On this page we have a quick run through the history to provide a framework. More detail will be found in the Archaeology pages.
The story of Swinley Forest starts around 10,000 years ago when the last of the ice from a succession of ice ages receded to the north leaving the area known as the Bagshot Plain exposed. The Plain consisted mainly of course grit sand interleaved with occasional seams of gravel and glauconite. The sand colour varies from pale grey, almost white in places to a brownish yellow with occasional patches of orange. Much has a slight green tinge from the glauconite it contains.
Glauconite is iron potassium phyllosilicate, a mineral which has been used as a pale green colouring material. In one or two places through the forest very small seams of glauconite can be found. When the water level in the pond near the reservoirs at the southern end of Ladies Mile Ride is very low deposits of this greenish material can be seen.
The sandy sub-soil is very near the surface, lying as little as 8 inches below the surface in places. The topsoil is almost entirely rotted organic material intermixed with sand and pebbles forming a peaty layer. As a consequence there is a very high risk of fire getting into the dryer layers of peat and spreading considerable distances below the surface only to spring up through the peat layer some way from the source. This means that any fires lit on the surface can, in dry weather, be a severe hazard. The great fire in the forest in May 2010 showed clearly how a local small fire could spread to engulf a vast area of the forest by travelling underground and thus bypassing the fire breaks cut through the trees.
The shallowness of the topsoil indicates that the forest had, for most of its life, been sparsely vegetated - not covered with trees at all. It would seem that for most of the time it was mainly covered with heather, occasional gorse bushes and small clumps of trees. This is borne out by the fact that in the middle ages through to the 12th century the forest was home to free grazing pigs - and thus its name Swinley. From Norman times to the early 19th century the forest was Royal hunting estate, in fact part of the Windsor Great Forest, and it was only in the early 20th century that it was deliberately planted with trees. Today, recent plantings of mainly coniferous trees for forestry purposes have greatly changed its appearance.
There is very little evidence of human occupation before and during the Bronze Age (2200 to 750BC). However, a few finds of flint tools probably dating from the late Neolithic to early Bronze Age in the area of and around Caesar's Camp and some possible Bronze Age burial mounds suggest that people from that period made use of the forest. There are also Bronze Age sites nearby and the forest would have been an area for, at the very least, hunting and gathering if not for grazing. It is probable that Bronze Age people had a settlement on the spur which is now designated Caesar's Camp which provides our first real evidence of human occupation in what is now known as Swinley Forest. Caesar's Camp is an Iron Age hill fort at the northern edge of the forest. This seems to have been built around 800 to 700BC, right at the time that the Bronze age people were discovering iron. This spur on the plateau could have hald some religious significance because of its natural oak leaf shape. The oak was a significant religious symbol in early British culture.
The Iron Age people, at least in the later period, were members of a substantial tribe called by the Romans the Atrebates. These people built a number of hill forts forming a ring around their territory from one, now beneath Terminal 4 at Heathrow Airport, Caesar's Camp here, another at Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum - their capital), Uffington (some suggest this was built by the Dobunni tribe) and on into Hampshire. The Atrebates were a tribe of Gaulish origin who arrived in Britain around 60 BC and rapidly established a widespread kingdom. It is likely that the hill forts existed before the Atrebates arrived, were taken over by them and their fortification improved as defence against the displaced native Iron Age Celtic tribes.
Then came the Romans.
The first obvious sign of Roman presence is the existence of the road, known as The Devil's Highway. This is part of the main Roman road running from London to the South Coast and South West of England. It enters the Forest near Rapley Lake in the East and runs in an almost exactly east-west direction leaving the forest just north of Crowthorne. There is some debate about the exact route of the road which is discussed in its own chapter. The second element showing Roman activity is the site of a small town at or near Wickham Bushes which lies some 300 yards to the north of The Devil's Highway. The town is believed to have remained in existence for a couple of hundred years after the Romans left Britain having been taken over by the Saxons. However it had disappeared by the time of the Norman Conquest and is not mentioned in the Domesday Book. A number of finds of pottery, roof tiles, and coins have been made on the site.
During the Saxon period very little of note seems to have occurred. We do know that it was largely contained in the Ripplesmere Hundred which was owned by Westminster Abbey and probably fell within the Parish of Easthampstead but that's about all. There is however an interesting connection to the Legend of King Arthur.
And now for the Normans.
After the Norman invasion in 1066 and the construction of Windsor Castle, William I (also known as William the Conqueror or William the Bastard) incorporated Swinley Forest into a much larger area which became The Windsor Great Forest. This Forest covered most of what we now see as East Berkshire and spread as far west as the rivers Loddon and Blackwater. It was designated as Royal lands primarily for hunting and controlled through an organisation of Foresters, Verderers and an Agister or Chief Ranger. Grazing rights were granted to local people and we believed pigs, carrying on the old Saxon tradition, were the main occupants as well as deer, wild boar and some wild fowl.
During the late 1600s and early 1700s to enable easy access through the forest a number of trails were cut and surfaced. These trails were called Rides and throughout East Berkshire many of these Rides can still be found as local roads. An example of a ride, skirting the forest is Nine Mile Ride running from Ascot to Finchampstead, another, Dukes Ride from Crowthorne to Finchampstead and one in the Forest, Ladies Mile Ride running through the Forest from Caesar's Camp to The Upper Star Post. That tradition remains, a forest fire trail was widened in 1993 to form an open link between the heather covered Caesar's Camp and the heathland at Wickham Bushes and was named New Town Ride in tribute to the modern Bracknell Town.
In the late 1700s part of the Forest was used by the Army for training and it contains a unique battlefield layout constructed specifically for the purpose of military maneuvers. This layout remains, can be seen today and is described here.
Most of the Forest remained part of a Royal Forest until 1813 when much of the land owned by the Crown was taken, by Act of Parliament, into the control of the newly formed Crown Estate. Parts had been sold off leaving a number of separate areas of which Swinley was one. During that time it remained a playground for Royalty.
During World War 2 a section of the innermost defensive line (GHQ Stop Line - Blue) against German invasion ran through the Forest and some evidence of that remains on the western and southern sides of the Forest. It is also believed that timber from the Forest was used in the construction of the Mosquito fighter/bomber and a large number of trees were tapped for sap also used in their construction. Some of these trees remain and the scars in the trunks can be clearly seen.
Today the remaining patches of forest are owned and managed by The Crown Estate, parts in conjunction with Bracknell Forest Council to provide a countryside amenity for the public at large as well as being commercially managed for timber and today to provide material for biomass energy generation.
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