Today you are invited join me on a visit to a Royal Hunting Forest, but first a couple of sights seen on the way there. It was a fine February day and I made a little detour to photograph the snowdrops at the thirteenth-century Takeley Church.
Then on to the remains of an old railway halt on the former Bishops Stortford to Great Dunmow line, which is now transformed into a pleasant path for walkers and cyclists.
Ascend a few steps and you're in a landscape that has survived intact from a time before even the church was built. We know that William I had an interest in the place and that the first King Henry used it for hunting, but it's likely that the forest had been in existence for much longer than that.
For those who understand the word "forest" to mean endless-ranks-of-coniferous-trees-planted-geometrically-and-unsympathetically-across-the-landscape Hatfield Forest will come as a bit of a surprise. Sure enough there are trees, but there are also open spaces too.
Oliver Rackham, that great authority on ancient woodlands, (who sadly passed away only last week, aged 75), felt that Hatfield was unique in that it still maintained all the elements of the old hunting forests namely - deer, cattle, pollards, coppiced woodland, scrubland, mature timber trees, grazing land and wetland.
It should perhaps be mentioned that it also has a cafe run by the National Trust and a major airport just a couple of miles away! But even so it does not take too much imagination to fancy yourself stepping back several centuries, particularly if, like me, you wander off the main paths to encounter herds of fallow deer grazing on the forest rides and skittering off into the thickets.
The picture above shows what happens when a tree is "coppiced". The tree is cut off near to ground level and then within the next few years it regrows a crown of thin vertical shafts. These poles are very useful for all kinds of jobs, but were especially handy for making fences and hurdles. Pollarding is a similar process except that the trees are cut off six to eight feet above the ground so that new growth is protected from browsing animals.
Meanwhile some trees were left to grow to provide larger timbers for house and barn construction and also shipbuilding.
Animals were grazed there. Deer were hunted for venison. Rabbits were raised in specially constructed warrens. The forest was also source for berries and fruit, edible fungi, birds and their eggs. Firewood could be collected. Goshawk chicks were taken to be raised for falconry. Charcoal was manufactured. All in all it was managed to produce maximum output and was a far cry from either the "wildwood" or the rather bleak monoculture of modern forestry.
In 1729 part of the forest was bought by the wealthy Houblon family who were responsible for constructing the lake, the planting of some non-native trees and the construction of a picnic-house decorated with shells.
This landscaped area is where the National Trust has based its shop and cafe while leaving the rest of the forest gloriously unaffected.