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Forests and  Woods



The earliest form of the name is probably "CERNE WODA", from the Celtic "CARN", meaning cairn, and the Old English "WUDU", meaning "wood".

Some sources give "CWERN" as the derivation, meaning hand mill, the stone for which which was quarried in this area.

A third claimant is "GWERN", an old British name for ALDER, of which there was once a profusion here.

Whatever the truth, "CHARNWOOD" and "CHARLEY" would appear to come from the same root, with the suffix "-LEY" denoting open land, rather than forest.

FROM "A COMPANION TO CHARNWOOD FOREST" - John Henry Gray of Loughborough, 1858 "CHARNWOOD is quaintly described by Burton, who wrote in 1622, as:

"that vast and decayed forest, lying on the NW side of the County of Leicester, neere unto Loughborough, in forme somewhat square, of an hard and barren soyle, full of hills, woods, rocks, and stone torres, and dells of a kind of slate".

It was included in the Forest of Arden, which extended from the banks of the Avon to the Trent, and on the West to the Severn; it's eastern boundary being an imaginary line from Burton-on-Trent to High Cross, where the Foss-road intersected the Roman-road called Watling Street, as Drayton says:

"That mighty Arden held, even in her heart of pride, Her one hand touching Trent, the other Severn's side".

"Charnwood was thus a part of the kingdom of Mercia, which doubtless gained its name from the "marks" it comprised. Now the word MERCIA is not derived from MERC, a frontier, a signification peculiarly improper for a midland region; but from MYRC-NA-RIC, the dark murky or woodland kingdom, which agrees very closely with CORITANI, the latinized name of the old British inhabitants, signifying woodland men or foresters".

"The word Forest naturally leads to the expectation of noble groves, where the "knotted, gnarled, and unwedgeable oaks" of a thousand winters "stretch out their bare sturdy arms, or their mingled foliage and ruin," - or of "pine groves, with their soft and soul-like sounds," and all "the melodies of the woods"; to the shout of the Saxon wayfarer, or the blast of his horn - tokens of his peaceful intentions - failing in which, he might be slain as an enemy".

"But CHARNWOOD realizes these poetical visions to a very limited extent, for it is now almost denuded of the vast woods from which it gained its name. It has indeed been "disafforested" for six centuries".

Such was the view of CHARNWOOD FOREST in the middle of the nineteenth century. But CHARNWOOD is a forest unlike almost any other. As stated above, there are now comparatively few actual trees here, other than in small pockets of woodland dotted around the area. Visitors have been known to drive or walk for miles looking for "the forest", unaware that they have been inside it all the time!

So what exactly is this forest without trees? One thing it is NOT, is the same as the Borough of CHARNWOOD. Despite taking it's name, the Borough is a much larger area than the ancient forest itself. And to add to the confusion, parts of CHARNWOOD FOREST are not in CHARNWOOD BOROUGH at all!

As a rough guide, the parts of the Forest which are inside the Borough of CHARNWOOD all lie on the east side of the M1 motorway. But there is a "bite" out of the north of the forest, including COPT OAK and CHARLEY, which is not part of the Borough. Similarly, a section to the south of ULVERSCROFT is not part of the Borough: this includes MARKFIELD and GROBY POOL.

CHARNWOOD FOREST overlies some of the oldest rocks in the country. These are mostly hardened volcanic rocks and slates, known as the PRECAMBRIAN SERIES, which have been folded by the movements of the earth into a low dome. Parts of this have since been eroded to give a horseshoe shaped structure lying north-west to south-east with the open end towards SHEPSHED and the rounded end towards ANSTEY.

These rocks are mostly overlaid by free draining red marl laid down in the Triassic period which has led to an acidic, clay soil. The area has two major drainage systems. The BLACKBROOK runs north from CHARLEY, past SHEPSHED and joins the RIVER SOAR at NORMANTON. In the south, streams around ULVERSCROFT drain south-east for several miles and then swing through 180 degrees to join the SOAR at QUORN.

High points of CHARNWOOD are BEACON HILL (818 feet); ULVERSCROFT (773 feet) and BRADGATE PARK (600 feet). The overall impression is of a hilly countryside rather like the foothills of the Lake District and standing higher than the surrounding plain of LEICESTERSHIRE.


It was long thought that the area of CHARNWOOD FOREST was completely uninhabited until the time of the Roman invasions. But now there is persuasive evidence that there were settlements at BEACON HILL much earlier than previously thought.

Evidence from artificial defences show that the area was inhabited as far back as the Neolithic period, approximately 4,000-2,000BC. A hoard of Late Bronze Age (1,700-600BC) objects was discovered here when a drive was constructed through the entrenchments of the hill. This consisted of two spearheads, a gouge and an axe. An armlet was also found nearby, together with an axe mould of the same period. All of these contained traces of lead, added for easier casting. Such a hoard suggests that the site was probably a settlement or a focal point in this period. BEACON HILL is also the site of one of the only two IRON AGE forts discovered so far in the County, dating from between 600BC-AD43. This forms one of the last surviving visible features in the landscape known to the CORITANI, the tribe who occupied most of the East Midlands area at the time of the Roman Conquest.

BEACON HILL may also have been a stopping point on the SALTWAY. This was an ancient route by which salt was brought from the Norfolk coast into the Midlands. It came into Charnwood at SIX HILLS, ran into BARROW ON SOAR and continued on into QUORN. Some authorities think that it then continued up to BEACON HILL and possibly even further on to the west.

The Romans took advantage of the FOREST's natural resources and developed quarrying of both slate and granite. The trade was also taken outside the area and rocks from CHARNWOOD have been found in Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire.

According to DOMESDAY BOOK, there was only one small settlement in CHARNWOOD FOREST in 1086. This was at CHARLEY, outside the boundaries of CHARNWOOD BOROUGH. The population density of fewer than 2 persons per square mile and agriculture was poorly developed. The greater part of the land fell into the large Manors of GROBY, WHITWICK, SHEPSHED and BARROW, as it had in SAXON times. Most of the surrounding villages had extensive wooded areas, a proportion of which lay inside CHARNWOOD FOREST. This was in stark contrast to the rest of the County, which had very little surviving woodland by this time. The present parishes of NEWTOWN LINFORD, WOODHOUSE and SWITHLAND are not mentioned in DOMESDAY and so presumably did not exist as separate villages at this time. This makes CHARNWOOD one of the only places in the MIdlands where large areas of land remained open and unclaimed at the end of the 11th century. It is also fair to assume that the area had altered very little from its primeval state.

The first major intrusions into CHARNWOOD FOREST came in the 200 years after the Norman Conquest, when land was cleared and settlements created. QUORN was established between 1086 and 1153 and all the land up to WOODHOUSE had been reclaimed from the forest by 1228. NEWTOWN LINFORD probably existed as a "daughter" settlement of GROBY before 1293 but was only recorded as a separate settlement at this date. A rectory is mentioned at SWITHLAND in 1220 but there is no other confirmation of a settlement here until the 14th century. Each of these new villages took major areas of land out of the Forest for use in agriculture and by 1293 it was legal for each freeman to reclaim "waste" land for cultivation. Each village was located in the bottom of valleys on comparatively fertile land but reclamation of such virgin land was no easy matter.

Monastic settlement was widespread in the Forest, probably because it provided seclusion and cheaply available land for cultivation. GARENDON ABBEY was established here in 1133, ULVERSCROFT PRIORY around 1150 and ALDERMAN'S HAW in 1220. These establishments spread the reclamation of land out of the valley bottoms and further into the higher ground until they were the largest landholders in the FOREST. Not only that but they also owned extensive fishing, hawking and hunting rights.

The monks of ULVERSCROFT in particular were enthusiastic clearers of the forest. With the other large estates and new villages all clearing land, deforestation must have proceeded rapidly all through this period.



There seem to have been comparatively few major changes in land use in the period 1600-1800. The dissolution of the monasteries meant that the lands of GARENDON, ULVERSCROFT and others were now in the hands of favoured aristocrats rather than the church but other than the establishment of a park at GARENDON, there was little change in how the land was managed. However, the 16th century also saw the beginning of small scale enclosures which were to continue until the final ENCLOSURE ACT of 1829.

The early industrial revolution led to a demand for charcoal and timber both of which contributed to the further loss of woodland in the FOREST. And while a certain amount of natural regeneration through seeding would have been expected, this seems to have been hampered by the huge numbers of rabbits or "conies" which were to be found all over the area. Their huge numbers were largely responsible for the almost moorland quality of the landscape for decades, a state of affairs which was to continue right up to the myxamatosis outbreaks of the 1950s.

By the end of the 18th century, most of the woodland had disappeared, leaving large areas of moorland and pasture. Woodland remained on the uplands but even here, clearing had left it's mark.

Although never formally a Royal Forest, the preservation of game for hunting was always extremely important in the history of CHARNWOOD. During the medieval period, the main animal hunted was Fallow Deer but by the start of the 18th century, the emphasis had shifted to foxes. This was the time the QUORN HUNT became established, although the difficult terrain meant that hunting in the FOREST itself was never popular. But fox hunting did begin to affect the management of the Forest, especially the woodland areas, where several spinneys were planted up to serve as fox coverts.

The 1829 ENCLOSURE ACT was the culmination of the most significant man-made change in the history of CHARNWOOD FOREST: the enclosure of the previously uncultivated land, open fields and common land. The remaining unenclosed moorland, woodland and open farmland was divided up into many privately owned farming units marked out with hedges or stone walls. Most of the land which could be used for arable crops was drained and brought into cultivation and there were other major changes in land use. Stone and "soakaway" systems of drainage were installed and early forms of crop rotation began. As well as the farmland, roads and trackways within the forest were rationalised and enclosed with most of the hundreds of miles of hedging, walls and fencing now in the Forest being put up at this time. According to the ENCLOSURE AWARD MAP of 1829, almost 11,000 acres of moorland within CHARNWOOD FOREST were brought into cultivation by Enclosure.

But 1829 was only the last act in a gradual enclosure of the forest lands which had been going on piecemeal since the 16th century. One of the most dramatic of these came in the mid 18th century and is described by NICOLS as follows:

FROM "THE HISTORY AND ANTIQUITIES OF THE COUNTY OF LEICESTER" (J Nichols) - 1795 "In January 1748... the inhabitants of the neighbouring villages assembled at Charley Knoll and, after a formal consultation, began to pull down fences where encroachments had been made upon the forest.... Afterwards the rabble of the country (sic!) proceeded to dig up and destroy the rabbits. The persons who owned the warrens proceeded to protect what they called their property and found it necessary to guard themselves with firearms. A warrener named William Whittle and four or five of his assistants were attacked by the rabble on Warren Hill. A scuffle ensued with pitchforks, spades, pick axes etc., the warrener being the only person having a gun... Two troops of Dragoons came down, who took great numbers of the rioters prisoners, so that the gaols at Leicester were filled with them".

After the dust had settled, a memorial was drawn up and signed by many people from 26 villages which had an interest in the Forest land. This included most of their clergymen, who had supported the protests. Of the 26 towns and villages, those in CHARNWOOD were SWITHLAND, ROTHLEY, MOUNTSORREL, THURCASTON, CROPSTON, ANSTEY, LOUGHBOROUGH, BARROW, QUORN, WOODHOUSE, NEWTOWN LINFORD, THRINGSTONE, SHEPSHED, HATHERN, WOODTHORPE and MAPLEWELL. The memorial begins:

"We, the freeholders, farmers and commoners of the several towns hereto annexed having a right of common upon CHARNWOOD alias CHARLEY FOREST desire in behalf of ourselves and great numbers of commoners, in the first place, to express our concern and abhorrence of the manner of the late proceedings on the said commons".

The text then goes on to express the great hardship that was being imposed on them but the tone throughout is very restrained. Eventually, the ACT OF ENCLOSURE was passed and over 30 square miles of open forest land was enclosed and parcelled out.

Perhaps this could explain why the 1829 ACT was passed with relatively little controversy. Most of the really valuable land had already been enclosed before this, leaving little to protest about.

The impact of humanity on CHARNWOOD FOREST has been even more pronounced in recent decades.

QUARRYING has expanded greatly, perhaps making its greatest impact in the BUDDON WOOD area close to QUORN and MOUNTSORREL.

FARMING AND FORESTRY have made huge changes, leading to the replacement of broad-leaved trees with conifers and, in some places, the permanent loss of rare plant species. This was, again, most felt in BUDDON WOOD, which was all but cleared during the Second World War, resulting in the loss of 16 rare species, many of which are no longer to be found anywhere in the Forest.

The effects of the RECREATION industry have probably been most felt in the BRADGATE PARK area. Some parts of the Park, as well as the OUTWOODS and BEACON HILL are now markedly suffering from soil erosion, litter and, in some cases, vandalism.

CHARNWOOD has a relatively large number of RESERVOIRS with several being built in the mid to late 19th century. Although their construction meant the loss of large areas of land, there has probably been a net gain in the variety of flora and fauna due to the creation of aquatic, marginal and wetland habitats.

The most visible change in the FOREST was probably the construction of the M1 Motorway in 1965 which effectively cut the FOREST into two halves, acting as a barrier which many of the larger mammals can no longer cross. However, it has also provided over 50 acres of "strip" wildlife reserves in the form of the motorway verges.


Out of the original 13,500 acres of semi-natural countryside in CHARNWOOD FOREST in the 19th century, only about 3,000 acres remain today. Although some interventions, such as the building of Reservoirs, have increased the diversity of plants and animals, the underlying trend has been steadily downwards. Only a very few of the original species of plants and animals are found here today and some of them have disappeared only recently. For example, the last Otter in Charnwood was reported in 1964 while the last Red Squirrel in the forest is thought to have been seen in 1947. Although, on a personal note, I am sure I remember a very excited primary school teacher pointing out a RED SQUIRREL in the trees around the entrance to the QUORN HOUSE estate to me and my school friends in the early 1960s!

 Charnwood History Overview
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Text by Terry Allen
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