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  • Archaeology

Summary of the Bedgebury Forest archaeological survey


The archaeological assessment of Bedgebury Forest, supported by the Local Heritage Initiative, was undertaken by local community volunteers under the guidance of a professional landscape archaeologist on behalf of the Forestry Commission.


  • To inform the Commission about the archaeological resource so that they can take this into account whilst managing the forest
  • To provide an opportunity to study the local landscape
  • To form the basis for leaflets, guided walks, displays, exhibitions and interpretation boards to enable wider appreciation of the archaeological resource.

Location map

Bedgebury Forest is not a true ‘Forest’ in the medieval sense but a wooded area adjacent to Bedgebury Park. It includes the National Pinetum, the world’s finest collection of conifers, and The Friends of Bedgebury National Pinetum were instrumental in setting up this project. It is in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and listed among the ‘Seven Wonders of the Weald’.

Geology & Soils

Bedgebury Forest is on a high plateau, with rolling hills forming domed ridges. The soil is poor and acidic, which is why woodland still remains here - better quality, more accessible, land was cleared for agriculture long ago. Clay iron-stone, the basis of the Wealden iron industry occurs as well as sandstones and clays; quarries and brickworks are evidence of use as local building materials. In the 1920s prospectors looked for oil and coal on the Estate.

Bedgebury is between the catchment of the rivers Medway and Rother. This is likely to have been an important topographical feature in the distant past. Streams in the Forest show evidence of dams, storing water for the iron industry and later ornamental lakes for Bedgebury Park.

Vegetation and Landuse

Bedgebury Forest and Pinetum have always been wooded so are classified as ancient woodland sites. Heather is found and this, combined with documentary evidence, suggests part may have been managed as wooded heath. Since the Forestry Commission brought the site in 1924 many of the native trees have been replaced by conifers or sweet chestnut over much of the area. Commercial forestry management, which continued until the 1990s, was supported by tree nurseries and sawmills within the forest; the focus is now on recreation, marketed as ‘Adventure in a world of trees at Bedgebury’. Facilities include walking, cycling, mountain biking, horse riding and orienteering based around a Visitor Centre. The theme of the play area is Victorian plant-hunters creating a link to the world renowned Pinetum collection.

The development of the recreational facilities have been carefully planned to take into account conservation issues and minimise disruption to Bedgebury’s abundant wildlife and special habitats. However no survey of the archaeological resource has previously been undertaken, although many features are known to be present. The change in management focus from timber production to public recreation presents an ideal opportunity to make large numbers of people more aware of this aspect of their cultural heritage.

The project

Volunteers, after attending training sessions, undertook research to produce a ‘desk study’. This was followed by training in fieldwork and groups then worked across the selected areas of the site recording and photographing all features found. Information from both phases has been combined into a two volume report available at Cranbrook Museum, the Centre for Kentish Studies, Forestry commission and Kent County Council and was the basis of an exhibition at Cranbrook Museum. Despite the time and effort expended this project has only scratched the surface of the rich history of Bedgebury; there is scope for a great deal of additional work to complete the picture.

What we found

The Public Record Office at Kew holds a collection of material on Bedgebury dating from the 13th century up to the 1920s. Many of these documents relate to land, from transfer of parcels to tenancy agreements, and include some ornate ‘certificates’. The parish Tithe Maps provide a picture of the woodlands and park in the 19th century, with other historic maps showing how the landscape has changed over time. Much further research remains to be done.

Fieldwork was hampered by dense undergrowth in areas and, due to limited time, concentrated on a significant linear feature.

Prehistoric and Roman Evidence – contrary to previous thought prehistoric communities did not avoid the Weald because of its dense woodland; the important food and mineral resources were utilised from earliest times. It is possible that a prehistoric ironway crosses the area; a Roman road runs nearby at Cranbrook, where there is a Roman bloomery.

Pre-Domesday - Various Anglo-Saxon Charters refer to swine pastures in the Weald and the area is crossed by droveroads and trackways – many persisting today. During the early medieval or Jutish period agricultural holdings extended from their hubs west into the Weald, over previously wooded common land; documentary evidence links Bedgebury with Wye, a royal manor prior to 1066, Hollingbourne, Faversham and Sturry, all in East Kent. Hartley (field of young stags) was mentioned in AD 803 as at the end of a drovers road from the manor of Wye .

The first specific mention of Bedgebury is an Anglo-Saxon Charter of AD 841 and the name derives from the OE ‘bycge’ and the OK ‘vecge’ meaning to bend or turn, possibly referring to the stream(s). By the time of Domesday, the ‘dens’, still persisting in place names indicating settlements in wooded surroundings, were well established.

Medieval Bedgebury

Families often took their names from where they lived and the archives list John de Bedgebury as the earliest resident in the time of Edward II [1307-1326]. Members of this family are buried in Goudhurst Church and are linked by marriage to the Colepepers, alos known as the Culpeppers, who were resident until at the time of the restoration of Charles II, and rebuilt the mansion – the site of the original is thought to be under the lake - and created the park. The estate later passed into the Stephenson family who retained it until it was left to a Miss Peach who quickly sold it to John Cartier, Governor of Bengal and Sheriff of Kent, in 1788-9.

Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Thomas Cromwell all visited Bedgebury.

Bedgebury lies in the heart of the Kent iron producing area. The Bakers of Sissinghurst and the Culpeppers were landowners who set up iron works, where raw iron stone was smelted with charcoal to produce the pig iron, and then turned into iron products, mostly munitions. These processes required a plentiful supply of water, wood and charcoal. The Wealden Iron Research Group has amassed considerable evidence and details about the industry, the location of forges and furnaces and the products.

William Camden describes the sight of the Weald iron works in Brittannia, 1526, as -:

"It is full of iron-mines for the casting of which there are furnaces up and down the country, and abundance of wood is yearly spent; many streams are drawn into one channel, and a great deal of meadow ground is turned into ponds and pools for the driving of mills by the flashes which, with the beating with hammers upon iron, fill the neighbourhood round about, night and day, with continued noise. The proprietors of the mines, by casting cannon and other things, make them turn to good account. But whether the nation is in any way advantaged by them is a doubt which the next age will be better able to resolve" .

The iron industry had a significant effect on the woodland as much was coppiced and processed into charcoal. Direct evidence of this remains throughout Bedgebury in the form of charcoal heaths. In the early 1600s the people of Cranbrook made a formal complaint about the consumption of wood, destined for the casting of guns. Pond bays and penstocks (or reservoirs) are also visible remainders of the iron industry as are the names Furnace Farm and Forge Farm. Lake Lousia, now part of Bedgebury Park was probably one of the penstocks for Frith Furnace.

Bedgebury is surrounded by a number of old farmsteads. Some were former manors and others were part of the Bedgebury Estate. The current project has uncovered rental and tenancy agreements and sale particulars which record owners and when these were acquired by the estate, particularly in the 19th century. Likewise changes in ownership of Bedgebury itself have been traced. At one time the estate included 30 farms.

Routeways through and around Bedgebury

Bedgebury Forest lies at the end of several Jutish lathes and manorial den systems belonging to manors in north and north east Kent. Routeways into this part of the Weald were well established by the early medieval period, probably developed from Jutish droveways that followed former Roman and prehistoric routes used for exporting iron products. Some researchers consider that a prehistoric ironway runs through the southern part of Bedgebury.

A network of lanes surrounds Bedgebury. Some, for example Bishop’s Lane, running east from Forge Farm towards Furnace Farm; were explored as part of this project. It was partly obscured by the disused railway line but can be traced on from Furnace Farm to Hartley as a bridleway. This route may have been used by the iron producers at Furnace Farm as a means of transporting their iron goods out to Cranbrook and on out of the Weald. Soper’s Lane, Siseley, formed part of the boundary perambulation of the den linking Highgate in Hawkhurst to Frith Farm.

Many lanes and tracks around Bedgebury are hollow ways, created by the passage of feet, hooves and water erosion over centuries of use. This project focused particularly on a complex linear feature running west to east through the forest along the ridge of high ground which divides the water catchments. Another linear earthwork branches from this route, running north towards Furnace Farm and two further branches lead west out of the Forest across Starvegoose Bank. .

The Railway Line

A railway line was proposed by Beresford-Hope in 1869 to link Paddock Wood and Cranbrook, where a station was opened in 1892. A short extension was added to Hawkhurst, with the station at Gills Green. The railway partly followed ‘Bishop’s Lane’ an ancient routeway. The railway provided a life line for getting timber and agricultural products out of this part of the Weald; a 1955 photo of Hawkhurst station shows huge numbers of hop poles stacked awaiting dispatch. During the First and Second World Wars timber harvested and processed by the four saw-mills on the Estate for the war effort was distributed by rail from sidings within the estate. The line closed in 1961, part of the Beeching cuts.

Bedgebury Park and Pinetum

In 1836 Viscount Lord Beresford enclosed the red brick house with local sandstone, probably from Priors Heath Quarry and extended it. He ‘improved’ the estate between 1840 and 1848 by creating the village of Kilndown and three lodges. One of these, Keepers Lodge, now known as Park House, is in the centre of the Pinetum. The ornamental Park developed from the late 17th century. We know that from 1850 the estate staff increased – to 40 gardeners at the peak – housed at Kilndown and Bedgebury hamlet.

The Pinetum

In the mid 18th century plant collecting was all the rage with private landowners vying with each other to include rarities in their collections. Marshal Viscount Beresford initiated the pinetum in the 1850s and his successor, his stepson Alexander James Beresford-Hope, developed Lady Mildred’s Drive to enable visitors in carriages to view the trees. Named for his wife this currently runs from Marshall’s Lake through the Pinetum and originally continued on to Bedgebury Lodge. It was marked by Lawson’s cypress trees, some of which can still be seen.

The estate was sold in 1899 to Isaac Lewis who allowed the collection to fall into neglect, and it was purchased by the Crown Estate in 1918. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the Forestry Commission established The National Pinetum as a joint venture in 1924 as air pollution was rendering London unsuitable for growing conifers and there were already some fine, mature specimens there. A site at the southern end of Bedgebury Park was chosen, centred on Marshall’s Lake and occupying a stream filled valley; Forest Plots were laid out close to the former pheasantry at Birchen Toll.

The Second World War saw action at Bedgebury, for in 1940 six bombs and one incendiary bomb fell on the Forest. In 1942 there was a disastrous forest fire when more than 360 acres of Bedgebury Forest was destroyed. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s visitor numbers grew which lead to the creation of a car park in the old walled fruit garden belonging to Bedgebury Home Farm. In 1977 the Pinetum was extended southwards and two new lakes were created. In 1987 a quarter of the standing trees in the Pinetum were brought down in the ‘Great Storm’. In 2006 the car park was moved further up Park Lane, adjacent to the new visitor centre serving both the Pinetum and Bedgebury Forest with extended visitor and recreational facilities.

C20th History

The Crown Estate Commissions purchased the Estate, which consisted of 2326 acres from Isaac Lewis between 1918 and 1919. Much of the timber, valued at 80,000, was Scot’s Pine, with other stands of conifers and chestnut coppice being the principle species. It was transferred to the Forestry Commission in 1924 and the mansion house and park were passed to the Church Education Corporation, the forerunner of Bedgebury School.


The current project has barely scratched the surface of the archaeological resource preserved within the Forest; the volunteers concentrated on recording the main east-west linear earthwork and associated features.

The multi-banked and ditched linear feature

This is almost continuous through the Forest from the south west corner at Windy Ridge, Flimwell, to Louisa Lodge. Parts could not be followed because of dense vegetation and here parts may been removed by forestry operations. The earthwork re-appears along Park Lane before finally disappearing near Duke’s Wood. At the Windy Ridge end a branch joins near the Saw mill site with another heading due north past the site of the brick works and on towards Furnace Farm. Aerial photos and early maps suggest there maybe another two branches leading north and south from Hedginford Wood.

At first glance this earthwork, which is over 60m wide in places with up to half a dozen banks and ditches of varying sizes, could be interpreted simply as a routeway following the ridge of high ground that divides the catchments of the River Rother and that of the Rivers Beult and Medway. This is probably too simple. It seems likely it was originally a route linking the iron producing areas of the Weald to communities in the North Downs and North Kent Coast in pre-Roman times. It came to mark the division between two large wealden commons, which became broken up into the ‘dens’ or swine pastures; the earthwork marks the division between the dens of Wye and the dens of Hollingbourne. In the post-medieval period it was still a significant boundary marking the division between two landowners. Bedgebury Estate had its heyday in the 16th century with the creation of a ‘New Park’; it is possible that the boundary of this partly followed the earthwork. It is not clear when it stopped functioning as a routeway but it is not shown as such on maps and documents in the late 18th century.

The Forest is criss-crossed by earthworks of various kinds and size – banks, ditches, and lynchets. More research is required to record these but the profile of those studied suggests they may be the remains of former field systems. We have no clue as to when these were enclosed or when they fell out of use.

Saw pits and Charcoal Hearths

Given that Bedgebury Forest is in the Wealden Iron producing area, it was not surprising that charcoal hearths can be seen. All but one of those recorded was circular, up to 10m across, on slight slopes and near water. One was rectangular; perhaps a later hearth taking several ‘clamps’ to produce charcoal for the house rather than the iron industry.

Saw pits are often found near charcoal hearths. With only horse and man power it would have been very difficult to move whole tree trunks so they were processed into sawn timber directly where they fell.

Modern drainage networks

Digging drains ahead of coniferisation was standard practice in the past. Several ditch systems can be seen on the 1946 aerial photos, examples of ‘modern archaeology’.

Pond bays

One of the limiting factors in iron production was need for water to power the furnace bellows and the hammers in the forges. Wealden streams are notorious for being raging torrents in winter fading to trickles in summer, so holding water in reservoirs or penstocks was vital. Pond bays were identified within Bedgebury, north of Iron Latch and at Starvegoose Bank, in addition to the previously recorded ‘hammer ponds’ at Frith and Furnace farms and Louisa Lake.

Quarries and brickworks

Clay pits for brick making were easily recognised as they are close kilns and drying sheds. But for other areas of quarrying, for example Hedginford, it is not clear what was being extracted. Nor is it not clear whether iron stone for the furnaces was dug in Bedgebury Forest or brought in from outside.

Future management of the archaeological resource

Forestry operations and recreational activities can have significant impacts on the archaeological resource. It is clear from this project that there is still a huge amount of un-recorded archaeology within the Forest. Further study is required and, until comprehensive coverage has been achieved specific surveys should be undertaken of any area where change in use is planned.

In the meantime interpretation of features already recorded is going ahead.