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Brede's History

Today Brede High Woods are a quiet and tranquil place in which to relax and enjoy the trees and wildlife.

But this place belies its industrial and agragarian past. Evidence for these activities can be seen throughout the woodland, in the form of pits, mounds, banks, ditches and living trees.'

The in-depth on-site survey work and historical literature study of Brede High Woods was completed in 2009 and has uncovered a truly fascinating, varied and complex history.

The introduction to the history of Brede High Woods shows what a fascinating and varied past the woodland has had:

The history of Brede High Woods (PDF, 1.8MB)

Full detail the 200 page archaeological and historic landscape report (PDF, 6.2MB)

A summary booklet of the findings will be produced and made available to all in 2010.

If you would like more information generally about woodland archaeology we have also put together a reading list with some useful references (PDF, 0.1MB), it can be downloaded here.

Project background

The Woodland Trust owns some real gems of woodland in the South East; woods rich in preserving the history of the local landscape, for example in Kent, Joydens Wood with its Anglo-Saxon earthworks, in Surrey, Great Church Wood near Marden Park with its prehistoric field system and rifle butts; and in East Sussex sites such as Moat Wood near East Hoathly with its medieval moated manor and field system.

In fact, nearly every piece of woodland is likely to contain something from the past whether it is an old boundary bank, mineral extraction pit or a veteran tree. Brede High Woods is a recent Woodland Trust acquisition, purchased in 2007 which is also proving a treasure-trove of preserved archaeology relating to its long agrarian and industrial past.

As well as all the earthworks the woodland is rich with wild flowers, insects and birds, many of which reflect the multiple uses to which the woodland was used, arable, pasture, hops and orchards, gardens – even a tennis court, old quarries and of course coppice woodland.

As a landscape archaeologist it is my job to research, identify and record the history of woodland landscapes. The work involves studying old maps and manuscripts, to identify how the wood was managed and then to use the findings to look for archaeological features on the ground, record them and draw up management recommendations for their future conservation

Brede High Wood

Working with my colleague Angus Foad and with the Woodland Trust Officer David Bonsall, we have been systematically recording the archaeology in Brede High Woods uncovering saw pits, wood banks, field banks, house sites, animal yards and farmsteads, iron ore pits, charcoal hearths to name just a few features. The conversion of a mixed woodland and farmland landscape to one of high forest was the result of the construction of the Powdermill Reservoir to provide fresh water for Hastings.

In order to protect the catchment area the farmsteads of Austford and Brede were demolished and the fields planted to conifers and broad leaves. Beneath the tree canopy old field boundaries, gateways, and farm tracks hidden and preserved. Running through the woods is the old lane from Austford to Brede High which first recorded in the 13th century. It survives as a discontinuous hollow way or track with a bank on either side.

Industrial Past

Today Brede High Woods is a beautiful, tranquil place, where one can escape the hustle and noise of the 21st century. But this was not always the case. The production of iron has taken place at Brede since probably the Roman period reaching its height in the 17th and 18th century when the valley of the Powdermill Reservoir would have resounded to the sound of the bellows and hammer from the furnace. Smoke would have hung over the valley from the fires and charcoal hearths.

The beautiful areas of old hornbeam coppice interspersed with the irregular mine pits and the old charcoal hearths have a sense of timelessness about them. The coppice woods would have been alive with men cutting trees, sawing logs and firing hearths. The furnace was then converted to a gun powder works, which did experience a number of explosions, some of which killed workers.

Field walking in earlier spring this year has been a real pleasure, with the wild flowers carpeting the woodland floor and revealing clues to past land use such as the pattern of bluebells in areas of former ancient woodland spreading into old arable fields, now under confer plantations.

There is a wealth to see from the main paths through the wood, but the field survey has enable me to visit some very remote quiet corners of Brede High which only the charcoal burners or wood cutters would have seen on a regular basis - a real stepping back into the past.

The results of the archaeological survey reveal what a rich legacy the Woodland Trust now has in its care and it is available to anyone to come and enjoy.