National Character Area 92

Rockingham Forest - Description

The Rockingham Forest today

The area comprises two culturally distinct sub-units, the Rockingham Forest and Soke of Peterborough, which nevertheless share many similar physical characteristics. The Rockingham Forest area takes its title from the Royal Hunting Forest that existed across the area from the 11th to the 19th century. The forest’s modern extent is defined by a combination of these former legal boundaries and its physical characteristics. The Soke of Peterborough was also a distinct administrative area for many centuries and this title is still used to define the physically distinctive countryside to the west of Peterborough.

The distinct scarp and ridge of the Rockingham Forest area are comprised mainly of Jurassic limestones of the Great Oolite Group, including Blisworth Limestone Formation and Cornbrash Formation. Along the river valleys, both the Lincolnshire Limestone Formation and Northampton Sand Formation of the Inferior Oolite Group are exposed or near the surface. The Northampton Sand Formation contains substantial deposits of ironstone. The ironstone deposits have been mined for centuries, most recently as strip mines, resulting in deep linear quarries known as ‘gullets’, surrounded by extensive areas of spoil. The higher ground is capped with boulder clay (glacial till) which gives rise to heavy, intractable soils unattractive for cultivation. In the north, within the Soke of Peterborough, the land flattens out. Cornbrash and river gravels predominate near the surface, and the western margin of the area is strongly influenced by the alluvial clays and gravels along the Nene Valley.

Large areas of woodland are a significant feature of the landscape, especially the core area of historical Rockingham Forest, with areas of broadleaved as well as commercial plantations extending across the elevated plateau and ridges emphasising the topography of the landscape. Extensive areas of ancient woodland – such as Wakerley Great Wood, Geddington Chase and Fermyn Woods – form prominent features on the skyline. The blocks of woodland often coalesce visually with hedgerow trees and smaller copses to increase the perception of extensive woodland across the landscape.

Woodlands are generally separated by large fields, mainly in arable use, with cereals and oilseed rape being the most common crops. These fields have low, well-maintained hedgerows with intermittent trees, and drystone walls are a feature in some areas. There are also more enclosed areas of pasture, particularly in the valleys and the Soke of Peterborough, where sheep and cattle graze and the rectilinear pattern of Parliamentary enclosure is obvious.

The network of small streams which cross the area are tributaries of the rivers Nene and Welland. At the southern edge of the area, the Ise Valley drains southwards towards the Nene. Harpers Brook drains south-eastwards across the area. Willow Brook, rising near the steep north-west escarpment, winds across the landscape to the Nene, to which shallow streams also flow within the Soke of Peterborough. Locally important historic riparian features such as wet meadows, pollards and ponds are becoming increasingly rare within the area’s river valleys.

Historically, the heavy clay soils within Rockingham Forest deterred widespread clearance for cultivation and so many of the woodlands present today are ancient. Formerly extensively coppiced, these woodlands contain a diverse range of species that are of considerable nature conservation interest; several sites are designated as SSSI and NNRs for this reason.

The lower ground of the Soke of Peterborough supports varied remnants of seminatural vegetation, including limestone heaths and species-rich limestone grasslands. Barnack Hills and Holes NNR is nationally important for nature conservation and is designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) to protect the orchid-rich grassland which colonised this former medieval limestone quarry.

The NCA is also noted for its population of the black hairstreak butterfly. Due to changes in woodland management over the past 50 to 100 years, this butterfly is now restricted in its UK distribution to a narrow belt of woodlands between Oxford and Peterborough, including a notable population in Glapthorn Cow Pastures in the south-east of the area. The red kite, re-introduced to the area in the mid-1990s, is now has a strong and expanding local population. Popular with visitors, they can readily be seen soaring over pastures and woodlands.

Publicly accessible woodlands are popular with visitors for their amenity and aesthetic value. For example, the centre at Fineshade Wood offers opportunities to view red kites on the nest, cycle hire and trails for all abilities in surrounding woodlands.

The area contains many outstanding 17th to 19th century country houses and there are several Registered Parks and Gardens – such as Deene Park, Boughton House and Rockingham Castle – which make an important contribution to a sense of place and history and add to the overall wooded character of the area. Imposing churches with towers and spires, containing features dating from the 13th to the 15th century, are a striking feature of the villages.

Settlements generally lie along the valleys surrounded by small pasture fields, bounded by robust old hedgerows or stone walls, and are linked by sinuous minor roads contributing to their remote character. Larger settlements also contribute to the character of the area, notably the historic market town of Stamford in the north with its network of historic trackways converging on the centre with its collection of fine 18th-century and earlier stone buildings, and similarly for other larger settlements such as Kings Cliffe.

Despite being in close proximity to several large towns, the absence of development across wide areas imparts a distinctive, remote and tranquil character. Where long-distance views are possible, a sense of exposure prevails. This contrasts with the more settled character along river valleys. Here landform, small woodlands and hedgerow trees serve to limit views and create a more intimate landscape.

The older village centres usually have houses set parallel to the line of the single main street, their consistency of style often reflecting estate ownership. Older buildings are generally of the creamy-grey limestone in the east and ironstone in the west. Roof pitches are characteristically steep to accommodate thatch and the heavy Collyweston slates. Modern development within and around the villages is now common, with new developments tending to replicate the older vernacular stone style.

At the edges of the NCA, its character is more influenced by the brick buildings around the towns of Corby, Kettering and Peterborough and the large, modern industrial buildings and out-of-town shopping developments on their outskirts.

The landscape through time

The rocks which characterise this NCA were deposited during the Jurassic Period between about 195 and 160 million years ago, with later Pleistocene glacial sands and clays laid down on top of the Jurassic bedrock some time during the last 450,000 years. The Northamptonshire Sand Formation (including ironstones) and the Lincolnshire Limestone Formation, which are both part of the Inferior Oolite Group, were deposited in a shallow tropical sea. Overlying these deposits, the Great Oolite Group, consisting of limestones and clays, was also deposited in what was a tropical coastline environment in conditions that fluctuated between marine and brackish water. The Oxford Clay Formation was then deposited in a fully marine environment. Much later, around 450,000 years ago, ice sheets deposited stony, sandy, clay till, which drapes the bedrock in many parts of the southern two-thirds of the NCA.

The underlying rocks have been moulded by rivers and streams to form valleys, with a more pronounced slope profile and undulating landform on the rim of the plateau and ridges. Where water action has been limited, the landscape retains a plateau-like appearance. The pattern of large tracts of woodland interspersed with farmland that extends across much of the landscape reflects the widespread deposits of glacial till and associated heavy, wet soils. These were less favourable for cultivation and settlements evolved along the valleys where lighter soils are exposed (although there is increasing evidence for prehistoric settlement and land use on the heavier soils).

During the Neolithic and Bronze Age, the freely draining soils of the valleys were cleared of woodland. There were significant settlement and ritual sites on the edge of the area within the Nene Valley and the Soke around Fengate. Settlement and agriculture penetrated into the heart of the forest along the Willow Brook. The Iron Age and Roman periods saw extensive settlement by scattered, small farmsteads on the heavier claylands with the development of a major iron industry within the forest, with associated exploitation of the timber resource to produce charcoal. An ordered agricultural landscape dominated with scattered, small farmsteads. Archaeological excavations of iron kilns in Rockingham Forest suggest that the iron industry here may have been working on a scale not to be seen again until the Industrial Revolution. There was also a large Roman settlement at Castor where Ermine Street and King Street met. Substantial areas were cleared of woodland and large villas such as those found at Weldon and Barnack were established. Woodland spread again at the end of Roman occupation and Saxon settlements lay mainly around the edge of the area as Royal or former Royal manors controlling the central woodlands. Indeed, the pattern of principal settlements lying around the edge of the forest has persisted to the present day and the centre of the area remains sparsely settled. On the north-eastern edge Meadhampstead, later to become Peterborough, was the site of one of the major monasteries of early Anglo-Saxon England. In the late Anglo-Saxon period, limestone was quarried in the northern part of the area, not least to produce the Saxon churches such as Wittering and Barnack. Barnack stone was transported by wagons and boats as far south as Essex, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.

By the early post-conquest period, most of the area had become Royal Forest and when the bounds were first recorded in the late 13th century they stretched from the gates of Northampton to the gates of Stamford. By this time, following centuries of clearance, much of the land was in agricultural use with open fields surrounding nucleated villages. There were also isolated farmsteads cut out of the woodland (assarted) and there were extensive areas of waste and common, particularly in the north-east.

Iron working re-emerged as a major activity during the Middle Ages when an important pottery industry also developed, along with other associated industries including charcoal produced from the woodlands. A stone slate industry developed in the Collyweston area, and limestone from quarrying activity at Barnack became some of the most prized building material of medieval England, providing stone for nationally important buildings such as Peterborough and Ely cathedrals as well as for local buildings. In the valleys around the edge of the forest area lay the principal small towns such as Oundle and Kettering, with lesser towns and market areas including Kings Cliffe and Brigstock nearer the centre. Small areas of ridge and furrow have survived due to their long use as pasture and represent fragments of the medieval strip fields that once extended across much of the landscape.

Royal and private parks developed and often these formed the basis of the postmedieval landscape, including parks and country houses such as Milton, Boughton House and Apethorpe Hall. The Dissolution of the Monasteries saw the enforced closure and selling of land of all the medieval religious houses in Northamptonshire. Pipewell Hall, Delapré Abbey and Fineshade Priory ended up in private hands and the buildings were converted to secular use or abandoned. A developing new aristocracy created, on the back of Royal patronage, sheep farming and trade, a number of large estates at this time which still dominate the landscape today. The area contains many outstanding country houses – including Rockingham Castle, Deene Park, Kirby Hall, Milton and Drayton – and the notable collection of Tudor buildings and designed landscapes associated with Thomas Tresham: Rothwell Market House, Rushton Triangular Lodge, Rushton Hall, and Lyveden Manor and the New Bield at Lyveden. The extent of parkland has been significantly reduced by agricultural changes in the 20th century and the condition of many of the surviving areas is poor.

The iron industry petered out in the post-medieval period, but saw a brief revival in the 1850s, with a chain of quarries excavated following the arrival of the railways. As a result, some of the remaining woodland was cleared, and both Corby and Kettering saw a rapid expansion. The iron industry became centred in Corby in the 20th century. Most recently, the ironstone deposits were mined as strip mines, resulting in deep linear quarries known as ‘gullets’.

Activity during both World Wars had a lasting impact on this part of the country with the establishment of military camps and bases, and a number of airfields. Following the Second World War, a new town was developed at Peterborough and an increase in arable cultivation, accompanied by the removal of hedgerows (some of pre-enclosure origin) and hedgerow trees, has opened up the agricultural land. During the 1930s and the 1960s, many wooded areas were replanted as conifer forests. More recently these have been developed as recreation centres with surfaced, self-guided trails for walkers, horse riders and cyclists.

The distinctive character of the area’s stone-built and nucleated villages is very vulnerable to intrusive new development. Large-scale, modern, mixed-use development is evident on the fringes of larger settlements such as Kettering and Corby, creating visual intrusion and extending the urban fringe. These settlements are targeted for further growth. There is also pressure for residential development in the villages, which are popular with commuters, which – unless well designed and integrated sympathetically into the existing settlement pattern – will erode locally distinct historic vernacular and character.