The Weald

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A Wealden farm
The Forest of Anderida during the Roman Occupation of Britain

The Weald is the hill country spreading across parts of Surrey, Sussex and Kent between the parallel chalk escarpments of the North and the South Downs.

The Weald should be regarded as three separate parts: the sandstone "High Weald" in the centre; the clay "Low Weald" periphery; and the Greensand Ridge which stretches around the north and west of the Weald and includes the Weald's highest points. The Weald was once a vast forest covering this area. The name, Old English in origin, signifies woodland, which still applies today: scattered farms and villages betray the Weald's past, often in their names.

Name of the Weald

The name "Weald" in Old English simply means "forest"; the same word in origin as the German Wald. The word is typically West Saxon, and an Anglian dialect form has become "wold" in its own areas; the Midlands and Yorkshire.[1]

In the Anglo-Saxon period the area had the name Andredes weald, meaning "the forest of Andred", the latter derived from the Roman name of Pevensey, Anderida. The area is also referred to in Anglo-Saxon texts as Andredesleage, where the second element is another Old English word for "woodland", represented by modern Leigh.[2]

The adjective for "weald" is "wealden".


View across the Weald
Summit of Black Down

The Weald in its entirety begins in the west to the north-east of Petersfield in Hampshire; from where it crosses the counties of Surrey and Kent in the north, and Sussex in the south. In extent it covers about 85 miles from west to east, and about 30 miles from north to south. The eastern end of the High Weald, the English Channel coast, is marked in the centre by the high sandstone cliffs from Hastings to Pett Level; and by former sea cliffs now fronted by the Pevensey and Romney Marshes on either side.

Much of the High Weald, the central part, is designated as the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Its landscape is described as one of rolling hills, studded with sandstone outcrops and cut by streams to form steep-sided ravines (called gills); small irregular-shaped fields and patches of heathland, abundant woodlands; scattered farmsteads and sunken lanes and paths.[3] Ashdown Forest, an extensive area of heathland and woodland occupying the highest sandy ridge-top at the centre of the High Weald, is a former royal deer-hunting forest created by the Normans and said to be the largest remaining part of Andredesweald.[4]

The county tops of both Surrey and Sussex are in the High Weald, namely Leith Hill and Black Down respectively.

There are centres of settlement, the largest of which are Horsham, Burgess Hill, East Grinstead, Haywards Heath, Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells, Crowborough; and the area along the coast from Hastings and Bexhill-on-Sea to Rye and Hythe.

The Low Weald, the periphery of the Weald, is shown as darker green on the map (9),[5] and has an entirely different character. It is in effect the eroded outer edges of the High Weald, revealing a mixture of sandstone outcrops within the underlying clay. As a result, the landscape is of wide and low-lying clay vales with small woodlands ("shaws") and fields. There is a great deal of surface water: ponds and many meandering streams.

Some areas, such as the flat plain around Crawley, have been utilised for urban use: here are Gatwick Airport and its related developments and the Horley-Crawley commuter settlements. Otherwise the Low Weald retains its historic settlement pattern, where the villages and small towns occupy harder outcrops of rocks. There are no large towns on the Low Weald, although Ashford and Reigate lie immediately on the northern edge. Settlements tend to be small and linear, because of its original wooded nature and heavy clay soils.[6]

The Weald is drained by many streams radiating from it, the majority being tributaries of the surrounding major rivers: particularly of the Mole, Medway, Stour, Rother, Cuckmere, Ouse, Adur and Arun. Many of those streams provided power to watermills, blast furnaces and hammers which once operated the iron industry and cloth mills.


Geology the SE: The High Weald in lime green (9a); the Low Weald, darker green (9). Chalk Downs, pale green (6)
Geological section from north to south: High and Low Weald shown as one

The Weald is the eroded remains of a geological structure, an anticline, a dome of layered Lower Cretaceous rocks cut through by weathering to expose the layers as sandstone ridges and clay valleys. The oldest rocks exposed at the centre of the anticline are correlated with the Purbeck Beds of the Upper Jurassic. Above these, the Cretaceous rocks, include the Wealden Group of alternating sands and clays - the Ashdown Sand, Wadhurst Clay, Tunbridge Wells Sand (collectively known as the Hastings Beds) and the Weald Clay. The Wealden Group is overlain by the Lower Greensand and the Gault Formation, consisting of the Gault Clay and the Upper Greensand.[7]

The rocks of the central part of the anticline include hard sandstones, and these form hills now called the High Weald. The peripheral areas are mostly of softer sandstones and clays and form a gentler rolling landscape, the Low Weald. The Weald-Artois Anticline continues some 40 miles further south-eastwards under the Straits of Dover, and includes the Boulonnais of France.

Many important fossils have been found in the sandstones and clays of the Weald, including, for example, Baryonyx. The first Iguanodon was identified by Gideon Mantell, from a fossil discovered in a pit near Cuckfield in 1819.[8] This may have inspired the famous scientific hoax of Piltdown Man, claimed to have come from a gravel pit at Piltdown near Uckfield.


Prehistoric evidence suggests that, following after the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, the Neolithic inhabitants had turned to farming, with the resultant clearance of the forest. With the Iron Age came the first use of the Weald as an industrial area. Wealden sandstones contain ironstone, and with the additional presence of large amounts of timber for making charcoal for fuel, the area was the centre of the Wealden iron industry from then, through the Roman times, until the last forge was closed in 1813.[9] The index to the Ordnance Survey Map of Roman Britain lists 33 iron mines; 67 per cent of these are in the Weald.

The entire Weald was originally heavily forested. According to the ninth century Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the Weald measured 120 miles or longer by 30 miles in the Anglo-Saxon era, stretching from Lympne, near Romney Marsh in Kent, to the Forest of Bere or even the New Forest in Hampshire.[10] The area was sparsely inhabited and inhospitable, being used mainly as a resource by people living on its fringes, much as in other places in Britain such as Dartmoor, the Fens and the Forest of Arden.[10] The Weald was used for centuries, possibly since the Iron Age, for transhumance of animals along droveways in the summer months.[10] Over the centuries deforestation for the shipbuilding, charcoal, forest glass, and brickmaking industries has left the Low Weald with only remnants of that woodland cover.

While most of the Weald was used for transhumance by communities at the edge of the Weald, several parts of the forest on the higher ridges in the interior seem to have been used for hunting by the kings of Sussex. The pattern of droveways which occurs across the rest of the Weald is absent from these areas.[10] These areas include St Leonard's Forest, Worth Forest, Ashdown Forest and Dallington Forest.

The forests of the Weald were often used as a place of refuge and sanctuary. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates events during the English conquest of Sussex when the native Britons (whom the Anglo-Saxons called Welsh) were driven from the coastal towns into the recesses of the forest for sanctuary:

477: Her com Ælle on Bretenlond 7 his .iii. suna, Cymen 7 Wlencing 7 Cissa, mid .iii. scipum on þa stowe þe is nemned Cymenesora, 7 þær ofslogon monige Wealas 7 sume on fleame bedrifon on þone wudu þe is genemned Andredesleage. ("This year came Ælle to Britain, with his three sons, Cymen, and Wlencing, and Cissa, in three ships; landing at a place that is called Cymenshore. There they slew many of the Welsh; and some in flight they drove into the wood that is called Andred'sley")[11]

Until the Late Middle Ages the forest was a notorious hiding place for bandits, highwaymen and outlaws.[12]

Settlements on the Weald are widely scattered. Villages evolved from small settlements in the woods, typically four to five miles apart; close enough to be an easy walk but not so close as to encourage unnecessary intrusion. Few of the settlements are mentioned in the Domesday Book however Goudhurst's church dates from the early 12th Century or before and Wadhurst was of a sufficient size by the mid thirteenth century to be granted a royal charter permitting a market to be held. Before this time, the Weald was used as summer grazing land, particularly for pannage by communities living in the surrounding areas. Many places within the Weald have retained names from this time, linking them to the original communities by the addition of the suffix "-den" – for example Tenterden was the area used by the people of Thanet. Permanent settlements in much of the Weald developed much later than in other parts of lowland Britain, although there were as many as one hundred furnaces and forges operating by the later 16th century, employing large numbers of people.[9]

In his first published version of On The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin used the chalk cliffs at Weald as a justification for his theory of natural selection. Charles Darwin was a follower of Lyell's theory of uniformitarianism and decided to expand upon Lyell's theory with a quantitative estimate to determine whether there was enough time in the history of the earth to uphold his principles of evolution. He assumed that rate of erosion of the cliffs was around 1 inch a century and extrapolated the age of Weald at around 300 million years.

In 1862, William Thomson (later ennobled as Lord Kelvin) published a paper On the age of the sun's heat in which he calculated that the sun had been burning for less than a million years. (He was unaware of the process of solar fusion, which had yet to be discovered.) Based on these estimates Thomson denounced Darwin's geological estimates as imprecise and Darwin saw Lord Kelvin's calculation as one of the most serious criticisms to his theory and removed his calculations on the Weald from the third edition of On the Origin of Species.[13]


Neither the thin infertile sands of the High Weald or the wet sticky clays of the Low Weald are suited to intensive arable farming and the topography of the area often increases the difficulties. There are limited areas of fertile greensand which can be used for intensive vegetable growing, as in the valley of the Western Rother. Historically the area of cereals grown has varied greatly with changes in prices, increasing during the Napoleonic Wars and during and since Second World War. The Weald has its own breed of cattle, called the Sussex although it has been as numerous in Kent and parts of Surrey. Bred from the strong hardy oxen, which continued to be used to plough the clay soils of the Low Weald longer than in most places, these red beef cattle were highly praised by Arthur Young in his book "Agriculture of Sussex" when visiting Sussex in the 1790s. William Cobbett commented on finding some of the finest cattle on some of the region's poorest subsistence farms on the High Weald. Pigs, which were kept by most households in the past, were able to be fattened in autumn on acorns in the extensive oak woods.


The Weald has largely maintained its wooded character, with woodland still covering 23% of the overall area (one of the highest levels in England) and the proportion is considerably higher in some central parts. The sandstones of the Wealden rocks are usually acidic, often leading to the development of acidic habitats such as heathland, the largest remaining areas of which are in Ashdown Forest and near Thursley.


The Weald has been associated with many writers, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Notable examples include John Evelyn (1620–1706), Vita Sackville-West (1892–1962), and Rudyard Kipling (1864–1936). The setting for A A Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh stories was inspired by Ashdown Forest, near Milne's country home at Hartfield.[14] In 2010, a documentary entitled "A Journey Through the Weald of Kent" was produced by Buff Films, JR Films and Cranbrook school to document the Weald's place in modern England.


The game of cricket may have originated before the 13th century in the Weald. The related game Stoolball is still popular in the Weald, mostly played by ladies teams.


  1. Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, edited by C. T. Onions, Oxford, 1966.
  2. Eilert Ekwall, The Oxford Dictionary of English Place Names, Oxford, 1936, under "Weald" and "Andred"
  3. AONB description
  4. Brandon (2003), p.23.
  5. The additional green section on the map, outside the other two, is not part of The Weald: to the north it is the Vale of Holmesdale; to the south the Vale of Sussex
  6. Notes on the Low Weald
  7. Gallois R.W. & Edmunds M.A. (4th Ed 1965), The Wealden District, British Regional Geology series, British Geological Survey, ISBN 011884078-9
  8. for Gideon Mantell's discovery
  9. 9.0 9.1 Wealden History of Early Iron Making
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 'The Kent and Sussex Weald, Peter Brandon, published by Phillimore and Company, 2003 ISBN 1860772412
  11. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  Parker Chronicle (477)
  13. Joel Levy, Scientific Feuds, New Holland Publishers (2010) ISBN 978 1 84773 717 5
  14. Winnie-the Pooh at Ashdown Forest