"The Wychwood was far from entirely wooded, and yet it was one of the most wooded Forests in England. As well as woodland, the medieval Forest included a rich patchwork of meadows, cultivated open fields, heaths and downs - a wide range of wildlife habitats, and important aspects of the Forest’s landscape."
Charles Keighley - Discovering Wychwood
What is the Wychwood?
Have you noticed the word 'Wychwood' in a West Oxfordshire place name? Or perhaps you've spotted a centuries-old oak in the area? Though just fragments of the historic Wychwood Forest survive today, its cultural and ecological legacy lives on.
In 1086, the Domesday book designated swathes of modern West Oxfordshire the 'Royal Hunting Forest of Wychwood'. A dappled landscape of ancient forest, meadows, fields and heaths, the historic Wychwood Forest provided a variety of wild spaces for flora and fauna. Communities within the historic Wychwood Forest were united by shared traditions and customs, shared laws and a shared way of life.
Covering 120 square miles from the rolling hills of the Cotswolds to the floodplains of the Thames, the historic Wychwood area remains the least developed region in Oxfordshire. Traces of ancient habitats survive in the area, including limestone grasslands hosting nationally rare flowers and fragments of ancient woodland. If nature can regain a significant foothold anywhere in the county, it's here.
The map below shows the boundaries of the historic Wychwood area. Do you live in the Wychwood?
Photo: Wessex Archaeology
Long barrows and later Bronze Age round barrows show the area was settled from at least 3000 BC.
Archaeological evidence shows an increase in social organisation in the area. Towards the end of this pre-Roman period, earthworks such as Knollbury Camp and Grim's Ditch were constructed. The latter is a series of earthworks enclosing 22 sq. miles.
There was a strong Roman presence in the region following the invasion of 43 CE, and woodland was cleared for farming. Akeman street, a Roman road connecting Verulamium/St Albans with Corinium/Cirencester, crossed the Wychwood, and elaborate Roman villas have been found in the region, including two fourth-centry villas at North Leigh and Stonesfield.
After Roman control declined, much of the open land reverted to woodland. Saxon settlements were restricted to the woodland edge or large clearings.
The name Wychwood (Hwiccewudu) derives from the Saxon name for the Hwicce tribe that inhabited the region at this time. The Wychwood Forest is thought to have supplied wood for the Droitwich salt industry, which Hwicce lords monopolised. A royal hunting lodge was established at Woodstock during the reign of Ethelred II (978-1016).
The Wychwood Area was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Royal Forest. At this time, it stretched over 182 sq. miles from Taynton in the west to Woodstock in the east.
'Forest' was a legal term, referring to a tract of land outside (from the Latin word foris). It did not mean that the whole area was wooded.
Though the King had hunting rights over the whole Royal Forest, he only owned the woodland at Woodstock (later Blenheim), Cornbury and a large area near Kingstanding Farm. The rest of the land was held by various lords of the manor.
Photo: Neil Hanson
As the population grew, there was increasing demand for land, and many of the Wychwood villages were founded in this period. Finstock is first recorded in 1135; Ramsden in 1146; Fawler in 1205; Leafield in 1213; Crawley in 1214; and Hailey in 1240. The often-straggling form of these villages reflects their origins as assarted fields cleared from woodland. Many of them did not have village churches until the 19th century.
Henry I (1100–1135) created the park at Woodstock, building the first park wall in about 1110. The park was used to house his collection of wild animals from all over the world. The chronicler, William of Malmesbury, refers to lions, leopards, lynxes, camels and even a porcupine.
During the reign of Henry II (1154–1189), the forest reached its greatest size.
Under increasing pressure from landowners within the Wychwood, who wished to be released from Forest Law, Edward I divided the Wychwood into 3 portions in 1300. One of these was the Royal Palace park and woodlands at Woodstock. Another was around Crawley and Hailey, north of Witney, and the third consisted of the Royal park and woodlands to the west of Cornbury.
At the perambulation of 1300, the forest ran from Woodstock in the east to beyond Burford in the west, and from Chadlington in the north to Witney and beyond in the south. The Forest covered some 50,000 acres.
Records from 1535 show that 11 hectares of underwood sold for
£4 2s 3d. Even in those days, coppicing was not always profitable: the cost to enclose the same area was £9 9s 0d.
Photo: Sandy B
After an attempted revival under the Stuarts, the Forest woodlands fell into a gradual decline. This was interrupted in 1705 when the manor of Woodstock was conferred upon John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, to create modern Blenheim from that part of the Forest. By this point, Cornbury was already in private hands.
In 1778, the navy procured 500 trees from the Wychwood, but following this stocks fell sharply. Fences were down, coppices were full of deer, cattle and swine, and locals were helping themselves to firewood. By 1792, only 1501 hectares of the Forest remained, and a scathing report by the Crown Commissioners found only 173 oaks of ship-building quality.
In 1809, a surveyor could not find "one fine tree of navy oak" in a ride of sixteen or seventeen miles.
In 1857, the 10 sq. miles of Wychwood that remained 'Royal Forest' were taken out of Forest Law by a Parliamentary Act of Disafforestation. The commoners' ancient forest rights were ended and they were compensated. September's annual Forest Fair festivities were stopped by Lord Churchill in 1856 because of their increasing drunkenness and debauchery.
Within two years, 2000 acres of woodland had been cleared and converted to farmland and housing, with the help of 'tree throwing machines'. The timber felled from this acreage sold for £34,000. Ten miles of new roads were built, along with seven new farmsteads including Kingstanding Farm.
Legal wrangling between the Churchill family and the Crown over land adjoining Cornbury delayed the enclosures of the Wychwood around Leafield. Eventually the dispute was arbitrated by John Clutton, a surveyor who carved up the disputed land equally between the Crown and the Churchills—with the surrounding villagers getting meagre allotments to compensate them for lost woodland rights. Leafield’s parish church, designed by Sir G. G. Scott, was finished in 1860 and became the focus of the Wychwood area.
The remaining woodland was enclosed in 1867 and still exists—all that is left of the ancient Forest of Wychwood. At 870 hectares, it is the largest area of ancient woodland in Oxfordshire. The central part forms a National Nature Reserve containing over 360 species of flowering plants and ferns, and the rest is a site of Special Scientific Interest.
Other parts of the historic Wychwood area are also protected for their varied habitats, from wildflower meadows like Wigwell Nature Reserve to ancient water meadows such as Grimes Meadow.
With its wide range of habitats and surviving remnants of ancient woodland, the Wychwood provides an ideal target area for environmental stewardship in the modern day.
History of the Wychwood
Thanks to Alan Spicer, co-founder of the Wychwood Project and co-author of Oxfordshire Country Walks (Evenlode and Wychwood), for giving permission to borrow from his text in this timeline; and to Charles Keighley, whose insight and words in 'Discovering Wychwood' were also adapted in this text.
All images in this timeline are from online sources and are licensed for use by the Creative Commons act.
Explore the Wychwood
If you'd like to get out and explore the Wychwood on foot or by bike, there are plenty of routes to choose from. We've developed short guides to ten circular routes that connect with the 37–mile Wychwood Way circuit, and a longer guide to the full 37–mile route.
If you're keen to explore West Oxfordshire's countryside, the 37–mile circular Wychwood Way may be for you. The route takes you around the heart of the ancient Royal Forest of Wychwood, passing through gorgeous villages, river valleys, nature reserves and SSIs, and historic Bronze Age settlements.
We publish a very popular guide to the Wychwood Way written by Mary Webb and Alan Spicer, which also includes the circular walks mentioned below. To purchase a copy, visit our online shop.
Circular walks around the former Wychwood Forest range from three to seven miles in length, and pass through rolling farmland, ancient woodland and trackways, Roman villas and rural villages. To improve their accessibility, we've installed kissing and pedestrian gates along the routes. To find out more about the routes, please visit the Oxfordshire County Council's website or purchase our guide to the Wychwood Way.
Thanks to The Cotswolds National Landscape Volunteer Wardens and Oxfordshire County Council's Countryside Service for their help in installing the gates, and to the Trust for Oxfordshire's Environment, the Waste Recycling Group, and the Oxford Fieldpath Society for supporting the project financially.
Walks on Public Rights of Way
Many walks in the Wychwood area are on Public Rights of Way, and you can download some beautiful walks and cycle rides for free from the Oxfordshire Cotswolds website.
If you'd like to walk through ancient forest, one public right of access runs through the middle of the forest on the private property of the Cornbury Estate. Unfortunately, there is no other public right of access to the original forest—90% of the surviving forest in the Wychwood area is in private land ownership. You can find out more about the circular walk through Charlbury's ancient forest here.
Why not try out the 'Wychwood Loop', a circular cycling day ride between Charlbury and Kingham railway stations? Find out more on the Cotswold Cycling website.
Further tourism information
If you'd like to find out more about tourist activities in the Wychwood area, visit West Oxfordshire District Council's website. One useful resource is the Oxfordshire Countryside Access Map, provided by Oxfordshire County Council's Countryside Service, which shows Public Rights of Way, access land, walks, and rides in Oxfordshire.