Hatfield Forest – Essex’s Ancient Woodland

Old Hornbeam in Hatfield Forest

Hatfield Forest is the last remaining example of a Royal Hunting Forest in England.

Straddling the Essex and Hertfordshire borders, Hatfield Forest dates from the time of the Norman Kings almost 950 years ago, and some of the original ancient trees date back even further.

Over one thousand acres lie in wait for the keen walker, runner and cyclist on tracks and trails, which, it is said, are like stepping back in time into the Middle Ages, such is the unspoilt beauty that has remained unchanged for hundreds of years.

All the elements of a traditional medieval forest survive here, from the deer and cattle grazing on the grasslands to the coppice woods and scrubland.

An hour’s drive from Central London and immediately south of Stansted Airport, Hatfield Forest was established as a Royal hunting ground following the introduction of fallow deer on local woodland on the orders of the Crown.

Owned and maintained by the National Trust, the forest takes its name from the Anglo Saxon hoep-field, meaning ‘heathland in view of the woodland.’ The word ‘forest’, strictly speaking, means place of deer rather than of trees.

Hatfield Forest in springtime is a sight to behold, with half a billion buttercups providing a spectacular backdrop for those in search of flora and fauna.

Nature Lover’s Paradise

Once part of the immense Forest of Essex which covered swathes of the county all the way to Epping in the south west, Hainault to the south and Writtle to the east, Hatfield Forest is a nature lover’s paradise, where nightingales, nuthatches and reed buntings can be seen, along with green and great spotted woodpeckers, great crested grebes and sparrowhawks.

Some of the ancient trees, like living sculptures with their huge, twisted roots burrowing deep into the ground and weather-beaten trunks reaching to the skies, have lived through centuries of history, dominating areas of woodland between the open, savannah-like landscape in between – all originally laid out for kings and noblemen to ride through at full speed in pursuit of deer and wild boar.

Oaks, yews, horse chestnuts and black pines can be found in abundance here, and badgers, muntjac and fallow deer roam freely – the latter descended from the original herd introduced to the forest by Henry I in the 12th century.

Created a royal estate by Henry’s father William the Conqueror, Hatfield Forest was in the 1700s owned by the Houblon family, who created the lake and built the Shell House, a Georgian lodge built for family picnics and encrusted with delicate shells imported from the West Indies.

The warren, to the west of the lake, is a rare example of a 17th century rabbit warren, once under the charge of the estate’s official rabbit breeder whose job it was to provide meat and fur for the owners. The remains of ‘pillow mounds’ – artificial burrows built to encourage the rabbit population – can still be seen today.

Tracks and bridleways abound here for cyclists, walkers, joggers and horse riders – amid spectacular scenery and abundant wildlife all less than 40 miles from the very heart of London.

Hatfield Forest has its own Forest Café for refreshments – and the Duke’s Head in neighbouring Hatfield Broad Oak (www.thedukeshead.co.uk, 01279 718598) is a popular stop-off point for thirsty visitors.

Nicki Williams was a writer for outdoor clothing and equipment specialists Gear-Zone, who have now unfortunately gone out of business.

Photo Credit: mke1963 via Compfight cc.

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