TOWARDS TWILIGHT

Selwood Forest

or so South of the junction with the A361, the A36 goes through Black Dog Woods (from which, indirectly, the Black Dog Turnpike got its name).

On a map, these woods form an irregular shape, about two miles by one mile. In modern English terms, this is a pretty big wood. But this (along with Longleat Woods, a few miles West of here), is a mere remnant of a much larger expanse of timber - Selwood Forest. At its greatest extent, Selwood stretched some fifty or sixty miles - from the head waters of the Thames (near modern Cricklade) South to the borders of modern Dorset.

There is a need for caution when looking at the history of a forest. For one thing, the word "forest" doesn't always mean a dense expanse of trees. At certain times in history, "forest" may describe the form of tenure applying to the territory, to the laws which can be enforced - even when there are quite large chunks of pasture or arable land carved out of the woodland.

At other times, parts of a forest may be very different from the wild, dark and dangerous woodland of the imagination. Rather, they may be strictly managed, with coppicing and pollarding forcing growth into useful resources.

Finally, there is the problem of the natural history of woodland. Forests change over time - with climate change and natural disaster, as well as through human intervention. It can ebb and flow like an extremely slow tide. Land which has been cleared and used for centuries may revert to woodland with neglect, and may be indistinguishable from "primeval" woodland after a hundred years or so.

Selwood ("sallow wood") is the Anglo-Saxon name for a forest which hampered their expansion into Western Britain. In 577, the West Saxons had won a decisive victory over the British at Deorham (north of Bath), but it took the best part of a century to penetrate any further West (after the battle of Penselwood in 658 A.D.), and invade Somerset and Devon. This delay was crucial to the history of these territories, since the Saxons had a little time to become a little less barbaric. For one thing, they were now Christian forces, invading a Christian land.

To the Britons, Selwood was "Coit Maur" - the Great Wood. They seemed to have considerable respect for it - perhaps even fear. To them, the Great Wood was a frightening place of wild animals (and possibly wild men). Remember, these Britons had lived as Roman citizens for 500 years or so. The Romans imposed order on their territories. They preferred to live on and cultivate the open uplands. In the sixth and seventh century, they used the Great Wood's strategic position, but they didn't necessarily want to live there.

Conversely, the Anglo-Saxons were halted by the Selwood barrier, but they didn't seem to fear it. Perhaps through some racial memory of their North German homeland, they were quite happy to occupy the woodland when they got the chance. For instance, Frome was founded in the heart of Selwood.

We need another dose of caution when dealing with the peoples of this region. The histories tell us that King Kenwealh of the West Saxons defeated the British forces (under unknown leadership), but we know very little about the people who lived thereabouts. The Britons may have been led by people who regarded themselves as the heirs of a patrician Roman heritage, but the people who farmed West of Selwood probably weren't all that different from the people who farmed to the East.

In fact, by the time of the Penselwood breakthrough, we can't even be sure that people like Kenwealh were "pure" Anglo-Saxon - if there ever were such a thing. There had already been a considerable degree of intermarriage in the previous two centuries.

What's more, there must have been peoples, living in places like Selwood and the Mendips, who owed no allegiance to anyone, who were scarcely aware that the Romans had arrived, let alone departed. There are some parts of the Mendips which feel that way today.

Modern history books contain maps, showing the extent of Anglo-Saxon advance over this period. We should always remember that there were times when the only territory a man could be sure of was the ground on which he stood.

Like most of the great English forests (like Wychwood), Selwood shrank by lots of little clearances, continuing right up to the present century. It is probably as small now as it is ever going to get. Maybe one day, it will return.

Black DogBlack Dog Turnpike *Ankarette is Innocent! Frome
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