There is nothing truly natural in our landscape. Indeed most of it has been ‘rewritten’ many times by man, since the ice sheets finally receded about 10,000 years ago. But the first stages were a natural sequence as, over many centuries, arctic tundra was gradually replaced by deciduous woodland which finally developed a mix of oak, elm, ash and other species with which we are very familiar today. By seven or eight thousand years ago almost every square mile of Rockingham Forest, like most of the rest of England, was under woodland. But at this time man had little more impact on the natural environment than any other animal. This was because there were just a few tiny communities of nomadic folk who lived by hunting and by gathering wild plants.
At this time the character of the landscape was determined by the pattern of relief and drainage, by the underlying geology, and by the nature of the soils which developed on each rock type. Almost the only clues of man’s presence that we find from this early period are scatters of flint tools in the topsoil. They are usually found on the freely draining soils, mostly on the gravels, limestone and ironstone geology and particularly in the valleys. This was probably because there the woodland was more open and the hunting better.
The Neolithic Causewayed Enclosure at Southwick, with its double circuit of interrupted ditches, revealed as a cropmark in growing cereal (reproduced with permission of Northamptonshire County Council)
Once farming was introduced, more than 5000 years ago, the long process of man’s transformation of the landscape really began. With agriculture came permanent settlements and rapidly increasing population levels. Woodland was intentionally cleared for arable fields or was reduced more slowly to pasture by the pressure of grazing. But for several thousand years the clearance was restricted to the freely draining soils. Elsewhere, especially on the heavy clay soils on the plateau, the wildwood remained. This will still have been exploited by hunting expeditions, for not just deer but wild cattle, wolf and wild boar must still have been common. The burial monuments of these peoples of the Neolithic (c.4000BC – c.2000BC) and especially the Bronze Age (c.2000BC - c.700BC) are found scattered right across the well drained areas, though almost all have been levelled by ploughing in later centuries. There are also far more ephemeral remains of their settlements.
The character of the landscape and of settlement in the pre-Roman Iron Age, as depicted here in the experimental farm at Butser in Hampshire, will have been very different to that of the medieval and early modern period
In the centuries before the Roman conquest of 43AD the pace of change stepped up dramatically. The farmers cleared vast areas of woodland and their fields, perhaps mostly of pasture, extended up out of the valleys and right across the heavy clays on the plateau. We find traces of their settlements scattered in their hundreds across almost the whole landscape. But relatively little from these early landscapes has survived to signficantly influence what we see around us today. It was in the century or two leading up to the Norman Conquest of Anglo-Saxon England, in 1066, that saw the character of the modern landscape begin to be established. Even so, continuing economic and other changes would make new demands on the landscape and in reponse people progressively swept away much of this pattern of villages, fields and woodland, but important traces still do survive in the our modern landscape.
Click here for more infromation about the extensive range of evidence for these early periods of Northamptonshire's history revealed by archaeological aerial survey