The history of Penn and Common Woods

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Remains of a quarry in Common Wood (Photo WTML)

Penn Wood and Common Wood together form one of the largest areas of ancient woodland in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Today the woods are renowned as a wonderful place to relax and enjoy being outdoors, but their peace and tranquillity conceal a fascinating industrial past.

Dating back centuries, we know that the woodlands have provided a home and been a source of materials and income for many individuals. Over the years, Penn and Common Woods have had many different functions, ranging from a Roman settlement to a wood-turner’s workshop and even an army base. The woods today have taken their shape as a direct result of this rich and changing history.

Early history

Roman settlements in Penn and Common Woods

Evidence from studies conducted by the Chess Valley Archaeological & Historical Society suggests that a Roman settlement was present in the woodlands from 100 to 300 AD. A number of artefacts dating back to this time were found during an excavation. These included brooches, fragments of jars and dishes, coins and agricultural tools, as well as two pieces of a quern-stone that had been used to grind cereal. All these findings indicate the Romans were using the woodlands as a domestic dwelling place.

The Iron Industry

There is strong evidence of iron smelting in the woods, but it is unclear where the iron ore actually came from. One theory is that it could have been present naturally on-site, with wood being readily available to provide fuel for the furnaces.

It is thought, however, that some of the pottery remnants that have been discovered could pre-date the Romans, indicating they were simply continuing the iron production that had already been established in the Iron Age.

LiDAR Scanning

The team from Chess Valley Archaeological & Historical Society carried out further research using a LiDAR scan. This system of Light Detection and Ranging uses a laser light to measure variations in ground height, giving an accurate image of the terrain. The results of the survey revealed man-made features dating from the prehistoric to the 20th century. These included old banks, pits and quarries, as well as sunken lanes, or holloways, which were probably used for the transfer of goods and livestock. See the full LiDAR report (PDF 943KB).

From the Middle Ages

Penn Wood

Hunting ChaseThe 'Penna', which translates from Old English as ‘the enclosure’ or ‘pen’, together with Rogmanshamhatch Corner, meaning 'roe-hedge-of-the-gravel-hamlet-gate', both refer to the use of the wood as a deer enclosure for Wycombe Heath as far back as 500 AD. The parish of Penn takes its name from this saxon enclosure. During the reign of Henry I (1100 – 1135 AD), the woodland was used as a chase (hunting ground), with hunting rights reserved for the citizens of London.

Common Wood

By the 13th century, the woods played a different role. Common Wood was so called due to the fact that, together with Penn Wood, Kings Wood and St Johns Wood, it once formed part of Wycombe Heath, an extensive area of over 4,000 acres of common land used by local people. 

The woodlands proved to be an invaluable natural resource and local people (commoners) from the bordering parishes of High Wycombe, Little Missenden, Amersham, Beaconsfield, Penn and Hughenden made full use of their rights to utilise the land for grazing their livestock, collecting wood and excavating clay, sand, chalk and flint.

How the commoners used the woods

Livestock grazing

Subsistence farming played a vital role for many people in medieval England, so being allowed to put cattle, horses and sheep out to feed off the land was essential. Many commoners also exercised their right to pannage, the entitlement to put pigs out to eat the acorns and other nuts found in the wooded areas of the common, to fatten them up in autumn.

Wood collecting

Commoners were not entitled to fell the trees in the woods (this right was reserved for the Lords of the Manor) - except for maple, hazel, sallow willow, crab apple and bushes. There are however several records of fines being imposed on them for doing so. They did have permission to take the underwood, fallen branches and any wood left on the forest floor. This wood was used as fuel or as a construction material for building houses and fences as well as making equipment such as tools and carts.

Pigs

Pigs were an essential part of the medieval woodland economy to such an degree that the Domesday Book for Buckinghamshire measures the extent of woodland by how many pigs it could, in theory, sustain - assuming about two-and-a half acres per pig.

The earliest record regarding pigs goes back to about 1206 and concerns the right to pasture pigs in Wycombe Woods and Penn Wood without having to pay pannage (rent). It was generally only freeholders who had the right, without payment, to drive their pigs into the woods to browse and fatten on the acorns and beechnuts. Villeins (feudal serfs) were required to pay pannage for the privilege, usually at the rate of a silver penny for a yearling pig and a half penny for a young pig.

In the 18th century, fines were still being imposed by the Manor Court on commoners who failed to ring their hogs.

Other privileges

Commoners had to guard their privileges jealously and there were continual disputes as to the rights of common to be enjoyed.

Records of disputes in 1576 and 1665 in neighbouring Kings Wood and St Johns Wood, also part of Wycombe Heath, show that commoners claimed, for time out of mind, that they had enjoyed rights of common for all manner of cattle except mares. Also the liberty to dig chalk and clay, sand and mold, and to cut bushes, maple, hazel, sallow, willow and crab and no other wood.

There were also pathways and rights of way through the wood.

Watering holes

(Photo: one of the many ponds/watering holes in Penn Wood, WTML/Deborah Morris)

Ponds scattered throughout the wood served as essential watering holes for the commoners’ livestock in an area where the underlying porous downland soils wouldn’t naturally support surface pooling. Great Gagemoor pond (meaning "goose-moor" pond) is thought to have originally been a mineral pit and Beamond End a natural solution hollow. Such dells in the wood were probably enlarged and lined with "puddled" clay, a process of compaction which further reduced the clay’s permeability. 

Historic features

Banks and ditches

The wood is criss-crossed by banks and ditches, some of which may have marked the boundaries of different owners, or were for woodland management to keep animals away from young trees. The present footpaths sometimes follow the line of these boundaries.

There is a 70m x 50m irregularly shaped and undated earthwork enclosure formed by a slight external bank and shallow ditch. It was recorded by the county archaeologist in 1989. It is similar to a number of such enclosures found in the Chiltern woods and could be connected with a hunting lodge or a gamekeeper’s hut.

Penn contains a number of archaeological features which are typical of an ancient woodland site. There is a large wood bank surrounding most of the perimeter which is many centuries old and this is particularly prominent on the southwest and northern boundaries.

Pits and dells

Dry hollows found throughout the wood have been identified variously as solution hollows or surface pits, from which flint, loam, clay, chalk and mold (compost like soil) were extracted. These archaeological features are the irregular shaped hollows with spoil heaps found within easy reach of Penn Street, 'streat' being a Saxon word commonly used to describe a Roman road, in this case adopting an iron age route.

The solution hollows are geological features formed by the localised erosion of underlying chalk. The overlying clay that has slumped into these hollows has a deep red colour, indicating its ancient origin. Such soils are regarded as fossil features that developed in the hotter climates associated with pre-ice age temperatures. These soils are most visible where fallen trees have exposed their rootplates.

The Enclosure Acts

The Enclosure Acts were a series of Acts of Parliament which changed legal property rights to land that previously permitted communal use. In 1855, ownership of Common Wood and Penn Wood passed to the 1st Earl Howe, forcing many local people and their livestock off the land. Naturally this caused a general mood of unrest and rebellion within the outraged community. For centuries, villagers had sustained themselves by grazing their animals on the common and gathering what they could from the land.

When the woods became private property, many of these people were plunged further into poverty. Unsurprisingly, years of unlawful protest followed where poaching was rife and fences were flagrantly pulled down as the local people tried to take back what they deemed to be legitimately theirs.

Industries

(Photo: Penn tile, credit © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Clay digging

The woods have a varied geology. As a result, pits and hollows can be seen all over the woodlands, left from the extraction of clay, sand, gravel and chalk. Clay was a precious commodity which was used in the manufacture of bricks and tiles. Penn and Tylers Green was well known for the production of distinctive, decorative flooring tiles which could be seen in royal palaces (including Windsor Castle), churches and manor houses across the whole of England. (Photo:  Penn tile,  credit © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Chair making

See the separate page on Penn Wood's association with chair making.

Military use of the woods

Penn Wood was used as an army training camp during the Second World War, complete with an assault course and a rifle range. There was room for around 300 soldiers, with the officers lodged in houses in the area. After the war, it was used as a prisoner-of-war reception centre and then later as a holding base for Polish soldiers waiting to return home.

The Victorian era

(Photo: E.O.Hoppé picture (c1932) of the Keeper's Cottage from book on The Penn Country by the CPRE (Campaign for Protection of Rural England)

After the Enclosure Acts enabled Earl Howe to take private ownership of the common land, he removed the livestock and set about arranging the re-forestation of the land with oak, beech and conifers. He also laid out ornamental drives and avenues lined with rhododendrons and azaleas, cherry laurel and spineless holly for the benefit of the Countess who was fond of driving in the woods and particularly enjoyed the ornamental species, many of which exist in the woods today. Not only did the trees provide a source of timber for the growing furniture trade in High Wycombe,they and the exotic species also made the now private woodlands more attractive to aristocratic shooting parties who visited the estate.

With the removal of cattle and the planting of trees, the once ancient pasture changed over time to privately-owned forest and the whole site is now classified as a planted ancient woodland site (PAWS) in the ancient woodland inventory because of this replanting.

The central junction in Penn Wood became a striking open sunny place of ornamental value in Victorian times, contrasting with the surrounding, densely shaded high forest. The remains of an old fountain dedicated to Ernest Cook who owned and cared for the wood and a copper beech presented by Prince Charles to celebrate the purchase of the wood by the Trust, now share this peaceful space. 

Owners past and present

There have been many changes of ownership of the site. For instance, Common Wood and Penn Wood were probably one wood until Segraves Manor was formed from a confiscated part of Penn Manor in 1222. Segraves was given 100 acres known as Segraves Wood, together with another part known as Mynchen Wood. These separated parts were returned under the same ownership of Penn Manor in the early 17th century.

(Photo: The 7th Earl Howe)

Public access has now been restored, thanks to the efforts of the local community. In 1993, the previous owner of Penn Wood submitted plans to build an 18-hole golf course complete with a practice area and car park. Many members of the public, led by the Friends of Penn Wood, opposed this scheme. A six-year campaign against the proposal followed before the application was finally rejected. The Woodland Trust acquired Penn Wood in 1999. A purple leaf beech tree was planted on site by the 7th Earl Howe to celebrate the triumph of saving Penn Wood from development. 

Public ownership of Common Wood returned in 2002 when it was bought by the Penn and Tylers Green Residents' Society. Aided by the Woodland Trust, the group set about raising the £500,000 needed to purchase the site when it was being auctioned off in lots, to ensure it would remain open to the public.

The present and future of Penn and Common Woods

Cattle grazing

Grazing cattle have been returned to Penn Wood in an attempt to restore the woodland to its former glory. Cattle have been used as a method of managing the land since medieval times, with the animals helping to maintain open pasture by trampling down thickets and fertilizing the ground. Turning the land back into traditional meadows encourages a vast array of flora and fauna to return to the site, including butterflies and other insects, nesting birds and colourful wild flowers.

(Photo: Dexter cattle in Penn Wood, credit JM/WTML)

The woods have already benefited from extensive investment. One of the first phases saw the introduction of new, surfaced pathways and signage, making the site accessible to all and easy to explore. Family events are held within the woodlands to encourage visitors, and plans for ongoing improvement will ensure Penn and Common Woods remain an enchanting place for everyone to enjoy. 

A comprehensive history of Penn Wood was researched and written by Miles Green, a local historian, who conclusively proved that the area had been woodland since the Doomsday Book. He was instrumental in the recognition that Penn Wood is ancient woodland.

More about Penn Wood