A short history of the area:
For most of history the area’s soils have governed the lives of people living on them. If the soils did not allow the growing of food and fuel and did not provide water no one could live on them. The bedrock of the Commons area is chalk. It outcrops in places and is buried under acid soils in others. Almost all of the soils are permeable so rain runs through them and there is very little surface water. The well at The Forge is 100 feet (30m) deep. Few crops, particularly cereals, will grow on acid soils although trees grow well. For these reasons trees are the natural vegetation of the area. For the last 6,000 years it has been grazed as Pasture Woodland with varying degrees of intensity. Only after liming had been introduced to sweeten the soils did arable farming become possible anywhere but on the valley sides and bottoms where the soils were chalky.
Until populations became very large, the land was managed in large estates. These were based near the rivers with their water and meadow land. The valley sides provided arable and the dry ridges provided the rough grazing and the essential woodland products. The parish of Ashampstead seems to have been split between an estate based at Lower Basildon and one based at Bradfield.
In 1235, seeing the woodland resource being swallowed by a growing population, major landowners persuaded the king to allow them to enclose land on their manors provided they left ‘enough’ to serve the needs of their tenants. This led to woodland being enclosed with banks and ditches and then managed intensively to produce timber and wood. It also led to a rise in the numbers of deer parks. The park on the Commons was built between 1235 and 1240 by the lord of Bradfield manor. He enclosed it with a bank with a ditch on the inside that we can trace for 3½ miles. A fence or a hedge ran along the top of the bank. Fallow deer were introduced, two park lodges and a pond were built and later an artificial rabbit warren was provided. In building the bank the remains of a pottery industry was buried on the western edge. It had thrived for 200 years selling pottery as far afield as Oxford and Reading.
The park seems to have gone out of use by 1600 and the area reverted to a common where manorial tenants could graze animals and gather firewood and bedding for animals. The tenants were responsible for starting the pollard trees. Pollards allow their branches to be harvested at intervals without killing the tree and at the same time allow animals to graze without eating the new shoots. This history of use has developed the very rich ground flora that graces the woods today. On-going studies have identified well over 200 species to date.
Until County Councils were formed and took over road maintenance in 1889, Parish Councils looked after their roads. They got material from the cheapest places, the road side waste and the commons. This quarrying produced the many shallow pits close to roads. Chalk quarrying produced the deeper pits.
During World War II the Commons were used by the army and remains of huts can be seen.
In 1972 the Rights of Common of individual properties were given up in favour of a Commons Agreement allowing all parishioners access to the woods and in1996 a joint management group was set up. This encourages research and volunteer activity to enhance and maintain this beautiful area. One of the current activities is the ‘Veteran Trees for the Future’ project.