High Weald

droving anglo saxon pigs painting

The High Weald is a cultural landscape, shaped by people since prehistory to the present day. Its key landscape features were established by the 14th century and it is considered to be one of the best surviving, coherent medieval landscapes in Northern Europe.

The area held many riches for our ancestors and was an important source of raw materials: its sands and clays, stone and iron ore, woodlands and water.

The High Weald’s first inhabitants were hunter gathers. Roving bands of people moved, often seasonally, through the area seeking food and shelter. The area’s sandrock outcrops may have acted as markers to help them navigate across the landscape.

From as far back as the Neolithic period or even earlier, farmers from the Downs drove their pigs into the area's woods in late summer and autumn to fatten them on acorns and beech mast, an activity known as pannage. The woodland pastures where the pigs grazed where known as dens. Pigs being driven along the same route between their parent villages formed tracks, known as droves, which gradually became sunken, as centuries of use by many trotters, feet, hooves - and, later, cartwheels – wore away the soft ground. Over time, the dens became permanent farmsteads and hamlets creating the area’s distinctive pattern of scattered settlement – the term ‘den’ lives on in many place names. The radiating network of roughly north-south droving routes lives on as the area’s narrow, often sunken, roads, lanes, bridleways and footpaths. The woodland pastures were gradually cleared by farmers to create the small, irregularly shaped fields that we see today.

In the Medieval period large tracts of land were set aside as hunting forests and deer parks. Remnants of these Forests still exist.

 The High Weald was the main iron-producing region of Britain – having the necessary raw materials to allow iron to be smelted for over 2,000 years, with industrial-scale exploitation during two periods – the Roman occupation and Tudor and early-Stuart period. The archaeological legacy of this activity can be seen throughout the area’s woodlands.