Savernake Forest

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An old oak tree in the Savernake Forest
Young doe in the forest

The Savernake Forest is an ancient, extensive, managed forest in Wiltshire extending across the chalklands between Marlborough and Great Bedwyn. Its area is approximately 4500 acres.[1]

The forest is privately owned by the Marquess of Ailesbury and his family, and is administered by trustees. Since 1939 the timber of the forest has been managed by the Forestry Commission on a 999-year lease. The private status of Savernake, Britain's only privately owned forest, is maintained by shutting the forest to the public one day a year.

Savernake's landform is one of rolling downland dissected by both dry and wet valleys. The valleys within the forest, of which there are four, are all dry valleys, and the presence of Cretaceous deposits of clay-with-flints creates the damp heavy soils suited to dense cover of oak and beech. There are patches of poor drainage and wet soil.

A short history of the forest and its wardens

First mention of a woodland "Safernoc" was made in AD 934 in the written records of King Athelstan.

The royal forest established in the 12th century covered an area of some 150 square miles; it extended to the villages of East Kennett, Inkpen and the Collingbournes (west, east and south) while the River Kennet formed its northern limit. Savernake Forest was not continuously wooded: Royal forests were a mixture of woodland, copses, common land and rough pasture.

This was the area of land put into the care of Richard Esturmy, one of the Norman knights who fought at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Since then Savernake estate and forest has passed down from father to son (or daughter, on four occasions) in an unbroken line of hereditary "forest wardens". In 31 generations, it has never once been bought or sold in a thousand years, and today it is the only ancient forest in Britain still in private hands.[2]

One early high point of the estate's fortunes was in Tudor times. The head of the family (Sir John Seymour) was used to welcoming King Henry VIII to the forest, where the king was very keen on deer-hunting. King Henry stayed at Savernake in 1535, where it is believed that his eye was then taken by his host's daughter, Jane Seymour. After the execution of Anne Boleyn in May 1536, they were subsequently married, and Jane was crowned Queen just months later, causing the head of the family at Savernake to suddenly find himself father-in-law to the King.[3]

Jane died in childbirth and after marrying a further three wives, Henry himself died ten years later, the throne passing to his son by Jane Seymour; King Edward VI. Jane’s brother became Lord Protector in the King’s minority.

The Ailesbury Column

The mid 17th century to mid 18th century saw variations in the size of the forest. Deer parks were subject to dis-parking whereby sections of forest and parkland were converted to agriculture.Note 1 During parts of this period it was reported that the King's naval officers were far from happy with the state of the forest, finding "but 3 or 4 trees fit for his [the king's] use". The open spaces were found to be "infested with heath, furze, fern [bracken]" and had "coarse turfe".[4]

Six of Savernake Forest's historic oak trees: Top row: Big Bellied Oak; New Queen Oak; Queen Oak. Bottom row: Saddle Oak 1; Saddle Oak 2; Spider Oak

A second high point for the forest was under the wardenship of Charles Bruce and his nephew Thomas Bruce-Brudenell (wardens from 1741 to 1814) Lord Thomas Bruce, Earl of Ailesbury]], as head of the family, made a great success, and had risen at Court to be Governor to the King George IV. The Bruce Tunnel which carries the Kennet and Avon Canal under the estate is named after him. He employed Lancelot 'Capability' Brown to plant great beech avenues in Savernake Forest, which was then some 40,000 acres; nearly ten times its present size. These included the Grand Avenue, running through the heart of the forest, and which at 3.9 miles dead straight stands in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest tree-lined avenue in Britain.

Two large structures date from this time. First, and within the public access part of Savernake, there is the stone column[5] some 90.0 feet (27.4 m) high, and erected by Lord Ailesbury as an impressive viewpoint at the end of a vista from Tottenham House.

The house is no longer the family seat, and the forest and the estate is set to change once more.

Savernake survived the Second World War remarkably intact, though it was used as a munitions dump, and re-planting with conifer plantations was modest by 1950s' standards. Today the Forestry Commission has engaged in a programme more sympathetic to the restoration and preservation of the ancient trees. David Brudenell-Bruce, Earl of Cardigan, the current and thirty-first warden of Savernake Forest attempted to keep Tottenham House with its 200-acre rolling countryside within the family, but the house remained unoccupied and decaying after 2004 and was sold in October 2014 for £11.25 million.

A track near Cadley

Inside the forest

The areas of broad-leaved woodland which dominate the Savernake Plateau are accompanied by a farmland mosaic. The plateau is within the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Beauty. [6] The mosaic is emphasised by the assarted character of the area east of the Savernake (Coppices of Little Frith, Cobham Frith, Chisbury Wood, Haw Wood, etc.), where farmland occurs as clearings in a wider forest, creating a distinctive and memorable, 'secret' landscape. [7]

Capability Brown worked out a strategy for linking coppices with oak plantings, lining forest trails with beech trees, and providing vistas with "proper objects" on which the eye might rest. The forest would be made part of the parkland. The scattered coppices, meadows, scrub, and heath should be united, into "one great whole." [8]

As times changed, and social expectations altered, a later warden George Frederick was eager to show off his forest. There was much rearranging of copses and vistas and setting aside of grass rides so that visitors could see the woods as a whole and be impressed. He ordered that the entire estate be fenced and palings be placed around individual trees. That way, the deer might roam freely with a minimum of damage.

The fifth marquess recognized that the woodlands needed to be made commercially viable. Included among the 778,000 trees he planted were a high proportion of softwoods, placed outside the forest's core (for example Birch Copse in the southeast). This warden was too deeply imbued with tradition to contemplate industrialized forestry but he was the first of his family to introduce a measure of systematic management of larch and spruce plantations.

Chandos Bruce, the sixth marquess, did everything possible to carry on with this combination of systematic management and concern for amenity and symbolic representation. Eventually, however, he found the burden too heavy due to increasing costs, Lloyd George's taxes on inherited wealth, and the impossibility of hiring enough labour during and after the First World War. In 1930 he approached the government's Forestry Commission but drew back when he recognized that surrendering control would probably bring on an invasion by ranks of straight-backed conifers. Eight years later the commission became more open to the suggestion that recreational uses might be as legitimate as commercial ones and agreed to the special conditions the sixth marquess had stubbornly laid down. As a result, after 800 years of wardenship, the family surrendered control and the public, because of Lord Ailesbury's dedication, gained a handsome amenity.[9]

Savernake is a coppice-with-standards forest and an Ancient Woodland. A coppice is a wood where broad-leaved trees, typically hazel, grow out of the stumps or "stools" left from previous cuttings. Standards are trees allowed to grow to maturity. If these trees are allowed to grow in close proximity they grow straight and tall. If they have more room to grow then side branches become substantial.

A pollarded beech

In the past standardization was not at all essential. Craft work and early mechanical industry, such as shipbuilding, wagon making, and furniture making all required "bends" and "knees," as well as other eccentrically shaped pieces which the side branches would provide. Trees such as beech and oak can be pollarded, a process whereby a standard is cut two-thirds up its trunk. Multiple boughs grow from the cut point and the life of the tree is extended and curved pieces of bough or trunk are often produced. Such trees become magnificent specimens and they live through generations of forest workers. Their base trunk attains great girth. Often the side boughs become too heavy and are broken in stormy weather. In other cases the bough weight (an outward force) begins to tear the lower trunk apart creating a cavity which can over decades become cavernous in size.

The oldest of these pollarded trees is the "Big Belly Oak" beside the A346 road. Big Belly is one of Fifty Great British Trees named and honoured as part of the Queen's Golden Jubilee celebrations. It has a girth of 36 feet is 1,000–1,100 years old. In 2001 it was in danger of splitting in two, a fate that had already overtaken the similarly aged Duke's Vaunt and so to prevent this, the tree was fitted with a metal corset.[10] The 2011 Radiohead album The King of Limbs is named after the ancient King of Limbs[11] tree hidden in the forest near Tottenham House, where the band recorded part of their previous album, In Rainbows.

It is thought that nowhere else in Europe is there such a concentration of "veteran" trees. Savernake has hundreds of such trees, beeches and oaks, some appearing singly, others in avenues, some amongst younger broad-leaved trees and others within coniferous plantations. Some of the historically important trees are named and their names appear upon local maps, and even upon the modern Ordnance Survey Explorer 157. Since about 2006 the Forestry Commission has been clearing space around well-known venerable trees, and naming them with green plaques. Elsewhere clearings have been created, revealing old ponds, long hidden by coniferous plantings but now opened up to the light. Standing water is essential for bio-diversity. Savernake has areas of damp soil, but no streams. Another best practice is to leave dead wood lying, for the benefit of invertebrates. In Savernake fallen trees are left to decay and dead standing trees (monoliths) are generally left standing.

In 2003 White Park cattle were introduced into Savernake Forest, to forage freely in the Red Vein Bottom area, a semi-open area of relict wood pasture which had not been grazed in more than 60 years.[12] Such controlled grazing should recreate the naturally open glades ideal for the ancient oak and beech and their specialist lichen and fungal communities, as well as rare woodland and grassland flora; the exact wildlife features for which Savernake Forest is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.[13]

Sites of Special Scientific Interest are regularly inspected and their health is monitored. Savernake has SSSI status primarily for rare lichens found on the bark of the older trees. There is also good representation of fungi types and mosses. However, the health of Savernake is not particularly good, partly because of the destruction wrought during Second World War, and probably from wind-borne pollutants. The entire site is at condition 88% "unfavourable recovering". This is not a comment of the beauty of the forest, but a health statement on the lichens and mosses and invertebrates.

Forest features

Savernake Forest consists of many named drives and various other landscape features named on the Ordnance Survey map.

Winter scene at Great Lodge Bottom

Postern Hill to Amity Oak

3 miles west to east

  • Postern Hill (SU197679): the highest point of the chalk plateau, at 633.2 feet (193.0 m). Its north-facing scarp slope overlooks the town of Marlborough. On the hilltop there is a small Forestry Commission Camp Site, together with a public car park and barbecue area. Four tracks head southwards through oak forest, the principal one being:
  • Long Harry (SU202681): track which descends gradually, crossing:
  • White Road (SU206677)
The tree cover is not dense and ancient oaks are plentiful here, including one name as Saddle Oak on account of is near horizontal boughs.
  • Church Walk (SU209675); a bridle path is crossed next before reaching
  • Great Lodge Bottom (SU215673)
The Church Walk path connects the A4 road to Cadley hamlet (the church there is now privately owned) on the A346 and it is the only public right of way in the main part of the forest. Great Lodge Bottom is an east-running dry valley, fairly open with hawthorn and blackthorn scrub.

After crossing the Grand Avenue the valley runs into:

  • Red Vein Bottom (SU219676) with its rough pasture and rabbit warrens. The path is joined by a small valley coming down from the pinetum (pine arboretum) at:
  • Braydon Hook (SU221671) adjacent to Braydon Hook House.
The path from Red Vein Bottom skirts the Ashdale Firs and passes some huge beeches before arriving at the:
  • Amity Oak (SU232675), an old tree which serves as a Parish Boundary marker.
The valley continues east to Hungerford by way of Little Frith.
Bluebells at Little Frith

Leigh Hill to Crabtree Cottages

3 miles west to east

  • Leigh Hill (SU219645), 2.8 miles south of Postern Hill and 633 feet high.
There is a seasonal car park nearby. Three small valleys run North East from this high point.
  • Postwives Walk (SU220647) begins with an ancient avenue of oaks and descends gently to cross:
  • Charcoal Burners Road (SU222654), where charcoal is still made, and so on to the heart of the forest, passing both the:
  • Queen Oak (SU224657) and the
  • King Oak (SU225659)
A second valley, named:
  • Cheval Bottom (SU225645) starts in an avenue of mature copper beeches and later passes beside the:
  • Park Pale (SU229660) which is an ancient bank-and-ditch feature which marked the perimeter of the Royal Park as was.
The third valley starts near the column at
  • Three Oak Hill Drive (SU231662), which, despite its name, has fine stands of beech and also of Scots pine. The ground descends into:
  • Drury Lane (SU229648) and passes a young plantation before joining the other two valleys and then, as a fine shallow-sided valley of meadow pasture passes:
  • Savernake Lodge (SU233667) on its way to:
  • Crabtree Cottages (SU240670) and thence to:
  • Little Frith (SU246676), with its carpets of bluebells in May, and then finally joining the valley to Hungerford.
An avenue of copper beeches

Grand Avenue to Strawgrove Copse

5¾ miles north to south

  • The Grand Avenue (SU210683), a straight but narrow tarmacked road connecting the A4 road to the Durley Road near Tottenham House. It is lined with beech trees, but few of them are survivors from the original plantings. The A4 was once a toll road through the forest, taking the Marlborough to Hungerford traffic, such as it was. The
  • Toll Road House (SU209684) still stands today. The Grand Avenue continues south-east to
  • Eight Walks (SU225668), where Capability Brown laid out the hub to Savernake's eight radial drives. A little further on there stands a
  • Monument (SU231662) on the western side of the road, rumoured[14] to be a marker to someone who suffered a fatal fall from a horse.
At the
  • Three Oak Hill Drive crossroads, a track north-east points to
  • Birch Copse (SU239662)
  • Duke's Vaunt Oak (SU238664) is a notable tree approximately 1,000 years old. It was once hollow and 5½ feet in girth. In 1760 it had a door and a lock and was capable of sheltering "twenty boys".[15] The tree is badly split now, but still survives. Here the ground is damp and parts of:
  • Birch Copse barely see daylight.
While some of the tall pines seem senescent, other plantation firs are green and vibrant. Many varieties of fungi can be seen in profusion in October, but dead-wood fungi are common enough throughout the year. At the south-east edge of the forest there are good examples of sweet chestnut and yew
  • Holt Pound (SU248657) has an avenue of oaks joins Birch Copse to
  • Bedwyn Common (SU255652). This section of Savernake has its own avenue:
  • London Ride which at 1.3 miles runs from:
  • St Katherine's Church (SU252649) to
  • Upper Horsehall Hill Farm (SU261667).
The ride is lined with oak in the south, and by limes in the north. Many old oaks and old sweet chestnut are left standing, and foxgloves populate the forest edges.
Forest tracks and bridleways lead south-east, and this is very much assarted Note 5 countryside. When
  • Stock Common (SU262644) is reached there are footpaths to
  • Shawgrove Copse (SU270643), within sight of Great Bedwyn, or south to the rear of Tottenham Park by way of
  • Bloxham Lodge (SU262637)
The Duke's Vaunt oak in 2004
The Duke's Vaunt oak in 2011

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Savernake Forest)


  1. Savernake Estate
  2. Estate
  3. Chandos Bruce. The Wardens of Savernake Forest, pp. 301-2. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949
  4. Bruce., 1949, p. 216
  5. "Follies of Wiltshire", Retrieved on 16-6-2009.
  6. "North Wessex Downs aonb", Retrieved on 13-6-2009.
  7. County Council paper. "Wiltshire Planning Department", Retrieved on 13-6-2009.
  8. Bruce. "The Wardens of Savernake Forest", p83-86.
  9. Peggy Walvin, Savernake Forest (Cheltenham: privately printed, 1976), pages 35-36
  10. Newsquest Group "This Is Wiltshire.", Retrieved in 2003.
  11. [1], DIY: "Finding Radiohead’s King Of Limbs"
  12. English Nature. "English Nature News", Retrieved on 2003
  13. Natural England. "SSSI"
  14. "Follies of Wiltshire - mystery"
  15. From Forest Life 2002, magazine of the Forestry Commission


  • The forest and estate:
    • Crowley, D.A. (ed.); Baggs, A.P.; Freeman, Jane; Smith, C.; Stevenson, Janet H.; Williamson, E. (1999). A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 16: Kinwardstone hundred. Victoria County History. :
    • {{brithist|23039 Burbage Parish]
    • {{brithist|23037 Great Bedwyn Parish]
    • {{brithist|23038 Little Bedwyn Parish]
    • {{brithist|23049 Savernake Parish]
  • Ancient forestry:
    • Rackham, Oliver (1976). Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape. Archaeology in the Field Series. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd. ISBN 0-460-04183-5. 
    • Rackham, Oliver (2004) [1986]. The History of the Countryside:. London: Orion Publishing Group. ISBN 1-84212-440-4. 
    • Rackham, Oliver (2003). The Illustrated History Of The Countryside. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 0-297-84335-4. 
    • Thirsk, Joan, ed (2000). Rural England - An Illustrated History of the Landscape. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-198-60619-2. 
    • Whitlock, Ralph (1979). Historic Forests of England. Bradford-on-Avon: Moonraker Press. ISBN 0-239-00190-7.