I    The Early Forest

ORIGINALLY the great forest which became known as Windsor Forest covered a huge area of England. It comprised parts of Buckingham, Middlesex, nearly the whole of Surrey, and the eastern part of Berkshire as far as Hungerford.

Not all the trees we see today would have been familiar to the primitive people who hunted, fished and inhabited the area. The Romans introduced sweet chestnut trees which they grew as coppices to split to make strong fences. Sycamores and horse chestnuts were not introduced until Elizabethan adventurers brought them back to decorate the parks and gardens of our country mansions. But there were also many native trees like willow and alder growing by the rivers and streams; elder, holly, birch and hazel surrounding the heaths and commons, and woods of oak, ash, beech, pine and lime. These comprised the main forest and they would all have supplied timber for shelter, handles for axes and spears, and logs for fuel.

Neolithic hunters dropped their stone weapons, to be discovered later and find their way into cases in the Reading museum, Roman coins have been found in several local villages, and two Roman roads are said to have joined up at Whistley, one from St. Albans, and one from Dorchester on Thames. They took a route across the ford at Land's End and towards nearby Silchester.

Studying the local place names can throw some light on the type of countryside which existed in those far off days. In many cases they create a picture of what some of the forest looked like. Early travellers could have seen wild pigs running before them as they walked down Hog Moor Lane; they possibly had to wade through stretches of flooded water caused by the Broad Water stream, crossed Lea Heath on the way to the undulating land at Merry Hill Green, and then on to the bishop's Beare Wood at Bearwood. Alternatively they could have crossed the river Loddon at Sandford, rested under the trees on Alder Moor, poached some fish from ponds at Colemans moor, then walked up Beggars Hill to Land's End.

Speculative map of the area using modern translations of ancient place name
Select a name for more details, or click the map to scroll through the maps
(Map distorted and not to scale)

Not all those names date back to before the Norman conquest, and the origins of some are still in doubt, but they do show that much of the forest was covered, not just with trees, but with moors, heaths, hills and rivers with fords to cross them.

The main ford across the Loddon was at Twyford where the river had to be forded twice by the road that led from London to central Wessex, thus giving Twyford its name. 'Rot's enclosed land', or 'Rotes camp' is a name which has changed over nine hundred years to become Ruscombe. Woodley dates back to at least the 13th century and the name implies a meadow by the wood, the 'Ley' or 'Leagh' element meaning a meadow. Winnersh was mentioned in 12th century rolls and again 'Winn' implies a meadow or pasture, while 'erch' or 'erse' means stubble or ploughed field. The name Sindlesham is more obscure but may have derived from a personal name, 'Synnel's ham', or the clearing belonging to Synnel. Newland, however, means just that, 'new land' a name that was often given to land cleared for cultivation in a medieval forest. The first reference appeared in the 13th century.

There was also a meadow or clearing at Whistley. 'Wisc' means marshy ground, and as with Woodley, 'ley' a meadow, so we have the name 'marshy meadow', and it's an apt name too: even today the description fits the boggy meadows that we know on the banks of the river Loddon at Whistley.

Hinton may very well have been named long before any other part of the district. 'Hin' is an old word for a hill and 'ton' meant a fortified enclosure.

The historian, Major P.T. Godsal, wrote of such a fortified hilltop in his book about the conquest of the Thames valley by the Angles in the middle of the 5th century:

The Angles could push on with confidence to Twyford, and they appear to have formed a Burh, [another name for a fortified area] at Ruscombe, at the head of the Ruscombe lake and overlooking the fords at Twyford; and to guard the southern angle of the lake and overlooking the lake shore they founded the 'tun' at Hinton. Here there is still a fine moat on the shore of the old lake, though it is not quite within the bounds of the township of Hinton.

By these organised settlements the way of the Britons from Silchester to Hurley ford was barred, whether they came by Bearwood and Hurst, or the ford over the Loddon at Twyford.

Site of the Burh, Ruscombe.

By the year 871 the Vikings were well established in the country and had a fortified base at Reading. It was part of their plan to control the area then part of Wessex. King Aethelred and his brother Alfred made several attempts to destroy the Viking raiders. The French chronicler, Geffrie Gaimer, who died about the year 1140, described the Viking encampment at Reading in 871:

The forth day afterwards came Aethelred the king and his brother Alfred. At Reading there was a great army, and the Danes soon sallied forth in an open field. They had a battle which lasted a whole day. There Edelwolf was killed and Aethelred and Alfred were chased to Wiscelet, that is a ford near Windesoueres [Windsor], to a pool in a marsh. There the one army turned back, they did not know the ford on the river. Thinford is still the name of the ford where the Danes retired, and the English escaped, but many were killed or Wounded.

Unfortunately this image cannnot be reproduced here for copyright reasons.

Page from Gaimer's Chronicle.

Unfortunately this image cannnot be reproduced here for copyright reasons.

 King Aethelred and an enlargement of a section of the Chronicle showing where Whistley, Twyford and Windsor are mentioned. (© British Library. Ms 13A XXI F 113. Reproduction prohibited)

That is the first known account to mention any part of the parish: it proves that Whistley and Twyford had been given names at a very early date. Could it have been one of the Vikings, chasing Aethelred and his army across the ford over the river Loddon, who lost the sword which was discovered in the Thames near Twyford in 1893? The Norse sword was originally 2 feet 7 inches long and weighed 11lbs. 11oz; and is now in the museum at Reading. And did the meadow which was called 'Danes Field' in the Tithe award get its name from those Vikings?

Alfred, who fought in that battle, became King on the death of his brother. He decided that records should be kept of all important events as they occurred in his reign. The only people learned enough to keep such records were the monks and Alfred ordered certain abbeys to do the work. The Abbey at Abingdon, founded in the year 765, was one of those responsible for recording events and what the monks wrote down gives us a glimpse of the early history of the forest.

Less than a hundred years after the Vikings were encamped at Reading, when old men would have remembered their grandfathers' account of the` northern invaders, King Edgar, who was now ruler of a more united country, made a grant of land out of his royal forest as a gift to Wulfstan, the Abbot of Abingdon Abbey. It was to form a manor from which the Abbot would benefit by receiving produce and services. The year was 968.

King Edgar was 25 years old at the time and had only seven more years to live. He began the grant saying: 'Since our time on earth is limited, we should do good deeds now in order to secure a place among the eternal choirs of angels'. He was not ashamed to say that he was trying to reserve a place for himself in heaven. The grant continues:

Wherefore I, Edgar, King of the English and governor and leader of the peoples, I concede to my faithful minister who is called Wulfstan ten hides in perpetuity in that place where some time ago they gave to that part of the country the name of Uuieselea; and let him have it and possess it for as long as his spirit shall have a body. Moreover, when the day of his death shall come, he may leave the land to who ever he wishes in eternal heritage. The said gift is free from all worldly hindrances, with everything that belongs to it, pastures, meadows, and woods, excepting these three things: military services and the construction of bridges and fortresses.

The King was reserving the right to build bridges and castles if he thought it necessary at Whistley, and he pointed out that the Abbot's tenants might be called upon for military duties:

If any man should have the stupidity and temerity to infringe this my gift, let him be tied with heavy chains to the neck among the multitude of devilish flames unless he make satisfactory amends for his crime.

With a threat like that who would deny the Abbot's right to his manor at Whistley, and duly in the year 968 the gift was recorded and witnessed by Dunston, Archbishop of Canterbury, nine other Archbishops, four Abbots and 20 other persons.

Unfortunately this image cannnot be reproduced here for copyright reasons.


Left: later copy of the grant of land at Whitley by King Edgar (inset) (© British Library. Cott. Claud. B VI. Reproduction prohibited)
Right: 18th century map showing the manor house and park at Whistley.

The charter provides clear evidence that Whistley was populated before that date for it says, 'in that place where some time ago they gave to that part of the country the name of Uuieselea'. The site must have been chosen because it gave easy access by the rivers Loddon and Thames to the Abbey at Abingdon, it had a good supply of timber, it provided a site on which to build a mill and it had potential as a fishery.

River Loddon. Whistley Manor stood on the right bank.

Willows would have grown in abundance along the banks of the Loddon then, as they did well into the beginning of this century, and they would have been used to make equipment for catching fish. Osier growing and basket making was a thriving industry on both sides of the river and may very well date back to when the Saxon manor was established at Whistley.

The enclosure is given as 10 hides, which could have amounted to over 1,000 acres. A hide was thought at that time to be between 48 and 100 acres but it did vary in size in different parts of the country at different times. It may not have represented a given acreage, but was rather a way of determining what payment or services were due reflecting the land holders ability to pay dues, rather than the actual size of his estate.

When Abbot Wulfstan died he gave his personal gift of the manor of Whistley to help support the Abbey.

Walnut trees, with fishing ponds, Whistley Court Mansion prior to gravel extraction.