the Forestry Commission, the description is still correct, and the charms of Savernake continue to attract walkers, campers, naturalists and the partakers of barbecues. What is quite incorrect, however, is our notion of modern Savernake as a medieval forest, and a few lines will be well spent in trying to trace its evolution.

The first reference to the wood which is called Safernoc occurs in a charter of 933/4 describing land nearby, but the name is thought to be of Celtic origin and so a good deal older. Its derivation may be similar to that of the River Severn, but the meaning, and the extent of the woodland during the Saxon period, are uncertain. The presence of a royal huntsman at nearby Burbage in the eleventh century suggests that by the time of the conquest the area was already fulfilling its later function, and by 1130, when the forest is first mentioned as such, this must have been formalised.


Savernake Parish in 1773

A medieval forest was a legal designation, rather like a modern national park, which did not imply royal ownership nor an abundance of trees, but which did impose restrictions on what landowners, farmers and inhabitants could do within the area so designated. The restrictions were designed to encourage and conserve animals for hunting, but created economic blight and personal hardship for those unlucky enough to find themselves under forest jurisdiction. And by the twelfth century the area involved was very considerable, as perambulations of Savernake made between 1175 and 1199 define the forest as extending from East Kennett and Pewsey in the west to Collingbourne Kingston in the south, the River Kennet in the north and the Hampshire and Berkshire borders in the east.

Although some woodland was undoubtedly to be found in this area it is likely to have taken the form of sporadic copses and coverts rather than continuous tracts of what we think of as forest. To police and administer this substantial area according to forest law a large bureaucracy of foresters, rangers, regarders and woodwards existed under the control of a warden a hereditary office enjoyed successively by the families of Esturmy (until 1427), Seymour (until 1675) and Ailesbury, to the present day. The symbol of their authority since the fourteenth century has been a magnificent hunting horn of ivory inlaid with engraved silver bands.

From the later thirteenth century (strictly speaking from the signing of Magna Carta in 1215) the medieval forests began a period of retrenchment and fragmentation. In 1301 a new perambulation of Savernake was drawn, and this was confirmed and implemented thirty years later. Some 80% of the lands were disafforested, and what remained lay in five parcels, probably corresponding to the most heavily wooded or least populated portions of the five bailiwicks into which the larger forest had been divided. Three of these parcels lay detached and at some distance from the present forest Hippenscombe, Southgrove and Bedwyn Brail but the other two, known as the Farm (or Verme) and West Bailiwicks, correspond roughly to the modern parish of Savernake.

Savernake, however, was not a parish in medieval times. Parts of it lay in Preshute, Little Bedwyn and other bordering parishes, and the remainder, which was probably very sparsely populated, was considered to be extra-parochial. Only during the 1850s was the area parished for both civil and ecclesiastical purposes, and not until 1934 were the two resulting civil parishes of North and South Savernake combined to form the modern civil parish of Savernake. The ecclesiastical boundaries are different, so that the present parish church of Savernake, St Katharine's, lies in fact in the civil parish of Great Bedwyn (it shared responsibility for the forest with another Victorian church, now closed Christ Church, Cadley). Although a modern creation, however, the curiously irregular boundary of the civil parish in fact reflects much earlier developments, and so we must return to the middle ages.

The boundaries west of the A346 Marlborough-Burbage road correspond roughly with those of the West Bailiwick defined by the perambulation of 1301. This bailiwick had by 1464 been subdivided, and was controlled by three under-foresters, responsible for Pantawick (the northern part overlooking Marlborough), West Baily (the central part), and Iwode (the southern excrescence which surrounds Brimslade). Had Savernake suffered the fate (or rather enjoyed the liberation) of the other Wiltshire forests it would like them have been disafforested and sold by the crown during the seventeenth century. However, under the early Tudors the Seymour family, hereditary wardens, was in the ascendant, and during the power vacuum which followed the death of Henry VIII in 1547 Edward Seymour (who was the late king’s brother-in-law) was created Duke of Somerset and Protector of the Realm during Edward VI’s minority. The zenith of his power was brief and came to the abruptest of ends in 1552 when he was executed, but in 1548 or thereabouts he had been successful in obtaining Savernake as a gift from the crown. More significant, his descendants managed to retain it following his disgrace.

But in private hands the forest and its deer could not be protected by royal forest law, and so to deter would-be poachers an ambitious emparking programme was undertaken, which by 1600 resulted in two large parks being formed out of the West Bailiwick Brimslade Park from Iwode, and the Great Park from Pantawick and West Baily. A stretch of the park pale embankment survives along the southern edge of the Brimslade park beside the road from Ram Alley. And at Clench Common it is interesting to see that the modern parish boundary (following the line of the park pale) does not run along the road but is set back, in places only a few metres to the north. This was presumably done so as to exclude roadside buildings and holdings from the park, but more recently it has had the effect, not only of creating in places an overgrown wilderness between the road and the boundary, but also of dictating that certain buildings, such as the Old Chapel (first recorded as a chapel-of-ease in 1907, and now privately owned), should be set back from the road so as to lie on the Savernake side of the boundary.

A traveller between Burbage and Marlborough in 1600, therefore, would have seen the new parks on his left a large, relatively flat area with few trees, and mainly heathland or rough pasture and on his right what was by then known as The Forest Unpaled, an unenclosed area of waste, heath and patches of coppice woodland. The main road (now the A346) was known as 'The Great Bound', and separated the two sections of the Seymour inheritance. By 1700 a series of family misfortunes had resulted in the disparking of both the Great Park and Brimslade Park. and their conversion to the enclosed farmland of today, with scattered farmhouses, such as Culleys, which dates from this period. The Forest Unpaled, which had been neglected in the seventeenth century, was taken in hand from 1703, and a vigorous programme of tree planting commenced. This was followed, in mid-century, by aesthetically-inspired landscape design, under the direction of Lancelot (Capability) Brown, to create parks, avenues and rides of which the Grand Avenue, with its junction of eight rides is justly famous and to make for the first time a coherent forest, in the modern sense of the word, out of the old, disparate woods.


Savernake Parish in 1810

Very few trees were planted in Savernake between 1814 and 1945; and indeed after about 1870, when most of the forest was fenced and turned into an enormous deer-park, it was not practicable to plant trees without expensive guards to protect young saplings from the browsing deer. Another result of creating this park was a need to gate the roads, including the present A4 and A346, which passed through it. The gates remained in use until the 1920s, and a gatehouse survives at the foot of Postern Hill, where the A346 begins its climb into the forest.

Since the second world war Savernake Forest has been the responsibility of the Forestry Commission, whose sympathetic management has retained the character of the eighteenth-century creation while carrying out extensive replanting, and encouraging public access, notably by providing a commodious camping and picnic site at the top of Postern Hill. From here expeditions may be made, not only to enjoy the legacies of the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, but also to discover the gnarled giants of the forest, ancient oaks of immense girths and romantic names the Cathedral Oak, the King of Limbs, the Amity Oak. The least shy of these dryads also has the most blatant name, the Big Belly Oak. Nearly 11m around its trunk, and perhaps a millennium old, it protrudes its belly into the main road just south of Cadley.

Thus we have traced in outline the historical evolution of Savernake, and it remains to describe particular features of note. A natural constraint the relatively poor soils of the clay-with-flints deposits overlying the chalk and the legal constraint of medieval forest jurisdiction, have perhaps combined to assist the preservation of archaeological sites in the area of the modern parish. On the hillside overlooking Marlborough near Pantawick and Brown's Farm have been discovered a neolithic flint-working area, bronze age artefacts, and possible iron age and Romano-British settlement sites. Flint working seems also to have taken place on Granham Hill and Wernham Hill. A late iron age coin hoard was found in 1857 near Brown's Farm, and in 1890 a fourth-century hoard of Roman coins was discovered in an earthenware pot on Granham Hill. 'Savernake Ware' has become a familiar term to archaeologists, denoting a type of light-coloured coarse Roman pottery, which is found chiefly on sites from first- to third-century date within the presumed catchment area of the market at Cunetio, the Roman town at Mildenhall. The vicar of Savernake correctly identified in 1921 what is believed to be the main production centre, near Bitham Pond on the Column Ride north of Leigh Hill, when he described "intensely black earth over an area of nearly three acres", and a tradition that Roman kilns had existed there. Between 1957 and 1961 excavations on the site proved the truth of this tradition by uncovering kilns there, and others have been found elsewhere in the forest.

Undoubtedly the industry was located in this area not only because of the local availability of suitable clay and wood for firing, but also because the Roman road network radiating on Cunetio made its distribution reasonably economical and breakage-free. Two Roman roads cross the parish, leading from Cunetio to Winchester and Old Sarum. The former ran slightly east of the Grand Avenue, and traces survive in many places along its route; the latter is more elusive. It was identified by Colt Hoare in 1821 as running almost directly south from Cunetio towards Brimslade and Easton Royal, and although it is scarcely visible today, a short alignment survives in the clearing at Braydon. Wansdyke crosses the parkland area of the parish west of the present main road, and is extant near Wernham Farm and New Buildings. A small excavation carried out in 1967 near New Buildings demonstrated that this, the eastern portion of Wansdyke, was less substantially built, and perhaps slightly later, than the main defence further west.

The present main road through the parish (A346) had become important by the thirteenth century, when it is mentioned in perambulations, and was used in the sixteenth century, as we have seen, to divide the parkland from the unpaled forest. Medieval roads, when they had to tackle steep hills, often divided into a series of parallel hollows known as multiple trackways, and one of the best examples of this phenomenon survives on Postern Hill, the main road's ascent from Marlborough. The tracks fan up the hill from the lodge at its foot; most are now scrub-covered in long grass, but are quite visible and accessible, and climbing them it is not hard to imagine the stamina required of pre-motorised man and beast. The main road was turnpiked in 1762, and the present route up the hill was in use by 1773.

At Brimslade Farm, which is statelier than the other Savernake farmhouses, and contains work dating back to its parkland days in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the peaceful isolation was disturbed by the opening of the Kennet and Avon Canal in 1809. Here the summit level, which has brought the canal through the forest, ends in a flight of four locks, restored and reopened in 1973, which step it down to Wootton Rivers and Pewsey Vale. A little to the south the Berks and Hants Extension Railway, opened in 1862, adopted a parallel course, and remains in use as part of the London-Exeter main line.


Savernake Parish in the 1890s

The complicated business of providing Marlborough with a railway has left substantial traces, from Hat Gate near Brimslade, across the former Great Park, to stations below Postern Hill. There are two lines, the earlier, of 1864, sweeping past Culleys Farm and Wernham Farm, the later, of 1898, taking a more easterly course past Park Farm, which involved building deep cuttings and a tunnel near Pantawick some 600m long. Near Hat Gate a wartime branch and sidings served massive ammunition dumps hidden in the forest, which are believed to have employed some 10,000 troops. In July 1945 and January 1946 massive explosions occurred here. The former badly damaged nearby St Katharine’s church, the latter (involving salvaged German ammunition) killed eight soldiers, including one who had served throughout the war and was due to leave the army the following day. The two Marlborough branch railways were operated by rival companies until 1923, and it was not unknown for races to take place between Marlborough and Savernake stations. The tunnel was a favourite resort for clandestine smoking bouts by Marlborough College boys. By 1933 the earlier of the two branches had been removed, but the 1898 line continued in use until 1961 for passengers and 1964 for goods.

There is no village or important settlement within the modern parish. The centre of medieval forest administration was at Morleigh, which is now Leigh Hill, and the ranger of the unpaled forest had his headquarters at Bagdon Lodge, which was subsequently renamed Savernake Lodge. This house was rebuilt in 1795 by Sir John Soane and burnt down in 1861. The present Savernake Lodge was created in 1910 from the surviving stable block. The imprint of the Ailesbury's taste in buildings may be seen scattered about the forest. Most are of brick and tile, for there was abundant clay for brickmaking on the estate, and many have as decoration bands or designs of gaudily-polychromatic brickwork. There is a spectacular example of 1854 at Cadley. Other interesting buildings are the Savernake Hospital of 1872, which replaced a stopgap building on Forest Hill given by the Ailesbury family in 1866 to provide a cottage hospital (apparently the third oldest such foundation in England) for the local poor. At Cadley, the largest of the forest hamlets, which is strung out along the fast main road, the marquess built a parish church in 1851 and a National school in 1850. Both have now closed the school in 1939, the church in 1975. Christ Church, Cadley, was designed by T H Wyatt, and the present building, now a house, was his second attempt, as the 1851 building fell down in 1852 and had to be rebuilt. Pevsner describes as 'naughty' its curious arrangement of windows facing the road. The churchyard remains accessible, and here are buried members of the Byron family of Savernake Lodge. Robert Byron, drowned at sea in 1941, was a talented writer on architecture and eastern culture, and the editor of the first Shell Guide to Wiltshire.

This Savernake Parish History by John Chandler is taken from his two books ‘Marlborough and Eastern Wiltshire’ (Hobnob Press, 2001, 20.00, ISBN 0 946418 07 1) and ‘Devizes and Central Wiltshire’ (Hobnob Press, 2003, £20.00, ISBN 0 946418 16 0). The text included here is the author's copyright and should not be further reproduced for publication without his consent. There may be minor textual variants between the text posted here and the published version.

Dr Chandler will be happy to supply hardback copies of either ‘Marlborough and Eastern Wiltshire’, which includes histories of 34 parishes in eastern Wiltshire (from Tidworth in the south to Aldbourne in the north and Avebury in the west), with illustrations and maps, or the publication ‘Devizes and Central Wiltshire’, which includes histories of 42 parishes in central Wiltshire, with illustrations and maps, for £20 each post free. He can be contacted by email: ; or by post: 8 Lock Warehouse, Severn Road, Gloucester GL1 2GA.

A fuller account of Savernake Parish can be found in the publication: ‘Victoria County History of Wiltshire’, vol. 16 (1999), pp.207-15. This is to be found in larger local libraries and the text is available online at alongside accounts of neighbouring parishes.