Cranborne Chase and Paradise

This is from an old book, Highways  & Byways of Dorset by Joseph Pennell. It is generally assumed that most ofthe forests of Britain were lost due to the enclosures acts, but here is another reason, amongst many, for the loss of this huge forest in Dorset:

The glory of Cranborne Chase has well-nigh departed. Cut into on all sides by the woodman’s axe and the plough, nibbled at on all opportunity by the land-grabber, it has dwindled at last to a little oasis of wild country on the borders of Wiltshire and Dorset. Here it remains – as Mr Hardy says – “a truly venerable tract of forest land, one fo the few remaining woodlands in England of undoubted primeval date, wherein Druidical mistletoe is still found on aged oaks, and where enormous yew trees, not planted by the hand of man, grow as they had grown when they were pollarded for bows.” Here is a secluded piece of England which has changed but little since the days of King John, when probably the “walks” and the halter tracks were first made through the great forest.

The Chase came to King John through his wife – an heiress of the house of Gloucester. He gave up the lady – by the process of divorce – shortly after he was raised to the throne, but he did not at the same time surrender her possessions at Cranborne. It remained on and off a royal forest until James I, granted it to the Earl of Salisbury, by whose family a portion of it is held to this day. There was a time when the Chase extended ton the North to Shaftesbury and Salisbury, and was encircled on its other sides by the Stour and the Avon. It had then a perimeter of over 80 miles, while through the centre of it ran the great Roman road from Old Sarum to Exeter.

There were certain lodges in the ancient Chase, as well as certain “walks” and trackways through it, each of which was under the charge of a ranger. It was alive with deer and game of all kinds. As late as 1828 there are said to have been 12,000 deer within its confines.

The Chase became a happy hunting ground for adventurers of many kinds. There were, first of all, certain gentlemen of the district, who formed themselves into a body of “deer hunters”. These aristocratic poachers had unlimited “sport” in the Chase, for besides mere deer hunting there were frequent and bloody combats with the authorised keeper of the Chase as well as with poachers, who were not of the hunters’ “set”. Hutchings gives the portrait of a noted deer hunter, painted in 1720, in his cap and jack. The cap looks like a straw beehive, while the jack is a long quilted and ornamental coat that could have withstood much buffeting.

Later on the Chase proved a famous resort for smugglers, who found its many shady hollows convenient for the hidign of such goods as hey landed at Poole of Swanage. It was a ready retreat also for thieve, murderers, and criminals of every grade, because shelter was safe and agreeable, and food was always at hand. If to these frequenters of the glens be added common deer stealers, poachers of small game, blackmailers, tramps, and vagabonds, with others who follow the humbler paths of vice, it is no surprise that in time the Chase became an unholy haunt which had to be “put down” as a mere covert for wickedness.

In 1830 therefore, it was disafforested, and silence fell upon the place forever. No longer was the stillness of the night broken in upon by the crackling rush of startled deer, by the yells of throttled poachers, or the wrangling of thieves over bags of booty, nor were men to be come upon digging pits by lantern light in which to hide spirit kegs or an occasional excise officer with a hole in his skull.

“The place however, still possesses great charm, and an old keeper, who had lived all his life there, testified to the same when he said, speaking of a sermon he had heard in which the beauties of Paradise were descanted on, ‘It seems by the account to be a desperate pleasant place,. But I do now believe, notwithstanding that the parson said, that if there was but a good trout stream, running down Chicken-Grove bottom, Fernditch Wake would beat it out and out.”


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