Forests in Cumbria

We live in what was largely ‘forest’: the medieval equivalent of the national park. Inglewood Forest between Penrith and Carlisle was sixty miles in circumference – if my maths is right 286 square miles. It touched the Forest of Allerdale. Add Nicolforest, in the North, and Gilsland, Geltsdale, Greystoke, and Skiddaw/ Thornthwaite, and more than half this entire constituency was a forest. This did not always mean trees: it included swamp, and heath (and where there were trees, it was not the carpet of Kershope and Kielder’s dark Alaskan sitka spruce, but ash, hazel, hawthorn, field maple, and Northern sessile oak), but it meant an area where you lived without normal legal rights, under the most extreme environmental restrictions and regulations.

For four hundred years and more, creating any house, or field, on the land in half of this constituency was illegal: buildings could be destroyed on sight. The trees were protected and could not be felled; the grass was protected and could not be grazed; the land could not be drained, fenced, or improved in any way; the turf, and the peat could not be extracted. Everything was to be kept as a wilderness, to preserve the ideal habitat for red deer, boar, hare, wolf, fallow deer, fox, marten, and roe deer; for rabbits, pheasant, and partridge. A vast bureaucracy of wardens, and deputies, constables, foresters, and underforesters, revenue collectors, surveyors, judicial inspectors, and rangers, was employed to protect the animals and plants. (In some ways – if not in the hunting – it prefigures the legal framework, purpose, and bureaucracy of the Lake District National Park).

It worked. Two hundred and fifty years after Inglewood was established, the deer flocks were so immense, that the King could kill over two hundred fallow deer in a single day. The impact of these restrictions on planning and land-use lasted a thousand years. Look left as you drive down the M6 to Penrith, and you see the rich, green land on the West bank of the Eden, between Lazonby and Armathwaite, which you expect to be densely settled with villages. But in fact, as I found two years ago, if you get yourself in trouble on the West bank of the river, you are in a seven mile stretch with barely a road or dwelling. This is the part of Inglewood forest, marked on sixteenth century maps as ‘barren park waste’.

The problem with the old forests was not the objective of protecting the environment, but the rigidity, and lack of space for humans. The cost was to the lives of communities. It was a good place for outlaws like Robin Hood, Adam Bell or William of Cloudseley. But farming was so restricted, that no incomes could be made from the land. The only employment was in being paid by the government to protect the landscape, or in supporting hunting and riding through it.  No long-term communities developed, no traditions, no enduring history. The distinctive culture and the life of this constituency was then found almost entirely outside the forest, in the small farms of the Lake District Hills, with its tiny chapels, the Norse-influenced dialect, the unique funeral customs, and thousands of small independent owner-occupier statesman.

Locals, who lived on the edge of the protected land, were angry. King after King, from Magna Carta onwards, promised to reform the system. And finally, the reforms came. The powers of the rangers, and the managers were reduced; locals were granted limited rights to build small properties, to graze, and cultivate, and harvest; local figures became more closely involved in conservation and management. But the reforms were too slow, and Henry VIII eventually tore up the entire legislative and protective framework. The oaks were felled – many for props or fuel in the new iron mines in Cumbria. By the map of 1576, there was a belt of woodland near Carlisle but apparently the rest of the trees in Inglewood has gone. By 1630 John Aubrey describes an almost bare England, facing a crisis of timber. The wild boar, and the wolves had been long killed; the red deer moved North, and the fallow South, and the martens went with their habitat. You can see the trace of what followed in the fields from the air – not the curving Celtic lines, or the Anglo-Saxon common fields, striped like corduroy – but the straighter grid of early modern agriculture, with little connection to the medieval past.

Our ancestors created protected habitats in the forests, but they could not sustain them because they failed to bring together the different interests of farmers, plants, and animals. They failed to find a balance between wildernesses for recreation, farms for income, habitats, and villages for communities. That is still a challenge in National Parks today. Such a balance can be found, but it requires serious thought, flexibility, and long-term planning for different activities, including farming, worked out valley by valley. It cannot just be done through targets and legislation. In the long-term, the environment can only be protected if we understand the needs of that most peculiar ancient native species: the human. If we fail in the balancing act, we will not be able to protect humans or the environment. We will be left with what Camden saw when he visited Inglewood Forest in about 1600, ‘a dreary moor with high distant hills on both sides, and a few stone farm houses and cottages on the road side.

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