Described as a "heath with here and there a few birch scrubs upon it, verily the most villainously ugly spot I ever saw in England" by William Cobbett in his Rural Rides written and published in the 1820s, much of the landscape has changed little from his time though tastes have in regard of the Ashdown Forest. Much of what is seen today has been shaped by centuries of man's uses of the region.
Originally the area was part of what became known as Andredswald, the huge tract of wood, that covered much of the area known as the Weald. Lying on silty sandstones in the highest part of the Weald with poor drainage, higher rainfall and shorter cultivating period than elsewhere in Sussex meant arable farming was always going to be extremely limited. Thus little incursion was made until the iron age when a few prehistoric bloomeries appeared that were continued and expanded by the Romans who built the main London-Lewes road through the forest which runs parallel to the modern B2026. The deep valleys provided the waterpower and the woods the fuel for these foundries. When the Romans left many fell into disuse.
During the medieval period it was obtained by the Normans who used the poor land for hunting purposes particularly deer but allowed common rights for neighbouring settlements. With the deer, cattle and pigs grazing much of the land became a heath during this period with many areas becoming warrens for the keeping of rabbits adding to the low fertility of the soil that by 1500 it was described as being barren heathland with a few beech coverts. The apogee of the deer park was the 14th century when it was owned by John of Gaunt between 1372-99, thereafter they began falling out of fashion and by the 16th century was under attack by improvers, squatters and a newly invigorated iron industry.
The latter removed much of the remaining tree cover whilst Tudor neglect encouraged rapid encroachment by landowners big and small which reached a head in the 17th century when the Commonwealth sequestrated the forest and began a process of enclosure which resulted in a 1658 proposal to split the use of the forest into tree cultivation and pasture. The restoration halted this scheme with the Crown letting it to Thomas Williams who began large scale private enclosures but came up against the commoners who now fought tooth and nail to save their rights. Attempts to reach an agreement was unsuccessful until 1693 when a compromise was agreed to whereby common land pasture was to amount to 6400 acres (out of 15000) and more importantly was to be based geographically on need with the common areas being close to the villages and settlements that used them. This decision has largely influenced the look of the forest on today's map, the open access lands follow the borders of the former deer park with the private lands roughly being consigned to the middle. Another of the beneficiaries was Five Hundred Acre Wood which was planted in the 18th century.
The battle between enclosure and common was to rear its head again in the 19th century, particularly the new owners, the De La Warrs who periodically tried to enclose the forest and stop cutting and encroachment. Another battle loomed and was fought in the courts between 1880-82 with the commoners once more successfully defending their rights and through an act of Parliament introduced a board of Conservators to manage the forest whose powers were reinforced by further acts in 1949 and 1974.
Thus the forest today has been shaped by those using it and the current map indicative of the battles fought from the 17th-19th centuries. The common land is now open access and has become a popular public destination and one of the few in Sussex to retain large tracts of open heathland.
See other images of Ashdown Forest