There aren't many places in England (as opposed to the UK) where you can still get lost in a wilderness and there are even fewer ancient forests where you can wander for hours without seeing another person. Savernake Forest is one of those few remaining places.
Last weekend we were on another of our "butterflies and history" trips, this time in pursuit of the Purple Emperor, a fabulous gold and purple butterfly that lives in the tree canopy where it feeds on aphid honeydew. Occasionally it will come down to the ground to find sap or in the case of the male, animal droppings, carrion or moist ground to provide salts and minerals. Apparently people will often try and lure the males down from the canopy using everything from banana skins to shrimp paste. I hadn't read this when we set off and so had neither shrimps nor bananas and although we had our own animal with us there were no droppings so perhaps not surprisingly we didn't see a Purple Emperor but we did have a magnificent time wandering in the ancient woodland.
No-one can say how old Savernake Forest is. It pre-dates the Norman Conquest of 1066 and there is a reference to it as "Safernoc" in a Saxon Charter from King Athelstan in 934AD. After 1066 the wardenship of the forest was given to Richard Esturmy, a Norman knight, and Savernake Forest has passed down from father to son or daughter in an unbroken line for 31 generations, never once being bought or sold in a thousand years. Today it is the only Forest in Britain still in private hands.
One of Savernake's claims to fame is that it was here, at the fabulously named Wolf Hall, that Henry VIII courted Jane Seymour (although they apparently met at Littlecote House nearby). Wolf Hall, referred to as Ulfela, in the Domesday Book of 1086 was the ancestral home of the Wardens of the Forest, first the Esturmys and then the Seymours, who came to it via the female line. Local tradition states that Jane and Henry married in the ancient barn at Wolf Hall although it is more likely that a wedding feast was held there in celebration. The barn survived into the 20th century and when it burned down in the 1920s it apparently still had the hooks on which the wedding decorations and tapestries had hung. The Seymours had left Wolf Hall to live in Tottenham Lodge by 1575 (for a while it was given over to servant accommodation) and in 1665 it was partially demolished to help rebuild Tottenham Park after fire damage. The picture above left is a postcard of Wolf Hall from the early 20th century and the one on the right is the 16th century barn. The name Wolf Hall could have several derivations: either from "Wulfan -heall" (Wulfa's hall or palace) or "wulfan-healh" (a corner of land frequented by wolves). Wolves were common in the Savernake Forest until the 14th century, a fact which is all too easy to imagine as you walk along the leafy paths deep within green darkness.
By the 18th century the forest had come into the ownership of the Bruce family through marriage with the Seymours and a "new" Tottenham House was built in 1742 to a design by Lord Burlington. The family rose in prominence and Thomas Brudenell-Bruce, 1st Earl of Ailesbury, was Governor to the Prince of Wales (later George IV) and Prince Frederick. The Earl employed Lancelot 'Capability' Brown to plant huge beech avenues in Savernake Forest including the Grand Avenue which runs through the heart of the Forest and at 3.9 miles (dead straight) stands in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest avenue in Britain. Capability Brown's intention was that the forest should be made part of the parkland of Tottenham House. The scattered coppices, meadows, scrub, and heath should be united, into "one great whole." Ancient ponds and wooded glades for animal grazing were all turned into landscape features and other drives and avenues cut through the forest. In 1820 Tottenham House was redesigned again, this time as a grand Palladian mansion, building a much larger structure around the older Burlington house and covering the old bricks with blocks of Bath stone. In 1870 two large symmetrical wings were also added completing the extraordinarily grand house that still stands today.
Facing Tottenham House, on a hilltop at the end of another long avenue, is the Ailesbury Column, erected in the 1770s to commemorate the restoration "to perfect health from a long and afflicting disorder" of his majesty King George III. I blogged about this recently on the UK Regency Authors' Blog in a post about the celebrations on the recovery of George III. This was where we stopped to have our picnic in the sunshine. The view down from the hilltop towards Tottenham House was stunning.
On our walk back through the forest (using GPS to find our way back to the car!) we passed a number of the huge, ancient oak trees for which Savernake is also famous. The oldest of these pollarded trees is the Big Belly Oak which has a girth of 11 metres and is 1000–1100 years old. Of a similar age is the Duke's Vaunt Oak, and other veteran trees we saw included the King Oak, the Queen Oak and the Pointing Oak. Savernake apparently has the largest collection of veteran trees in Europe and it is an amazing feeling to be walking amongst trees that would have been standing when King Henry VIII came here to hunt over this same ground.