Introduction to the History of the Vale
The Forest of Marston Vale is centred on Bedfordshire’s ‘Brickfields’, an area of former clay pits stretching ten miles between the M1 motorway and the southern fringe of Bedford.
In pre-history the whole area would have been a mixture of woodlands, wet woodland (river flood plain) and marshes. Due to man’s change from hunter gatherer to farmer and his clearance of woodland to create agriculture, the Vale has not been well wooded since the Iron Age. Much of the surviving ‘ancient woodland’ probably resulted from regeneration after the end of the Roman occupation of Britain.
Bedfordshire was on the very edge of two cultures during the period after the Roman occupation, known as the ‘Dark Ages’; the Vikings in the east and the Saxons to the west. Indeed Bedford was an important river crossing point and consequently it was fought over many times. As Saxons finally dominated the area, settlements and land exploitation concentrated on the better quality soils; this tended to leave belts of woodland on the higher ridges as seen in the Doomsday survey of 1086. Extensive woodland was largely confined to a broad belt on the western Clay Ridge and the scarp slope of the Greensand Ridge.
A major phase of woodland clearance took place during the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, when the medieval population was at its highest and there was a severe shortage of land for agriculture. After this time woodland clearance continued, but was more sporadic, the result being the sparser distribution of ancient woodland at the time of the Enclosure Awards in the late Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. This distribution is similar to that seen now. A number of deer parks were made by clearing some of the woodland during the medieval period: Brogborough, Beckerings and Combes Park in the Ridgmont/Lidlington area and others at Ampthill, Marston Moretaine, Millbrook and Stagsden. Unfortunately, there is now little trace of most of these.
The surviving woodlands in the Vale are concentrated at the edge of the brickfield area and on the ridges. All the woods would have been productive and intensively managed until around the mid-Twentieth Century, when a decline in demand for the wood and wood products they produced led to regular management ceasing in all but a few.
Management of woodlands is important. Woodlands, especially ancient, semi-natural woodlands, are home to a very wide variety of wildlife and they have cultural and heritage significance. They form important components of the landscape and can provide enormous pleasure to the many people who have the good fortune to be able to visit them. Without management, a great deal of a wood’s historical meaning, beauty, wildlife and ease of access can be lost.
Many hedgerows in the Vale remain, but are in poor condition although their management has been improved as a response to environmental schemes from the early 1990s. As a result of elm disease in the early 1970s, large numbers of hedgerow trees have disappeared.
As brick-making production accelerated throughout the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, great swathes of agricultural land were scarred by the digging of huge pits for clay extraction. Once worked out, these either filled with water to form lakes or were used as landfill sites for household and other rubbish. The area was designated in 1991, one of 12 Community Forests in England, because of its previous industrial use and its proximity to urban developments (Bedford / Milton Keynes). At that time it had the lowest percentage of woodland cover of any of the newly designated ‘forests’ at 3%. The 40 year Forest Plan aims to establish around 30% woodland cover by its end date of 2031.
An oral history of the Marston Vale, focussing particularly on the brick industry, was carried out between 2001 and 2004. To find out more and hear some extracts of recorded interviews, click here.