'Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours
Free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers
Is faded all--a hope that blossomed free
And hath been once no more shall ever be
Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labours rights and left the poor a slave
And memorys pride ere want to wealth did bow
Is both the shadow and the substance now
The sheep and cows were free to range as then
Where change might prompt nor felt the bonds of men
Cows went and came with evening morn and night
To the wild pasture as their common right
And sheep unfolded with the rising sun
Heard the swains shout and felt their freedom won...'
from the poem 'The Mores' by John Clare, 1824
We are used to the transformation brought by urban development, but we tend to think of the countryside as more permanent and natural. The reality is very different. What was common or distinctive in one part of the forest a century or two ago may now be very rare or have been completely destroyed, like the heath lands between Stamford and Peterborough, the loss of which in the 19th century so troubled John Clare. Much in the countryside that we take for granted today has lost its original function and is in terminal decay, though we may not realise it. Other things are building up and transforming the landscape almost without us noticing. This is because the forces work over periods far greater than a single lifetime. Only historical and archaeological study can reveal such a wide sweep of time and show us the changes that are under way. Most importantly it helps us to predict where those forces are taking the landscape – what it may be like in the future and how we might influence those changes in a positive way. Only with this knowledge, if wisely used, will it be possible to ensure that the distinctive character of the forest, which so many of us value, is maintained for future generations to enjoy.
What the Rockingham Forest Project has attempted to do is to chart the ways and speed with which the landscape of the forest has evolved in the past, particularly over the last 1000 years. From this we can see that the forest is constantly in a state of flux, but that at some times and in some places change is very rapidly and in others very slow. Today we are clearly in a period of rapid transformation, as industrialisation and urbanisation affects the countryside as well as the town. By detailed mapping of the changing landscape over a long time frame it has been possible to identify some of the underlying trends. We can begin to see much of what has been lost and why and we can recognise some of the most important ongoing trends that are transforming the modern landscape. Perhaps most importantly, we can begin to see clearly what we have inherited from earlier periods and how vulnerable it is without effective conservation. Often things that appear to be early survivals that show us something of the character of earlier landscape have proven to be of quite recent origin. Other features that seem at first sight to be fairly ordinary have been shown to have very early origins and to be rare survivals.
The value of such evidence is that it allows us to take far more informed decisions about how we manage change in the countryside. There is much within the Rockingham Forest Landscape that is worth conserving for its historic value. Some elements, like the earthwork remains of villages, the ridge and furrow of the medieval fields or the banks which define the layout of medieval coppices, are important as a unique archaeological record. If they are conserved then future generations will be able to investigate them and thus write a far more detailed and interesting history of the making of the forest landscape. But what we have inherited from the past, the living and functioning woods and hedges, the pattern of roads and settlement are also of importance, because it is past land use that has created the great diversity of the modern landscape of the forest, the very thing that people most value about the forest.
Wind turbines can have a wide visual impact. It is important that this is taken into account through wide scale viewshed studies to ensure they do not provide an inappropriate intrusion into our best preserved historic landscapes.
In recounting this Story of the Forest, we hope we have been able to show how much has been created and how much we have lost by man’s actions – from the heaths of Collyweston to the hay meadows of Islip, from the open fields of Sutton Bassett to the coppices of Nassington. Where there are rare or valued survivals from past landscapes we should consider whether we wish to keep them. We can now see there are plenty of areas where the landscape has and is being rapidly transformed, where the new landscape we need and want can be created without losing a great deal of historic value, while at the same time in other areas we could at the same time conserve the best of that which we have inherited from the past.