How I mapped the “lost” forests of Huntingdonshire

Huntingdonshire Historian Jason Peters with his maps

Huntingdonshire Historian Jason Peters with his maps - Credit: Archant

A HISTORIAN has helped to map 800 years of history after discovering the complex story behind the old forests of Huntingdonshire.

Huntingdonshire Historian Jason Peters with his maps

Huntingdonshire Historian Jason Peters with his maps - Credit: Archant

Houghton-born Jason Peters was researching the history of Sapley Park Farm, where his grandfather farmed for three decades, when he came across a reference to the old Sapley Forest in a 1930s history book.

The landscape architect said he had been “completely oblivious” to the fact that the area used to have forests so he set off to find out more.

To his surprise a trawl of documents at Huntingdon Archives revealed there had been three Royal Forests of Huntingdonshire during the Middle Ages. Weybridge between Ellington, Alconbury and Brampton, Harthay in Brampton/Buckden and Sapley.

Excited that no one had previously mapped and published the extent of the forests, which included many woodlands, Mr Peters began a three-year project to reconstruct their whereabouts.

Despite living in Poland at the time, he travelled back frequently to Huntingdon archive centre and the National Archives in London to look through ancient forest documents dating back to the 1200s.

He also copied estate and ordnance survey maps of the district from the 18th and 19th centuries in order to create a county-wide base plan for his work.

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Using a hi-tech computer programme, he was able to pinpoint the exact boundaries of the ancient holdings and woodlands and then embarked on site visits to see if there was any lasting archaeological evidence.

Again he uncovered even more forests and was able to map the Chase of Somersham, the Ramsey Banlieu, King’s Delph Forest and other privately held woods and groves across Huntingdonshire which were under forest law until King Edward I reduced their status.

Indeed, it appears that many disparate areas across Huntingdonshire were legally defined as a forest at different times.

By the second year of his research Mr Peters’ project was so advanced that he studied a postgraduate course in historic environment at Madingley Hall, Cambridge, so he could verify his finds and acquire new skills to widen the search.

“I didn’t believe the whole county was a forest,” said the 38-year-old, who now lives in north London. “My view was that there weren’t any trees but I then found out that, in the Middle Ages, forests weren’t necessarily to do with trees, as we would believe from the Victorian definition.”

The reigning Monarch of the day would decree certain areas as a forest, he said, so they would be subject to forest laws in order to protect the natural habitat and supplies of game.

“A Norman-Medieval forest was, in effect, a legally defined conservation area where no matter who was the landowner construction, resource exploitation, habitat degradation and hunting of game could not be undertaken without Crown approval,” Mr Peters said.

“The Forest of County Huntingdon was an evolving, dynamic, socio-political phenomenon, not limited to woodland habitat but extending across pastures, Fenlands, arable, meadows and rivers.

“There is 800 years of our county’s history that hasn’t been fully understood.

“People could be living somewhere that was a forest. By mapping areas that we now know were woods, woodland-pasture and parkland, we can better understand the ecology of the area, which could be very important when considering any future development and in reconstructing our historic environment.”

Later this month Mr Peters will launch where people will be able to read about his finds.

Copies of his plans, which will be available for purchase, have been given to the National Archives and Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire Archives for public viewing. He also plans to give talks in the district about the project.