National Character Area 121

Low Weald - Description

The Low Weald today

The Low Weald is the eroded outer edges of the High Weald, largely coinciding with the outcrop of Weald Clay but with narrow bands of Gault Clay and the Lower and Upper Greensands which outcrop close to the scarp face of the South Downs. Below the irregular escarpment of the greensand belt and the chalk lies a broad vale, rarely exceeding more than 40 m above sea level, with many areas as low as 15 m. The resulting landscape is gently undulating with occasional steep-sided stream valleys, ridges and plateaux, becoming hillier to the south as it reaches the South Downs.

Water is a dominant feature, owing to the topography and impervious clay, particularly ponds and many meandering streams with riparian willows and alders. The area includes major parts of the valleys and flood plains of several principal rivers of the region such as the Wey, Mole, Arun, Adur, Ouse, Eden, Medway, Teise and Beult and supplies water to surrounding NCAs, specifically via reservoirs.

Land use is still predominantly agricultural, and largely pastoral owing to the heavy clay soils with either grazed grassland or forage, including hay meadows. Most grassland has been agriculturally improved, but fragments of unimproved, floristically rich meadow and pasture are still present.

Fields are generally small and irregular, many formed by woodland clearance or ‘assarting’ in the medieval period and often bounded by shaws or formed from cleared land along woodland edges. Many of the especially species-rich hedgerows in this area may be remnants of larger woodland and often follow the pattern of medieval banks or ditches. Wherever there are lighter soils on slightly higher ground, more mixed farming is found, including arable and fruit growing on the drift deposits of brickearths in Kent. Fields in these areas tend to be larger and more regular with fewer hedgerows.

Like the High Weald, the Low Weald is densely wooded, especially in its western arc through West Sussex and Surrey. Numerous and extensive blocks of ancient, semi-natural coppiced woodland and important wood pasture sites, such as Ebernoe Common, are striking features. Oak is the principal tree and, despite centuries of clearances for settlement, transport and agriculture, significant areas of ancient woodland survive.

Isolated farmsteads, often occupying ancient sites (some moated), form the predominant settlement pattern, intermixed with small villages, often with ‘Street’ or ‘Green’ names suggesting secondary settlement. These farmsteads are associated with a landscape of small and irregular fields, created by assarting from woodland in the medieval period, or medium-sized and more regular fields created between the 15th and 18th centuries by enclosure through agreement of former arable strips. The latter are more common in the eastern parts of the area. Many small towns and typical Wealden villages on the heavier clay soils in the western part are scattered among a patchwork quilt landscape of woodland, permanent grassland, hedgerows and wetlands. Traditional buildings are often made of brick, with local colour variations, and some flint towards the South Downs. Pre-18th-century buildings were predominantly timber framed and even later buildings are often weatherboarded. The rural character of most of the Low Weald now contrasts against modern, urban centres, most notably the area around Gatwick Airport in the centre of the NCA.

The landscape through time

The Weald is a geologically complex anticline; a dome of rocks folded after their deposition, with the oldest strata exposed at the centre in the High Weald as the top of the dome has been worn down by erosion. The folding was due to the effects of the Tertiary Alpine Orogeny (mountain-building episode). The area was not glaciated but was affected by periglacial erosion. The Low Weald is dominated by the Lower Cretaceous Weald Clay formation which largely forms an elongated horseshoe around the older rocks of the High Weald and is encircled by the Greensand Ridge. It is predominantly low lying, dominated by heavy clay soils, with thin bands of calcareous limestone (the fossil-rich Paludina beds), and beds of sandstone deposited by a river and estuary system flowing from the north, west and south. Weald clay consists of clays, silts and localised sands and limestones, marking increased marine dominance within the Weald with possible links to the North Sea Basin. Many sites such as clay pits excavated for the brick and tile industries yield well-preserved fossil insects, plants and reptiles and expose clear geological sections. The complex geology of the Weald gives rise to many habitats and land uses.

Human occupation dates from at least the Mesolithic, with heavy exploitation of the Low Weald by hunter-gatherer communities who constructed both semi-permanent and temporary camps, and there are important Mesolithic sites, including rock shelters. Evidence of woodland clearance has also been detected and by the Bronze Age farmer communities were making inroads into the Low Weald, clearing large areas. This increased during the Iron Age and Roman period with a network of Roman roads linking the area to London and the coast. From at least Saxon times, livestock were driven to the Wealden forests to feast on acorns and beech masts or to the downland to graze on the higher pasture. Numerous north-south roads are a legacy of this traffic. By the medieval period much of the Low Weald was being managed as a patchwork of assart fields and woodlands with dispersed manorial farms and market settlements, many of which developed into modern-day villages and hamlets.

There is evidence of iron working in the Weald for over 2,000 years. For two main periods, during the Roman occupation and in the Tudor and early Stuart era, the Weald was the main iron-producing region in Britain. The geology of sands and clays yielded iron ore and the stone and brick to build furnaces. The woodland provided the necessary charcoal fuel for smelting and numerous small streams supplied water power for the bellows and hammers of the forges and furnaces. Many ponds were created in the impervious clay in order to store additional water to supplement natural watercourses. At its peak at the end of the 16th century, the Weald supported around 100 forges and furnaces and the iron industry impacted on every aspect of life and the landscape. Large numbers of people were employed in digging ore, cutting wood, charcoal making and transporting raw materials and products. The legacy is still evident in the landscape of surviving hammer and furnace ponds, grand houses built by wealthy foundry owners and the remains of the coppiced woodland which was managed for the production of charcoal. It also continued to inspire research and art long after its demise and Kipling’s lines in Puck’s Song evoke the largely accurate impression of a densely wooded, relatively sparsely populated medieval landscape concealing an extensive industry on which the prosperity and political ambitions of England depended: “Out of the Weald, the secret Weald, Men sent in ancient years, The horse-shoes red at Flodden Field, The arrows at Poitiers!”�

The geography, rivers to the channel and abundance of wood, particularly oak, also made the area vital for ship-building and there were often conflicts.

In the late 16th century laws were passed preventing the setting up of any new ironworks in some parts and to preserve trees within 12 miles of the coast to protect the important Sussex ship-building industry. As coal replaced wood as fuel for furnaces during the Industrial Revolution, the iron industry moved north to the coalfields. The last furnace in the Weald closed in the early 19th century and ship-building also began a terminal decline as iron replaced wood. Much of the forest was left unmanaged or cut down for pasture or building. Agriculture again became the most lucrative industry. Livestock grazed the lush pasture, with cattle also used as draught animals on soils that were too heavy for horses. Today’s red Sussex cattle descend from these hardy, manageable beasts. The lighter soils in the east supported major suppliers of fruit and hops. Hop growing was on an industrial scale by the 19th century with manure from cattle important for fertilising hop gardens. Oast houses remain characteristic of this landscape, most having been converted to residential use as hop growing all but died out commercially in the Low Weald in the late 20th century.

The same geology that supported iron also supplied raw materials for brick and tile making which still continues. Excavations often reveal important geological strata and fossils. An example is Lower Dicker, famous for its Dickerware pots and bricks until the early 20th century. Its disused quarry is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Geological Conservation Review site. Stone, including Bethersden ‘Marble’ and Horsham Stone, was also quarried and brick making was an important local industry. In addition to the ponds created to supply the iron industry these activities, together with the digging of marl to improve the heavier soils, have resulted in a landscape peppered with small ponds. Traditional buildings reflect the availability of local materials and are timber-framed or, from the late 18th century onwards, built with local bricks and tiles of varying hues of dark red to orange, often with weatherboarding. There is also use of flint towards the South Downs and sandstone locally.

The railway came to the Low Weald in the 1840s with the completion of the London to Brighton main line in 1841 and the Redhill to Tonbridge and Brighton to Hastings lines in 1846. However, the area was subject to less largescale development during the 19th century than adjacent NCAs and it was not until the 1950s that the expansion of villages within the commuter belt really took off and urban centres, such as those around the Gatwick and Crawley area, began to form. Even today, the NCA retains much of its rural character with many small-scale villages surviving within a network of rural roads and densely wooded areas.