History of the Thames Chase landscape

Many factors, past and present, have influenced the way Thames Chase looks today and how it could develop in the future.

The Forest area can be divided into three geological zones.  The Boulder Clay Plateau forms a pronounced ridge, running in a north-easterly direction towards Colchester.  Below the plateau, the land slopes to the Clay Plains, where London clays form an extensive plain.  Further south and west the sands, gravels and brickearth of the Thames Terraces were deposited by a prehistoric River Thames.  Throughout Thames Chase, the soils are predominantly acid, and reasonably fertile.  They are drained by three main river systems – the Beam, Ingrebourne and Mardyke – flowing southwards across gently sloping land, mostly less than 20 metres above sea level.

Analysis of ancient pollen samples has revealed how Thames Chase probably looked 5000 years ago.  Then, the wooded ridges were dominated by small-leaved lime, with oak, hazel, elm, pine, beech, ash and hornbeam; and lower wetter areas perhaps by carr woodland of sallow and alder.  Much of the better land was probably clearer of trees by the late Iron Age (100BC – 40AD).  In its place a ‘planned landscape’ of fields provided for the agricultural needs of early people.  The extensive pattern of their boundaries is the most important historic feature of the area.

The Domesday survey of 1086 records open and productive land with woods.  The trees were managed on a system of coppice (rotational cutting of trees at ground level for sticks and poles) mixed with standards (individual mature trees for timber).  Since Domesday the extent of tree cover had fluctuated markedly – expanding in times of agricultural austerity, only to be cleared during times of revival.  Thus as the extremes it expanded greatly in the fourteenth century after the Black death, as hedges on abandoned land grew into woodlands, and shrunk radically in the prosperous 1970s and 80s, as trees and hedges were grubbed out to make way for large farm machinery.

Medieval deer parks existed at Aveley (Belhus Parks) and a West Horndon (Thorndon Park).  In the 1730s, the eighth Lord Petre embarked on an ambitious landscaping plan for Thorndon.  These were redesigned by Capability Brown 50 years later.

Since the turn of the last century the fortunes of agriculture have not been the only influences on the land.  The fragmentation of farm holdings that followed the agricultural decline of the 1890s accelerated the appearance of smallholdings, as well as piecemeal building development.

Following the founding of Ford Motor Company’s production plant in 1930 on reclaimed marshland at Dagenham Reach, London expanded to provide housing for Ford’s workers.  New factories for car components, new housing estates and mineral extraction for construction materials ate into the countryside.  In the 1930s, legislation began to restrict urban sprawl and Essex County Council began buying land to provide a ‘lung’ for Londoners.  After World War Two, the Green Belt put a stop to building on the edges of London and nearby towns.

Although legislation helped to protect open spaces, major road building schemes, such as the M25 continued to fragment farm holdings, further eroding the character of the area and fuelling pressures for other development.  This pressure continues as illustrated by contemporary debates surrounding a new Thames Crossing that could cut through the landscape, as well as the new Thames Gateway port nearby and associated logistical infrastructure.  Man is not alone in his impact on our surroundings.  Nature itself has had a recent impact on the landscape of Thames Chase.  The devastating effects of Dutch Elm Disease and the Hurricane of October 1987 and Great Storm of 1990 brought wide appreciation of the urgent need to plant more trees now for future generations.

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