Hatfield Is One of Our Most Ancient Forests, but It Is No More a Natural Landscape Than Its Neighbour, Stansted Airport

By Barker, Paul | New Statesman (1996), August 29, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Hatfield Is One of Our Most Ancient Forests, but It Is No More a Natural Landscape Than Its Neighbour, Stansted Airport


Barker, Paul, New Statesman (1996)


I turn off from the pasture land and am immediately in a dense thicket. Stems of deadly red berries - lords-and-ladies - are the only points of brightness. I see none of the deer I am looking for. A black bullock and I stand and look at each other quizzically, till I retreat on to a green lane between the hawthorn trees and blackberry bushes.

On this hot day in late August I meet no one in the forest, apart from one man with his dog. (We nod.) An old oak has a trunk torn open like an eviscerated cow. A shattered ash points a long dead finger to the ground. Mistletoe hangs from an upper branch of a field-maple.

This is not the place, however, for New Age musings about the beauties of untouched nature and regrets for an uncontaminated island. I see the white scuts of the occasional rabbit (medieval invader), hear the honk of Canada geese (20th-century invader), periodically see a plane. But Sir Norman Foster's silvery air terminal at Stansted is just out of sight. The skyline of Hatfield Forest is nothing but trees, though the foreground is often grass.

Local Essex people - from Harlow, perhaps, or Chelmsford - come here, mostly, to sit by an 18th-century lake in the forest, and eat an ice-cream, picnic or fish: green nylon tents, hi-tech rods, cool bags for the Miller Lite. Hardly anyone else seems to come to these 900 acres of forest. The name misleads: it is nowhere near Hatfield, Herts. I only discovered it 18 months ago.

Away from the lake you are in one of the most ancient landscapes we have. This does not mean it is "natural" or untamed. This is not the rain forest. It never has been.

The landscape historian and naturalist, Oliver Rackham, in his great book, The Last Forest - which is all about Hatfield - says: "Forests are one of the most prolific fields of pseudo-history . . . We still read, for example, that forests necessarily had to do with trees; that medieval England was very wooded; that the king's hunting was protected by savage laws and extreme punishments; that trees disappeared because people cut them down to build ships; that trees can only be regained by planting them; and that the Forestry Commission is heir to the ancient forest administration."

All this, he argues, is untrue. The forest, in England, was a place of careful regulation, created for hunting, and in particular for the fallow deer another immigrant species introduced by Anglo-Norman kings from the deer-parks of their Sicilian-Norman counterparts.

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