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A study of the historical ecology of a lost forest

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The purpose of this study was to record the history of Narberth Forest which appears to have otherwise gone unwritten. The Information collected here was presented to Dr. Jack Langton and Dr. Graham Jones, of St John's College Research Centre, Oxford University, as part of a Multidisciplinary Survey of the Forests and Chases in England and Wales, c. 1500 to c. 1850. Web site at-

Narberth Forest was a Royal Forest that once occupied a large tract of land to the south of Narberth in Pembrokeshire, Wales. The Forest consisted of common lands, rough grazing and woods. The local communities had various rights within the Forest which supplied them with a variety of materials and resources such as firewood, building timber and grazing, both on the commons and in the woods. These ancient customs and multiple land uses by local people continued until the Forest’s enclosure and conversion to agriculture in the 17th century. Forest law operated here until 1635.

Documentation relating to the Forest goes back to the mid 1300's but becomes more abundant and detailed for the 17th century. These documents allow an attempt to be made to determine the characteristic features of the Forest landscape as well as allowing insights into the composition and structure of the Forest woods and the management practices used in them. The loss of one the large Forest woods three-four hundred years ago is looked at. Surviving documents suggest that it was a combination of social and environmental pressures that led to its destruction.

Despite the huge changes that have taken place here, this study shows that parts of the Forest remain rich in wildlife and are of high ecological value. It is hoped that the many strands of detailed historical information drawn together here will be of use for the management of the remaining semi-natural areas and the eventual restoration of all of the Forest’s surviving ancient woodlands to native vegetation

Thanks are due to the following people for help and support during this project; Dr. Jack Langton and Dr. Graham Jones, both of St John's College Research Centre, Oxford University, for support and invaluable help and advice. David Lovelace provided encouragement and much help with wood yields and calculations. Thanks are also due to Peter Claughton for information relating to the history of the Canaston Blast Furnace.

Jon Hudson, March 2006

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Throughout this study I follow Oliver Rackham in capitalising the word Forest when using it to refer to “An area of rough land on which the King or some other magnate had the right to keep deer” 1. Today the word forest is generally used to refer to areas where trees dominate, for example the various conifer plantations belonging to the Forestry Commission. Given the common perception that the words “wood” and “forest” are synonymous and interchangeable, it is worth noting at the outset that a Forest, whether royal or private was not necessarily wooded. Most Forests did indeed have some woodland but they also usually contained a variety of other lands. Here it is important to make a distinction between the physical and the legal Forest. The physical Forest was a defined area of uncultivated land that could comprise woodland, wood pasture, wastes and commons, heaths and wetlands. This formed the core area of habitat used by the deer. Forest law operated not only within, but also beyond the bounds of the physical Forest. Land outside of the physical Forest but none the less still covered by Forest law was the legal Forest. This could include farmland, villages and sometimes even towns. Essentially then the Forest entity could contain any of the types of land present in the wider countryside around it.

What defined a Forest was the fact that it was an area of land where particular rights were reserved for the monarch or other owner and that its primary purpose, in theory at least, was to serve as an area of land set aside for hunting. Forest law was a body of law that operated within Forests that was separate to the common law. It allowed those who committed a range of offences within the Forests to be prosecuted before the Forest courts. Its original purpose was to protect game animals (particularly deer) and their habitat from destruction. Despite much that has been written about the harsh and brutal punishments meted out under Forest law, It seems that in reality it was often no harsher than the common law and often operated as a system to grant licences and to collect “fines” which in reality were merely rents levied on certain rights and privileges exercised by those living within and around the Forest. Forest law was administered through a variety of courts and was enforced by foresters and verderers. Forest offences fell mainly into two categories: trespass against the vert (the Forest vegetation) and the venison (the game). Trespasses against the vert could include activities such as Purpresture, the enclosure of forest lands or the construction of buildings and assarting, the clearance of forest lands for agricultural purposes or scrub clearance and the felling of trees. To prevent trespass against the venison, hunting was banned in the Forest except where the right of chase or warren had been granted, usually to members of the local nobility.

By the Fourteenth century interest in hunting had declined and Forests were no longer mainly used to provide game for the castle. Forest law had more or less ceased to serve its original purposes. Instead it increasingly became a system of fines to provide a source of income for the crown or other owner. As time went on Forests began to be treated in a similar way to the other parts of an estate, simply as a source of revenue. Management for timber supply became a primary function of many Forests and grazing and various rents became important sources of income. Parliament eventually passed an “Act for the Disafforestation, Sale, and Improvement of Royal Forests” in 1653. However it is clear that not all Forests were disafforested and that many continued to function well into the late 17th century. Some Forests, such as the New Forest in Hampshire survive, although in a somewhat altered, form to the present day.

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2.1. Prehistory

Ancient pollen samples collected from lakes and peat bogs indicate that after the last Ice Age the original vegetation of this area, as of most of Wales was mainly deciduous woodlands 2. Perhaps 80% of the land was covered with woodland 7,000 years ago. Woodland clearance began in the Mesolithic period but serious inroads were not made until the Neolithic period. It is estimated that by the year 1000 this figure was reduced to around 20% and that by the 20th century the figure was more like a mere 5%. It is quite possible however that in a few places, large areas of woodland still remained at the beginning of the 12th century 3.


The numerous prehistoric settlements, field systems, burial sites and trackways scattered throughout the county clearly show that this part of Wales has been inhabited and settled from an early date. There are a few sites to the south of the county that date back to the Palaeolithic age, 9000 years BC, but even Neolithic sites (4500 - 2000 B.C.) are rare. Evidence of human activity spanning the Neolithic to Roman periods has been found in the area that was later to become Narberth Forest, indicating that this was not, even at this early stage, continuous woodland. There is a possible Neolithic period site at North Hill Farm where Bronze Age items have also been found. At Carne Mountain there is a Bronze Age burial mound. Prehistoric settlement sites of probable Iron Age dates are present at Bush Inn and Sunnyside enclosures, Canaston Wood Camp, Molleston back Camp, Camp Hill and Narberth Mountain enclosures. At Newton Farm Roman period finds have been made 4. Throughout these periods people practised small-scale farming, growing crops such as wheat, rye, oats and barley as well as keeping oxen, sheep, pigs and goats. They also made pottery items and wove cloth, carrying out these practices alongside a hunting and gathering lifestyle.


2.2. History

Narberth was a chief court of the Welsh Kings of Dyfed. There clearly was a tradition of and, interest in hunting among the native Welsh royalty. The Welsh Law codes go into considerable detail regarding the practices of hunting and hawking in the Kings Forests 5. When a Forest was first established at Narberth is unknown. Its foundation could conceivably lie in the 10th or 11th centuries, with the ancient welsh rulers of Dyfed and it is possible that when the Anglo-Normans came to Pembrokeshire, they simply took over and adapted a pre-existing native Welsh Forest. Alternatively it may have been established after the Anglo-Norman settlement of Pembrokeshire, by King Henry I (1100-35) who is known to have created numerous forests 6. Around 100 years after the Normans first arrived here, Gerald of Wales passed through Narberth with the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the year 1188 7 they came to raise troops for the crusades and along the way Gerald kept an itinerary of their travels. Unfortunately he does not mention Narberth but he must have passed through it on the road to Haverfordwest, crossing the Eastern Cleddau at Canaston Bridge. Gerald gives no description of this part of his journey but earlier he had described Carmarthen as “surrounded by Woods and meadow lands” and said that to the east of Carmarthen were “impenetrable forests”. It seems likely that much of the land to the South of Narberth was also heavily wooded at the time. The area later that became the Forests of Narberth and Coedtraeth (near Amroth on the South coast) may have once formed a single, large, heavily wooded area. Settlements were no doubt present here but perhaps clearance of the woodlands was not yet at a particularly advanced stage.


Historically the Forest covered a large tract of land to the south and west of Narberth, including the modern Canaston Wood and Narberth Mountain, the old parishes of Newton North and Mounton, Templeton Common (now Templeton Airfield) as well as lands around Robeston Wathen and Canaston. The parishes of Newton North and Mounton were both tiny; 721 and 330 acres respectively. Both may have been early assarts into the Forest, possibly in the 13th century. First recorded in the early 12th century, Narberth Forest was under royal control and some of its timber was granted to potential settlers of Pembroke with which to make their dwellings 8. Throughout medieval times this forest was certainly not continuous woodland but an area of land consisting of woods, wood pasture, heathland and farmland. It was however, more heavily wooded in the past than it is today. Of the woods that were once part of the Forest, Toch Wood, Penglyns/Newton Cliff and the “West Wood” (Canaston Wood) survive. Several other woods and “groves” were present in the Forest and trees and woods are still a conspicuous element in the landscape today.  During this period the Forest appears to have been a fairly typical and functioning Royal Forest. A forester-in-chief and two foresters are recorded, wood courts were kept and wood and timber were produced. Farm animals were grazed within the Forest and rights of pannage and for the collection of honey were exercised. Deer were present in the Forest throughout the medieval period and up until to 1600's. Medieval Foresters accounts exist, dating back to 1357 (NLW, Slebech 1-16). In 1365-1366 John Wyn the receiver and Constable of Narberth also held the office of Forester, serving Phillipa, Countess of March, wife of Edmund Mortimer, 3rd Earl of March. Two under-Foresters served him, presumably one for the “East wood” (No longer extant) and one for the “West wood”, Modern day Canaston Wood (NLW, Slebech 9). A similar situation existed in the 17th century when records show that Narberth Forest still had two Foresters, one for each wood (NLW, Slebech 3182 & 344). In 1536 Leland‘s itinerary notes that “By Narbarth is a litle forest caullid Narbarth forest” he also noted that much of the county was “bare of wood” 9. George Owen noted that, at the start of the 17th century, around Narberth “divers great corn fields were in past times forests and woods” He does however make it clear that the area was still more wooded than much of the rest of the county 10.


By the 16th and 17th centuries many of the customs and practices of the medieval period had fallen out of use, the manor courts had been abandoned in the villages around the Forest and many payments in lieu of services had ceased to be paid to the lord of the manor. All the tenants of the lordship now appeared only at the crown’s court held twice-yearly “within viewe” of the ruined castle at Narberth. In 1601, George Barlow of Slebech purchased Toch Wood and the manors of Canaston, Robeston Wathen and Newton which lay about the Forest, and the manor of Velfrey in Carmarthenshire, from the crown 11. A law suit later arose between Barlow and the Prince of Wales (to whom the lordship of Narberth was granted in 1617) in which Barlow tried to prove that these manors were not part of the lordship and Forest of Narberth. The Crown tried to maintain its rights but, after seven years, the courts eventually found in Barlow’s favour. Barlow was in fact quite correct, all these places had once been manors in their own right and courts had indeed been held there, as is shown by the surviving manorial records (NLW, Slebech 1-16). The Crown had even sold him the rights to hold courts leet in these manors. Barlow sought to increase his revenues by reinstating these long-lapsed manorial courts and customary payments. However the inhabitants of the villages and hamlets had long been free of such burdens and were determined that they should remain so. They accused Barlow of forcing Crown tenants to appear at his courts and trying to make them “withdraw their service from his majesties court at Narberth”. It was also suggested that Barlow’s men and his son John, threatened to impose fines and to “turn them out of their estates” if they did not appear at the court of his “pretended manor”. In a court held before Barlow’s steward at Velfrey the jury was asked to enquire as to whether there had ever been a manor there. They refused to give a verdict at all, saying that the steward had not shown any “lawfull warrant or authoritie to keep any such court”. The freeholders claimed that they were tenants of the crown and many refused to attend these courts and pay their rents to Barlow, saying that they and their ancestors “never knewe of courts” being held at Canaston, Templeton, Molleston, Robeston, Newton or Velfrey (NLW, Slebech 3961).

Some of the freeholders and tenants of Narberth brought cases against their lord. In these legal battles the tenants were often supported by members of the local gentry opposed to Barlow, who had their own agendas and may have used these cases to pursue legal disputes of their own against the Barlows. Despite this, the fact remains that the tenants were able to put a great deal of pressure on their lord, at one time attempting to deny his right of pasturage in the Forest (NLW, Slebech 468). On May 10th 1626 David Morris and other tenants petitioned the commissioners of Revenues in Wales concerning the “apresion of George Barlow, esq. and his attempt to destroy ancient rights, customs and tenures” (NLW, Slebech 3014).  The same year the freeholders and tenants petitioned against “further purchases by George Barlow of the remaining members of the lordship of Narberth”, even going so far as to offer to loan money to the crown, presumably so that the crown need not sell these lands (NLW, Slebech 3248 & 3265 ).  However, in 1627 Barlow did purchase the whole of the lordship and Forest from the crown and continued his attempts to restrict and extinguish customary rights within the Forest.


The intensity of the legal disputes is illustrated by the fact that sometime between 1628 and 1630 John Barlow felt the need to petition the King for “relief from the continued legal proceedings brought against him, particularly by the tenants of the manors purchased by him from the crown.” (NLW, Slebech 3111).  This was despite the fact that the Barlows were responsible for instigating a large number of proceedings themselves.


In 1633 the Court of Exchequer decided that the West Wood should “continue to the sole” use of John Barlow (NLW, Slebech 3220). Tenants were accused of “spoilation of timber” and were said to have “cut down oaks”. In 1634 it was decreed that the tenants of Narberth, Templeton, Molleston, Robeston and Canaston (all anciently part of Narberth Forest) “should enjoy common of pasture…. in the wood called East Wood…. In lieu of all claims in the residue of the forest. West Wood, the modern Canaston Wood was to have no forester and was to “remain unto….John Barlow”. At this point all customary rights in West Wood were extinguished and it effectively became private property (NLW, Slebech 344). It is probably no coincidence that the very next year George and John Barlow granted a lease for the establishment of an iron works within West Wood and “a proportion of timber for the use of the iron works….. to be felled in the woods of West Wood, Mynweare Wood and Penglyns Cliffe” (NLW, Slebech 441). Grants for leases “of pannage and wild honey” continued until 1676, but now expressly excluded West Wood (NLW, Slebech, various, 17th century).


In 1767 a request was made for permission to “enclose part of Narberth Mountain” to build a workhouse on. A memorial was addressed to “the persons having rights of common on Narberth Mountain by paying wood rent, informing them of the proposal to erect a house of industry for the reception of the poor and sick of the parishes of Narberth, Robeston, etc., on a plot of land on the said mountain and requesting them to undertake not to disturb the overseers in their possession of such premises for the poor.” This seems to have been an unpopular undertaking and one which was clearly expected to arouse anger and possibly violence among the commoners and Forest tenants (NLW, Slebech 814).


The Slebech estate (including Narberth Forest) was purchased from the Barlows in 1786 by William Knox. That same year, the last surviving fragments of the ancient Forest, Narberth Mountain and the commons of Templeton, Robeston Wathen and Molleston, were divided and enclosed. Richard Fenton 12, in his “Historical Tour through Pembrokeshire” written at the beginning of the 19th century and based on his travels during the 1790’s, described the area. “In my memory an open dreary common, here and there showing patches of stunted Oaks, the grim remains of a once very flourishing Forest; for even as late as the time of James 1st it was….. stocked with Red Deer and contained 873 acres of woodland.”  He went on to describe the scene as it was after enclosure. “This immense tract of land so lately remembered as a cheerless waste, is now… a state of high cultivation and judiciously parcelled out into several large farms interspersed with small portions of copse wood”.  In 1794 the agricultural improver, Charles Hassel described the process by which the newly enclosed lands were occupied and improved. The new parcels of land were annexed to existing farms or else new farms were built. The tenants were to be bound “to improve, by proper manuring, a judicious succession of crops”. He described this process as it was happening on Narberth Mountain as “tolerable” 13. The enclosure of the mountain effectively extinguished the last traces of Forest customs and with its passing, an ancient landscape and way of life was lost. Little remains of the Forest today. The landscape and vegetation has undergone huge changes. The Forest wastes and commons have largely disappeared as have several of the Forest woods. Those woods that do survive have, in places been heavily planted with conifers and other non-native species. Today the ancient character of this landscape is perhaps a little difficult to detect, but it still forms a very distinctive area. Despite these changes traces of the old Forest are still to be found: in the surviving ancient woodlands surrounded by their huge earthen banks, in the crumbling ruins of churches and a moated manor house, in the shapes and patterns of the fields and in historical documents that go back to the 12th century.


2.3. Forest ownership

Throughout its long history the Forest has had many owners. Originally Narberth was a royal Forest, belonging to the crown. Sometime prior to 1220 the Forest became part of the possessions of the Earls of Pembroke. From 1288 until the execution of Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March in 1330 it was a possession of the Mortimer’s of Chirk and Wigmore. After this The Forest reverted to the King who quickly granted it to Rhys ap Gruffydd.  There followed some confusion over ownership and legal disputes with the Bishop of St David’s followed. Eventually Rhys was granted Narberth for life but seems to have relinquished his keepership by 1337. In the 1350’s Narberth reverted to the Mortimer family but Roger, 2nd Earl of March soon granted it to the Bishop of Winchester. By 1360 Narberth was again in the Kings hands but was soon assigned to Phillipa, wife of the late Earl. In 1382, due to the minority of the Earl’s son Narberth was granted to William Jouet. At this time a John Leukenore is recorded as Forester. Again the Forest and lordship reverted to the Mortimers who lost it again in 1402 when Edmund Mortimer took up arms against the King in Owain Glydwr’s rebellion. By 1404 Sir Thomas Carrewe was granted the lordship for life. In 1426 the lordship and Forest reverted once more to the crown and were granted to William Lucy. In the middle of the 15th century Narberth was granted again to the Bishop of St David’s. In 1477 the King granted Narberth to the Prince of Wales and then in 1483 to his kinsman, Henry, Duke of York. In the early 16th century Narberth belonged to another Rees ap Griffith who was eventually charged with high treason. Later Thomas Jonys was “governor and keeper of the castle and of the Forests and chases belonging to it”. Roger Barlow was a former tenant of the order of St John at Slebech who, with his brother Thomas, purchased the Slebech lands when the order was suppressed. By 1553 he was sole owner of Slebech and began expanding his estate. The lordship and Forest of Narberth was purchased by George Barlow in the early part of the 17th century. In the later 18th century the Forest owners were William Knox who finally enclosed the Forest and later in 1792, Nathaniel Phillips. The newly parcelled lands passed through numerous owners, becoming part of the modern day agricultural landscape 14.




2.4. The extent of the Forest & its boundaries

The earliest surviving document giving any estimate of the size of the Forest is dated 1592. It states that Narberth Forest was “400 acres”. The same document goes on to say that Canaston wood was “200 acres” 15. Canaston Wood was part of the Forest so there is evidently some confusion here between the terms Forest and wood. The reference to “Narberth Forest” must actually be to East Wood, which seems always to have been regarded as the core of the Forest. Added to this confusion is the fact that the measurements given seem to be highly inaccurate. Even if one assumes that the measurements were made in the customary acre used in Narberth Hundred, equal to 1.46 16 statute acres, they are still incorrect. Using customary acres, Canaston Wood would come out at only about 300 statute acres whereas it is in fact closer to 500 acres. Even as late as the 17th century there seems to have been no map made of the Forest. There is a reference to a survey of the “meres and bounds of the forest” but I have been unable to trace any such document.

There are however numerous sources that go some way toward allowing an approximate reconstruction of the size and shape of the Forest. There is plenty of documentary evidence showing that the Forest consisted of Canaston Wood, East Wood (which, after its trees had been lost, became known as Narberth Mountain), Penglyns cliff, Robeston Grove and Toch Wood as well as the Commons of Templeton and Molleston (NLW, Slebech 257,344, 364, 3961 and Fenton). A survey of the lordship of Narberth by Gilbert Thacker, dated 1609 stated that in Narberth “his magestie hath diverse woods” as well as the “Forest of Narberthe containing in length 2 miles or thereabouts…. In breadth the forest contains one mile or thereabouts” 17. Asked the size and extent of the Forest in 1624, several witnesses stated that it was “two myles in length and about half a myle in breadth” although others put it at “neere three welsh miles”. From the same document comes what is perhaps the best surviving description of the Forest’s bounds (NLW, Slebech 3961). Here one witness commented that the Forest extended from “the castle of Narberth unto the grounds of Caniston, from there to Penglyns Cliff and westward to a place called stonye stepps and is compassed by the other lands belonging to the townredds of Moleston, Templeton, Narberth and Robeston”.

The Forest in fact extended eastwards beyond Narberth Castle and a map (NLW, Slebech 26), dated to the 18th century, showing part of the Forest after its enclosure confirms that the areas today known as Narberth Mountain and Bryn Hill were indeed part of the Forest. Measurements taken from the modern O.S. map indicates that the Forest was in fact roughly 3.7 miles long. In his travels during the late 18th century Richard Fenton had noted that Templeton and Molleston Commons were part of Narbert Forest 18. Given that the Forest extended as far south as Templeton Mountain and assuming that the Gloyn brook formed its northern boundary, the Forest would have been, at its widest, approximately 2 miles wide. This encompasses an area of around 1680 hectares or 4160 acres. Fenton judged the Forest wastes and commons to be “between two and three thousand acres”. This estimate was in fact quite accurate and, when the Forest was enclosed in 1786, the wastes and commons included in the Enclosure award amounted to 2450 acres (“Narberth Forest and Mountain” 1200 acres, Templeton Mountain 700 acres,  Molleston Mountain 500 acres and “a large parcel of waste ground called Robeston Grove” 50 acres). If Canaston Wood (500 acres) and the western parts of the Forest are added to this, then the figures agree fairly well. Such discrepancies and disagreements that exist concerning the size, extent and precise make up of the Forest are probably due to differing opinions as to which woods were or were not part of the Forest and uncertainties as to the boundaries of the wastes and commons which may have blurred into those that surrounded the Forest.


The only boundary that is known for certain is Penglyns Brook on the western side of the Forest which is named as a Forest “Landscore (Landsker, or boundary)” in 1609 19 and again in 1625 (NLW, Slebech 3961). It is likely that the Eastern Cleddau River formed the remainder of the western boundary and that the Gloyn Brook marked the northern boundary. The eastern and southern boundaries are not at all clear but some idea of these boundaries and the actual shape of the Forest may be obtained from study of field patterns. It is known that the Forest around Narberth Mountain was enclosed in the 18th century. These ruler-straight enclosure hedges and squarish, regular fields are very distinctive and contrast sharply with the older fields that surround the Forest which have boundaries that are curving and irregular. This can be seen clearly on old and modern Ordnance survey maps particularly at SN 1013 and 1113. The locations of “gate” place names on early O.S. maps may also help to identify the Forest boundaries although some may be later. See map 1 for an illustration of the probable extent of the Forest, drawn from all these sources.


A decree of the Court of Exchequer dated November 10th 1634 makes it clear that the Forest institutions and customs were coming under severe pressure and its very existence being threatened (NLW, Slebech 344). The document records the termination of the right of “pasture and estovers” in the Forest, except in the East Wood. At this point the Forest was effectively cut in half, the eastern portion around East Wood and Narberth Mountain largely remaining common land, the western portion becoming part of the demesne lands of the Barlows. Surviving “gate” place names around the Forest show the location of the old Forest gates. Kilvoden Gate and Valley Gate separate the East and West Woods and must therefore date from this period, as Grove Gate probably does.


(Areas shaded yellow and green were Forest before 1635. The area shaded green was all that remained of the Forest after this date)

Reproduced from Ordnance Survey map with the permission of the Controller of Her Majesty's Stationery Office, © Crown Copyright NC/06/55252

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3.1. The Forest landscape

Much of the landscape around the area once occupied by the Forest is still fairly wooded. It is a landscape of Solitary farms, hamlets and isolated, deserted churches. Canaston, Newton and Molleston were once manors and tiny hamlets. Newton even had its own church and Molleston chapel stood in a clearing on the edge of Canaston Wood. The population of these hamlets must once have been large enough to support these churches both of which are now in ruins. George Owen wrote that “by reason the country is wooded and enclosed, the inhabitants convert their land to pasture.” 20 This suggests that the area around Narberth was still well relatively well wooded in the 16th and 17th centuries and that fields were being created by clearance of the woodland as they had been for many hundreds of years, leaving a pattern of small, irregular fields enclosed by large hedges. Elsewhere there were extensive “wastes” and commons. To the south east of the Forest is the large village of Templeton. The township lands around the village were farmed in an open field system of intermingled strips of arable, originally farmed communally by the villagers. There would have been several plough teams working the strips in large unenclosed fields. Many of these medieval strip fields are fossilised and imprinted upon the modern landscape by the hedges that in later times enclosed them, producing a landscape entirely different from that around Canaston Wood. Near Robeston Wathen there were further small patches of Strip-cultivation. Both of these enclosed strip-fields are best seen on O.S. maps at SN 122126 and SN 087151.

Within the bounds of the Forest there were several woods and numerous “Groves”.  Historically West Wood, East Wood, Penglyns/Newton Cliff, Robeston Grove and possibly Toch Wood (on the Western side of the Cleddau River) seem to have been part of the Forest. Other wood names recorded include “The Verrow Wood”, “Kilderbarth”, “Castle Lake Wood” and “Kethens Grove”. Some of these names may simply represent sub divisions of larger Woods; Castle Lake was part of Canaston, or may be names of woods that have since been lost. Kethens Grove is named in the 1609 survey of Narberth in a description of the bounds of the lordship and lay to the south of Blackpool and Stony Steps, alongside the Penglyn Brook. From this description the wood must have then stood on the site now occupied by Oakwood Leisure Park. Fragments of woodland are shown on the 1891 O.S. map. I have been unable to trace any further information as to the locations of either the Verrow Wood or Kilderbarth. Kilderbarth was described in 1609 as “by estimation 20 acres thereabouts decayed and hath bene decayed of a long time”. This suggests that the wood was even then being felled or grazed out of existence.

Toch Wood, Penglyns/Newton Cliff and Canaston Woods were all largely planted with conifers and with Beech by the Forestry Commission, mainly in the 1950’s. Fragments of the old Oak woods do still survive amidst the pines. Some parts of the woods have not been planted and here the canopy is largely composed of Oak spp. growing from neglected coppice stools along with some standards of Oak spp and Beech with an under story of Hawthorn, Hazel and Holly. Common Cow Wheat (Melampyrum pratense) which is semi-parasitic on a wide range of plants grows along one or two path edges. Another piece of Oakwood survives in a little side-valley that projects eastwards from Newton Cliff where some large Oak coppice stools can be found. In the valley woods fragments of broadleaved woodland often occur as “islands” on outcrops of Old Red Sandstone. Here small, twisted Oaks grow over patches of Great Woodrush (Luzula sylvatica) and Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus). The rocks are clothed in a variety of mosses and the rare Hay-scented Buckler Fern (Dryopteris aemula) can be found. Ash, Alder, Oak, Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus) and Spindle (Euonymus europaeus) are found in wet woodlands along the flood-plains of the numerous brooks that bisect the woods. Here Ash coppice stools are cut high, sometimes a metre or more from the ground, growing to 2.5m diameter. The ground flora in these wet places is largely Bramble and Ferns but there are good woodland plants here too such as Dogs Mercury (Mercurialis perennis), Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum), Wood Spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides), Sanicle (Sanicula europaea) and Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella). The surviving fragments of Oak woods show affinities to the National Vegetation Classification communities W10 and W16/17.

The woods of Narberth Forest seem to have been dominated by Oak (Quercus) species throughout the period for which records exist. The Oaks here are often Quercus x rosacea, a hybrid between English Oak (Quercus robur) and Sessile Oak (Quercus petraea), both of which species are also present. The earliest direct mention of particular tree species I have found is in 1357 when the Forest accounts note the sale of bark of “querc”, an abbreviation of quercus, the Latin name for Oak (NLW, Slebech 1). The 1609 survey of Narberth mentions several small areas of “Wood and arable” and “arable pasture and wood” as well as a “grove of oakes and hassels” and some “arable and young oakes”. These were small plantations and fragments of woodland that had been hedged around and incorporated into fields. Today the remaining fragments of native woodland around the Narberth area remain dominated by Oak spp. with other species occurring as occasional associates or underwood shrubs and saplings. The Oaks usually occur as neglected coppice stools, probably last cut 50-100 years ago. It is possible however that in the medieval period the woods were less heavily dominated by Oak. Hazel coppice rods would have been used for a variety of purposes and large quantities would have been used, suggesting that hazel was perhaps more common than it is now. The overwhelming dominance of Oak in these woods during the post-medieval and modern periods is perhaps due to the species being encouraged or planted at the expense of other species, due to the strong demand for Oak from the charcoal, tanning and coal mining industries.

3.2. Canaston Wood, the “West Wood”

Canaston Wood is one of the counties’ larger ancient woods. Old documents consistently refer to it as West wood (NLW, Slebech 344, 441, 3187-3188). Canaston, along with the now lost East wood, was part of Narberth Forest from at least the 12th century until the final demise of the Forest in the 17th century. Canaston is fairly unique in Pembrokeshire in that, unlike the vast majority of surviving ancient woods, it is not restricted to steep valley sides. Instead much of the wood occupies a gently sloping site cut by numerous streams. However, Semi-natural woodland is now mostly restricted to the stream valleys, steep slopes, woodbanks and a few other inaccessible locations. Elsewhere the native species have been cleared and Conifers and Beech dominate. Where Semi-natural woodland occurs it is usually as neglected Oak spp. coppice. Hazel and Holly are the commonest shrub layer species, whilst Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and Bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg.) carpet the ground.

The wood is underlain by red marls of the old red sandstone as well as areas of Silurian mudstones and boulder clays in the north. Canaston has not survived by accident or chance. Its survival in early medieval and post - conquest times must surely be due to royal and aristocratic hunting interests. In later centuries wood-consuming industries needed reliable supplies of fuel and this meant that the wood was managed as a valuable asset. A general lack of woodland within the county and its ability to provide building standard timber ensured Canaston’s survival, as did its location alongside the tidal Eastern Cleddau River, which allowed its timber to be easily transported (NLW, Slebech 3961). Despite the massive loss and destruction of its native vegetation, it seems that Canaston largely retains it medieval size and shape and there is evidence that much of its present day boundary is of medieval date.

The 1609 survey of the Lordship of Narberth looked in detail at a part of Canaston Wood known as Castle Lake Wood and part of nearby Penglyns/Newton Cliff. The survey records that the woods were “well set with small saplinge oakes which will hardly ever come to better perfection than nowe they are, amongest which heare and there are some dotard oakes of bigger proportion servinge to noe other use but fireinge. All which, the greater with the lesse, are in nomber about one and twentie thousand” These 21,000 trees were valued at 2d apiece, a total value of £ 173. 12s. and the wood was said to “contayneth three score acres”. This agrees well with the present day size of the wood. This indicates around that there were around 350 trees per acre. The survey also gives a hint of other tree and underwood species. It mentions a “moorishe and boggie thicket of allders and other small wood” Such “small wood” is likely to have included Hazel (Corylus avellana), Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), Holly (Ilex aquifolium), Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris), and Sallow (Salix caprea and S. cinerea), species which are still present today as underwood with the Oaks, in the few areas that have escaped coniferization. Oak is consistently mentioned in documents and writings, for example being noted again in 1626, 1794 and 1803. In 1833 Oak was said to be the “prevalent timber”. Other species mentioned included Ash (Fraxinus excelsior), Alder (Alnus glutinosa), Beech (Fagus sylvatica) and “a great number of less common varieties” 21. In the damper areas, where the soils are a little more base rich Aspen (Populus tremula) and Spindle (euonymus europaeus) are rare associates and Wild Service tree (Sorbus torminalis) is found occasionally in nearby Minwear and Long Wood.

Boundaries and woodbanks

Arthur Young in his “1776 Tour of South Wales and South Midlands” describes local hedge building practices saying “They form a bank 5 or 6 feet high and 2 or 3 broad, out of two ditches, and plant the hedge in a row along the top, setting old thorns, &. to choose, as they form a fence immediately. In repairing, they clear the sides and mould up the roots, thinning the plants on the top, but either from the dryness of the banks or for want of cutting, many of them make a very stunted unhealthy appearance. There is some plashing, but it is very badly done”. This sounds like a description of the traditional Pembrokeshire “flying hedge”. The flying hedge occurs in Pembrokeshire and those parts of Wales where frosts are rare, but where south west gales make shelter important. The large, less agile sheep breeds common in these areas are contained by high hedgebanks with a hedge on top. The hedge heightens the barrier and does not always need to be stock proof. It is however unlikely that the hedges around the woods were of this type. The woodbanks were generally intended to be deer and cattle proof and may well have been fenced as well as hedged. A 17th century document notes that Minwear Wood lacked a “pale” (fence), perhaps implying that the other woods were generally well fenced. (See 5.1. below).

Wood banks were used to define a wood’s legal boundaries and were usually of a more substantial construction than ordinary field hedgebanks. Where they survive woodbanks often still form large and important features in the modern landscape. These large banks were usually hedged or fenced, gated and often locked. The large size of these earthworks and the effort involving their construction or destruction contributes to the stability of a woods shape and size. These banks should be considered part of the wood, not part of the surrounding countryside22. Virtually the whole of Canaston Wood is still bounded by an earthen bank and, as late as 1795, the road that runs through the wood, from Canaston Bridge to Carew was referred to as “the road from at Canaston gate to Newhouse gate” (NLW, Slebech 881). Long sections of Canaston’s southern woodbank are composed of a large earth bank with a low, rounded profile and traces of an external ditch. A smaller bank with a square cut ditch marks much of the northern boundary. This is probably a later boundary, made as the wood edge has receded. Large beech trees, with girths up to six metres are planted at many places along the woods edge. It is perhaps significant that the sections of woodbank I identify as being medieval are planted with 4-6 metre girthed beech trees whereas the more modern sections of the northern boundary have beeches roughly half this size. This seems to represent a continuing tradition of planting boundary trees. Rackham states that “beeches are sometimes planted as boundary markers where beech is not native” 23. Pembrokeshire is such a place where beech is not a native species. There is a great deal of evidence to show that at least some of Canaston Woods’ present day boundaries follow those of medieval times. This evidence is summarised below.

(1). The wood has the typical shape of an ancient wood, sinuous in places, zigzagging in others.

(2). Large woodbanks with low, rounded profiles are present, particularly along the southern edge of the wood.

(3). Newhouse, recorded in 1313, is a moated manor house adjoining the wood. The moat appears to be incorporated or be built over part of the woodbank indicating that this boundary was in existence by the early14th century.

(4). Mounton chapel stands in a large clearing cut into the southern side of the wood. The old Mounton parish boundary follows the edge of the clearing. It looks very much like the boundary was moved to accommodate a chapel into Mounton parish. Parish boundaries have been fixed from relatively early times. This indicates that the chapel and clearing are of an early age.

(5). A detached, separate wood to the east of Canaston known as East wood existed from at least the 13th century until its destruction in the 17th century. The presence of an “East wood” so close to Canaston indicates that Canaston could not have extended much further Eastwards.

(6). The floodplain of the Eastern Cleddau River around Canaston bridge would have been valuable meadowland for many centuries and would have been cleared of trees. Canaston wood is unlikely therefore to have extended further than it now does in this direction.

(7). On the northern side of Canaston Wood the woodbank runs parallel to a lane known as Valley road. It is set back around 25 metres from this lane. It is possible that the woodbank was moved back from the road in medieval times, creating an anti-Highway man trench, a linear clearing along a road to make travellers safe from robbery. Several huge beech trees occur along this large, eroded boundary bank. These trees must be around 200 years old.

Taken together, this evidence shows that historically, Canaston Wood can hardly have been much larger than it now is, except perhaps on parts of its northern side.

Map 2. Boundary types present at Canaston Wood

The Southern boundary from Blackpool Mill to Mounton chapel

The woodbank from Blackpool Mill to Mounton Chapel is a large rounded earthen bank, with a shape and size typical of the medieval period. Unfortunately most of Canaston’s woodbanks are fenced off so that they are now out side of the wood and have been seriously eroded by farm animals. A large and important feature of an ancient historic landscape is being eroded, worn away and lost to future generations. Where the woodbank is fenced in such a way as to keep farm animals away from it, it is in noticeably better condition and stands around 0.5 metres higher. This boundary is recorded in Gilbert Thacker’s 1609 survey when a “quickset” hedge is mentioned; this would have been planted on top of the woodbank 24. It is notable that along much of its length the woodbank is topped with large coppiced and layed ash and oaks. These trees represent the neglected remnants of the old hedge. Occasional large beech trees are planted along the bank, marking the boundary. Part of the original medieval woodbank between Newhouse and Mounton Chapel has been destroyed. It is shown on the 1891 Ordnance survey map and its line can be traced in aerial photographs. Where the original bank is extant it is of the same size and form as it is between Blackpool Mill and Newhouse. Near Mounton Chapel the woodbank is fairly well preserved and in places coincides with the old Mounton parish boundary. An old sunken lane leads from the main road near Slebech Lodge out to Mounton chapel. Woodbank, parish boundary and the old lane all coincide near to Mounton chapel. The chapel itself stands in a large clearing cut into the southern side of the wood. The old parish boundary follows the edge of the clearing. It looks very much like the boundary was moved to accommodate the chapel into Mounton parish. Dating of this southern section of woodbank is based upon several lines of evidence. These are considered individually in more detail below.

Fig 1. A well preserved section of woodbank near Mounton Chapel

1. The visual evidence.

The woodbank here is of a typical medieval size and shape. The bank is between 1.5 and 2 metres high and around 5 metres wide. Where the ditch is present it is mostly silted up and about 1.5 metres wide. The woodbank has large trees along its length. Many of these trees have large branches growing horizontally along the bank, showing that they are the remnants of a layed hedge. There are also some large maiden Beeches. The woodbank is rather sinuous with dog-legs and turns. The wood’s shape suggests that it developed “naturally” rather than having been laid out as a planned shape.

2. Relationship of the woodbank with the other historical features.

Two historical and approximately dateable features interact with the woodbank these are:

(a) Tail race leat of a blast furnace, 17th century.

(b) The moat of Newhouse, 14th century.

The relationship between the woodbank and these features is useful in indicating a likely date for construction of the woodbank. Details of these field relationships are given below.

(a) Tail race leat of a blast furnace, 17th century.

A charcoal-fired blast furnace was in operation in Canaston Wood, near Blackpool Mill. The blast furnace was involved in iron smelting and was working by 1636 (See section 4.3 below) and seems to have ceased operations by 1709 25. The tailrace was a ditch running from the furnace, carrying away wastewater. This leat meets the woodbank east of Blackpool Farm. The junction between these two features indicates their relative ages. The tail race leat may be traced clearly from the “Knights Way” westward to the woodbank. Where they meet, the woodbank has evidently been cut through and refilled to allow the leat to pass through. This shows that the woodbank is older than the leat. At the junction of the woodbank and Leat, the woodbank is noticeably lower than it is on either side of the leat. Presumably this results from the trench through the woodbank not being refilled to its original height or from later settlement of the infill material. As a matter of interest where the leat crosses the “Knights Way”, the road surface shows no sign of disturbance and the ditches on either side of the road cut across the leat indicating that the road was made, or more likely remade after the leat was abandoned.

Figure 2. The relationship between 17th century leat and the woodbank

(b) Moat at Newhouse.14th century.

Newhouse was a late-created manor and is said to be to have been an assart into Narberth Forest. However, Rees notes that in the time of Edward 1st (1272-1307) “a certain Roger…Mortimer purchased of the demesnes of the free tenants there all the lands and tenements belonging to the New House”. This suggests that a manor was built up from some pre-existing farms and that, if the area was an assart, it had certainly been cleared prior to the reign of Edward 1st.

The ruined manor house at Newhouse lies within a moat amongst the trees on the southern edge of Canaston Wood, near Newhouse Farm. The property was recorded as “Newhous” in 1326, “Novadomus”, in 1357 and “Red Castle” or “Castell Goch” in the late 1500’s. It was a ruined shell by 1850. The building was a first-floor hall house, with living quarters above a ground floor storage area 26. It is set in a deep, square moat and was surrounded by gardens. The gardens and moat seem to overlie the woodbank indicating that the bank pre-dates the manor house. Where the woodbank enters the garden it appears that the garden boundary bank cuts across it, filling the woodbank ditch. The line of the woodbank is then continued in the garden, though at a much-reduced size. This continuation of the woodbank eventually reaches the moat, where it has been incorporated into or built over with the moat. The implication is that the woodbank was present before the construction of the moat and must therefore be older than it. This supports the supposition that any woodland that may have once occupied the site of Newton manor had been cleared long before the manor was created. The woodbank, by this evidence would probably date to at least the 13th century, making it 700-800 years old.

The Eastern boundary.

Much of the Eastern boundary of Canaston Wood is difficult to trace with certainty, generally this edge of the wood is a diffuse zone of secondary woodland and scrub encroaching out onto adjacent fields. However, north of the “Knights Way” it seems likely that the original boundary follows the footpath that curves around the base of a steep, rocky slope below “Cilfoden Camp”, an Iron Age settlement site. This path now runs through woods rather than along the wood edge. The woodland to the east of this path is probably secondary woodland, grown up over fields lying along the old wood edge. On the bank above the footpath stub oaks are found, these may mark the original wood boundary. Rackham states that “Pollard trees can serve to mark boundaries, and for this purpose may be cut 4 - 6 ft high” these are known as stubs 27. Here though the stubs are probably simply coppice stools cut high due to the slope. At least two such stubs are present along the Eastern boundary below “Cilfoden Camp”. South of the Knights Way a fairly substantial bank marks the wood boundary although Alder, Oak spp. and Hazel now grow outside of the bank, in the wet ground beside the stream. Some shrubs are also re-invading a field near Cilfoden Farm.

The northern boundary.

Valley Road runs parallel to the northern edge of Canaston wood, the old parish boundary of Narberth North following it. There is a strip of narrow fields around 25-30 metres wide between Valley Road and the wood edge. The woodbank is now largely eroded away but traces of a large bank with an external ditch can however still be made out. Some enormous old beeches are set along the bank, the largest of which has a girth of six metres. This strip of fields may represent an anti-Highway man trench, an area where the trees and underwood were cleared back away from road to make travel safer in medieval times. Despite the somewhat degraded state of the woodbank, the area is of considerable interest. If this is an anti-highway man trench it is a good example, easily viewed from the road.

Fig 3. The post medieval Northern bank and ditch

From Trippis lane westwards for several hundred metres the boundary is marked by a small bank with a deep, square-cut ditch. This boundary appears to be of a later date than the large rounded banks described previously.  The original medieval woodbank in this section may have followed the now grubbed out hedge shown on early O.S. maps, that marked the parish boundary lying a short distance out from the present day wood-edge. Much of the rest of the northern boundary around the area known as “Sam’s Valley” is of the larger, rounded type.

From the main A4075 road that runs through the wood westwards to Blackpool Mill, the boundary is once again marked by a small bank and square ditch. There is some evidence suggesting that the wood once extended further to the north and west, out to the parish boundary near Great Canaston Farm. The 1891 Ordnance survey map shows several patches of wood between the present day wood edge and the old parish boundary. Some of this wood appears to be wood pasture as it is not hedged off from the fields. The fields at this time were very small. In 1891 14 tiny fields including four small wooded enclosures and a cottage and garden occupied the area that today is just two fields. Furthermore Gilbert Thacker’s survey of Castle Lake Wood in 1609 notes that the boundary between Castle Lake and Canaston Woods followed Castle Lake Brook down to join the Eastern Cleddau River. Where the brook runs into the river Thacker tells us that the boundary “parteth with Caniston Wood”. The brook here now marks the edge of the wood but it seems that in Thacker’s time Canaston Wood extended to the North East of this point and probably extended out to the old parish boundary near Canaston Farm.

Fig 4. Possible anti-highwayman trench (running parallel to Valley Road on map 2)

The Western boundary.

The Wood runs down to a road and there is no boundary bank present. This area has probably been much disturbed in the past with the creation of a large mill leat feeding Blackpool Mill.

Roads, tracks and paths associated with Canaston Wood

The largest and most well known of all the tracks through Canaston Wood is the “Knights Way”, an early medieval road that joined Templeton and Slebech. Templeton and Slebech date to the 12th century and so probably does the Knights Way.

Woodford lane runs south from Robeston Wathen as a deep-cut holloway. Before reaching the wood the road crosses a Ford, hence its name. From the ford at Woodford cottages the lane is known as Trippis lane. The lane turns into a muddy track where it enters the northern side of Canaston Wood, a little to the south of East Atheston Farm. This track runs south through the Wood and passes close by Mounton chapel and continues out to Mounton limestone quarry and beyond.

Where Trippis lane enters the wood it also turns a ninety-degree bend and continues east as “Valley Road”.  Along Valley Road and Trippis Lane the hedges are full of Oak, Ash, Sallow, Spindle, Hawthorn and Hazel. At the hedge bottoms plants such as Bitter vetch (Lathyrus linifolius), Creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia) and Imperforate St johns-wort (Hypericum maculatum) can be found along with Bluebells and Wood anemones. The old parish boundary of Narberth North also follows Valley road. A short distance to the east of Valley Farm is a cottage called “Valley Gate”. This is the site of one of the old Forest gates. 

An ancient lane leads from the Tenby-Haverfordwest road out towards Molleston. The lane is deeply cut below the surrounding land surface and in places shares its course with a small stream. Some very large (c.4.5 metre girth) Ash trees occur beside the lane in Canaston Wood and further toward Molleston, near a prehistoric settlement site there are a few neglected old Ash pollards. The lane linked Mounton Chapel and the settlements of Canaston, Mollleston and Templeton.

3.3. East Wood

Old documents record the existence of a wood called “East Wood” being part of Narberth Forest (NLW, Slebech 257,344, 364, and 3961). The modern interchangeability of the words “wood” and “forest” seems also to have existed in the 17th century. Documents often mention “Narberth Forest” when they are clearly referring to a wood within the Forest, rather than to the Forest as a whole. East Wood was the “common wood” (NLW, Slebech 3051and 3076) for the manors around the Forest and seems to have formed the core of the Forest, sometimes being referred to as “Narberth Forest” 28. Writing in 1600, George Owen listed Narberth Forest (East Wood) as one of the best standing woods in the county. The wood was one of only nine capable of supplying timber for building purposes 29. This suggests that up until the start of the 17th century it was a healthy, structured wood, despite the grazing and wood collection rights exercised in it. (NLW, Slebech 344, 3076, 3047). East Wood appears to have been a large wood, perhaps of a similar size and species composition to Canaston. Evidence suggests that during the period between c.1600 and c.1770 the wood was destroyed by uncontrolled felling and grazing (NLW, Slebech 3182, 3164, 344, Jones, E.G. 1939 and Fenton). Samuel Lewis noted in his “Topographical Dictionary of Wales” in 1833 that “The vast woods which formerly covered Narberth Forest have disappeared, except Canaston wood.....and are succeeded by cultivated enclosures. The East Wood has indeed long since disappeared but it seems to have covered the area around Narberth Mountain, probably extending Eastwards over Bryn Hill and around Allensbank. Place-names suggestive of woodland such as East wood, woods Cross, Cwm Derwen (Oak valley) are commonplace in this area.

The destruction of East Wood: “Waste & spoyle” in the Forest woods

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries documents begin to appear concerning illegal felling in the of the Forest woods. These documents record many examples of trees being felled and areas of woodland being cleared. Probably they do no more than note something that had always gone on but that had not been commented upon before. Up until this period people had surely been cutting trees and clearing little patches, nibbling away at the Forest edges. It seems that in later times these fellings had become larger and more frequent and were sometimes done on a commercial scale (NLW, Slebech 3164 and Jones, E.G. 1939). Perhaps it had simply got to the point where the woods were so reduced that any further clearance was at once visible and noticed. Between 1594 and 1600 several complaints were made regarding illegal felling (NLW, Slebech 340, 4082 and 4082). There was an enquiry into what “waste and spoyle” had been committed in the Forest including an assessment of “how many oakes and tymber trees” had been cut down, who had purchased them, from whom (TNA: PRO. E178/3486).

In 1602 Depositions were taken “touching the felling of trees and the despoiling of the Forest of Narberth and Caniston Wood”. Four men were accused of “committing waste … and appointing their friends to be Foresters” in 1613 30.  In 1628 John Barlow accused his tenants of cutting down oaks in the forest which he claimed to have contracted to purchase (NLW, Slebech 3266). Again in 1631 he sought an injunction to “restrain waste and spoil” in forest of Narberth, and the “woods belonging thereto”. Many of the complaints lodged by the Barlows were against men described as “gent” or “yeoman”, some of whom were long standing enemies of the Barlows. These complaints therefore cannot always be taken at face value but it is clear that many of the wealthier freeholders and local gentry were felling trees on a commercial footing. It was found that 1400 Oaks had been felled in the Forest (probably East Wood) and a further 600 in Canaston Wood. Eight defendants were accused, including the deputy-woodward of Canaston Wood 31. The Forest tenants also accused the steward of illegal cutting and selling of timber (NLW, Slebech 3182). A document dating to the early 17th century records some of the free holders were building cottages, presumably on the Forest margins, that they “sett fourthe to poor men….who live only upon the spoyle of the Kings wood”. A marginal note states that if this was continued “there will not be left scarce a tree growing upon the same (the Forest)” (NLW, Slebech 3164).

The poorer Forest tenants also played their part in the destruction of the woods. George Barlow claimed that the commoners “doe absolutely deny” that Narberth was a Forest and he complained of their “Wilful spoyles daylie committed” in the woods. The tenants of the lordships of Narberth, Templeton, Molleston, Robeston and Canaston, and Newton claimed and exercised a right to common of pasture and estovers in the Forest woods. The right of estovers seems to have included a right to take whole trees. An early 17th century document records the taking of “238 greate trees yearly… for custom trees” the bark of which, as George Barlow bitterly noted, was worth £13.6s.8d. (NLW, Slebech 3164). Other documents show that it was the Forester’s duty to deliver to the tenants “such…tymber as is due” (NLW, Slebech 3182). In 1634 common rights were extinguished in Canaston Wood and the rest of the western part of the Forest. This in turn must have led to increased demand for timber, wood and grazing in East Wood. Uncontrolled felling and lopping would have opened up the canopy and removed the shrub layer, allowing grazing animals to move freely throughout the wood. Under these conditions natural regeneration would have virtually ceased. This was a combination of factors that would eventually lead to the destruction of the East Wood.

As late as 1636 there was a lease of “pannage of hogs and wild honey in the East Wood of the Forest of Narberth” indicating that oak trees were still present at that time. Sometime after about 1640 East Wood is heard of no more, later pannage leases do not name East Wood specifically and merely state “in the Forest of Narberth”. By the 1760’s the “East Wood” area is referred to as Narberth Mountain or Forest (NLW, Slebech 3399-3401). The change in name reflects the ecological changes taking place here. In Pembrokeshire “mountain land” is typically rough grazing land, usually heathy vegetation and moor grass (Molinia caerulea) pastures. This suggests that this was now the dominant vegetation type on the site. Fenton’s writings support this supposition. In the 1790’s he described Narberth Mountain as “An open dreary common, here and there showing patches of stunted Oaks” and went on to say that “The Forest In that reign (James I, 1603-1625) had begun to diminish and the wood die away, cattle being suffered to browse its skirts everywhere” 32. It seems though that even but at its enclosure in 1786 some tree cover remained as the then lord of the manor, William Knox was entitled to take “timber and wood growing upon the said Forest an said grove called Robeston Grove”.

East Wood: The modern landscape

There are possible surviving fragments of East Wood on Narberth Mountain. The valley between Pitch Cross and Woods Cross, down to Peters Lake Bridge is very likely to be such a fragment. The wood is on the steep valley sides of a small brook and is therefore unlikely to have been too heavily grazed. The 1891 O.S. map shows that the wood on the east side of the valley was wood pasture. On 20th century maps these trees have gone. Perhaps the final stages in the grazing out of the old East Wood continued into the last century. Other possible fragments occur at Helcombe Wood, Camphill Wood and Bryn Hill Wood, all of which are “valley woods”, present in 1891. Further east Clement Dale Wood is another possible surviving fragment.

Today many large trees are present in hedges, old lanes and in small patches of woodland across Narberth Mountain and the site of East Wood. These trees, mostly Oaks and Ash, often have the low, spreading crowns typical of non-woodland trees. Some of them may be survivors from the period prior to enclosure in 1786 when East Wood was finally grazed out and had become waste and wood pasture. The landscape hereabouts shows two distinct facets. There is the landscape created by the final enclosure of the mountain in 1786. Here regular, straight field boundaries and straight, wide enclosure roads (often following the course of ancient lanes) dominate the landscape. Beyond the areas affected by the enclosure is another landscape, one of curving and irregular fields, large hedgerow trees and ancient lanes. These areas still retain a wooded “feel”. There are plenty of often quite large trees and small patches of woodland. Woodland plants such as Wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) and Dog violets (Viola sp.) grow along the verges. The fields are largely improved pastures but here and there small fields near woods are becoming encroached by scrub and some are reverting to wood/wood pasture. Fields of this type also occur around the margins of Canaston Wood.

3.4. Toch Wood, Robeston Grove & Penglyns/Newton Cliff

Toch Wood suffered the same fate as Canaston and has for the most part been planted with conifers and beeches and there is little left of its native vegetation, apart from in one or two wet valleys and along the wood edges. Toch Wood was formerly known as “Talch Wood” and lies detached from the rest of the Forest on the opposite side of the Eastern Cleddau River. Despite this it was generally considered to be part of the Forest and was certainly a crown wood. Documents dating to the time of Henry 1st and 2nd (1485- 1509 and 1509-1547) reputedly named the wood as part of the lordship of Narberth and during the reign of Elizabeth 1st (1558-1603) a court book was said to have recorded that Toch Wood was “by a jury founded to be holden under her magesties fforrest”. Around 1585 the weir at Blackpool was “in decay” and timber was cut down in Toch Wood to make repairs to it and the mill there. Giving evidence to an enquiry in 1625, a witness remembered that he had “Fallen tymber trees within Talch Woodes” to make these repairs. Another witness stated that the timber was “had and enjoyed without gaynesaying or contradiction”, indicating that such fellings were legal and that the wood did indeed belong to Narberth. There was a “Cockshott” in the wood during the 17th century. Cockshotts or cockshoots were glades or clearings in woods where Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) were caught in nets. (The documents dating from the reigns of Henry 1st Henry 2nd and Elizabeth 1st are all mentioned in NLW, Slebech 3961, which is the source for much of the above section). In the 18th century Toch Wood was still a well managed wood. Maintenance of the wood banks was still considered important and in 1792 a man was set to “make good the fence about Toch”. A ditch and bank “the same as the old” was to be made, the man receiving 10d. per 8 yards. (NLW, Slebech 5550). Today much of the woodbank around Toch Wood still survives and is of a similar size and construction to that around Canaston Wood. Numerous maiden Oaks grow along the woodbank and there are scattered Hawthorns though none of these shows signs of being laid in the past.

Robeston Grove was also part of the Forest but its location is not certainly known. It is likely to have been located near the Bush Inn, at a place called “Green Grove” on 19th century O.S. maps.  North Cummings and Hobble Woods may be surviving fragments of this “lost” wood. At its enclosure in 1786 Robeston Grove was described as waste ground but was clearly still wooded to some extent.

Part of Penglyns Cliff Wood was surveyed along with Castle Lake Wood in 1609, The wood was described as “reasonably well set with oaks”. There was an estimated 1,120 Oaks “of good growth and proportion manie of them serviceable for tymber”, giving a figure of around 112 trees per acre. Here the trees, being larger than those at Castle Lake Wood were valued at 12d. each. Penglyns cliff is indeed aptly named; the wood occupies the extremely steep sides of the valley formed by the Penglyn Brook. This brook forms part of the western Forest boundary and only the wood on the eastern side of this stream was part of the Forest, being more properly known as Newton Cliff. The woods (Minwear and Penglyns Cliff) on the eastern side of the brook were not part of the Forest. Unfortunately the steep and rocky nature of the site did not save the wood from coniferization.  However, on the wet valley floor the original broadleaved woodland has survived with a mix of Ash, Sallow and Alder forming the canopy. Sanicle, Sweet woodruff and Opposite leaved golden saxifrage form the ground layer on the damp, flushed soils beside the streams. Here and there rocky outcrops on the valley side have escaped coniferisation and in these places plants such as Spindle (Euonymus europaeus) and Hay scented buckler fern (Dryopteris aemula) can be found. In amongst the conifers a few veteran Beech, Ash and Oaks survive. There are numerous Charcoal burning platforms cut into the steep valley sides here.

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Most of the timber and wood in the Forest came from the Forest woods though a certain amount may have come from trees and shrubs on the wastes and in fields and hedgerows. Timber and coppice wood appears to have been an important part of the Forests’ produce. Local people claimed the common right of estovers, the right to take wood for building repairs, dead hedging, cart building and a variety of other purposes, including for use as fuel. The wood used for such purposes must have mostly come from coppice or pollard poles providing a sustainable crop of wood year on year. As well as wood and timber, the woods provided supplies of fruits, honey, nuts and berries which would have been collected as food for animals and people. Grazing, deer hunting and the catching of woodcock were additional activities that affected the management of the woods.

4.1 The medieval period

Medieval Foresters accounts record the issues and profits of the Forest woods. Amongst other Items are sales of wood, underwood and bark. The Forest was a valuable asset to the Manor and lordship of Narberth, bringing in revenue comparable to that of the larger villages of Templeton and Robeston Wathen and many times higher than that of the smaller manors of Canaston, Molleston and Newhouse (NLW, Slebech 1-16). Table 1 shows the revenues arising from timber, wood and bark sales.

Table 1 The profits of wood & bark and underwood sales in Narberth Forest 1357-70














wood & bark

16 s. 10 d.


12 s.


7 s. 8 d.

4 s. 4 d.


£1. 8s. 10d.

12 s.

7 s. 8 d.

4 s. 4 d.

The woodlands of medieval Narberth Forest consisted of the timber trees (boscus) and underwood (sub-boscus). Typically the timber trees were Oaks (NLW, Slebech 1-16) though Ash, Alder and Wild service tree were probably also used whilst the medieval underwood would have been a mix of the naturally occurring species such as hawthorn, hazel, sallow, crab apple and holly. This system of relatively lightly managed mixed age broadleaved woodland should not be confused with the more formalised (and generally later) coppice with standards system, a more managed type of woodland, where both species composition and woodland structure were controlled.

From at least the 12th century the Forest produced timber trees of sizes suitable for house building and repair. Trees were used to build and repair the castle, mills and ordinary houses. Narberth castle was in existence by the early 12th century and was often a target of Welsh attacks. The castle was burnt or thrown down 5 times between 1113 and 1256 33. As the castle would have been built of timber at this time its construction would have used huge numbers of trees, both large and small. Even when the castle was rebuilt in stone considerable quantities of timber and wood were needed for roofing, bridge building, outbuildings etc. Large timbers as well as small wood were also used for repairing mills. In 1326 the Black Book of St David’s lists “boards” and “rods” as materials used 34. These “rods” would have been mostly cut from hazel coppice stools but a variety of underwood species were probably also used. Small timbers, coppice rods and wattle and daub were typical materials used in house building. The Forester’s accounts give information on wood sales but unfortunately throw little light on either quantities or the tree species and management in the Forest woods. However it is clear from these accounts that timber and bark were sold and that there were occasional sales of underwood. The 1357 accounts are particularly interesting, showing sales of underwood amounting to 12s. and sales of wood worth 4s. 10d. Sales of “greate oakes” to the Countess of Pembroke amounted to 18s. 1d. and bark sales were worth 20s (NLW, Slebech 1). Accounts of the years 1364-1368 all record sales of underwood as “nil hoc anno (nil this year)” (NLW, Slebech 7, 9, 10, 11). Sales of underwood appear again in accounts of 1370 and 1442. In 1399 wind fallen trees were sold, as well as underwood worth £4. 19s. 61/2d. That same year 53s. came from “a parcel of wood at Vednas, fallen by the Kings officers” The range of timber and wood sizes suggested by these uses implies a mixture of coppices and unmanaged mixed aged woods with plenty of small trees, some larger timber trees and an underwood of various shrub and small tree species. This sounds very like the situation found about 300 years later, in the 17th century.

4.2. The early modern period

The woods of Narberth Forest continued to be managed and worked into the early modern period. As well as supplying local demands, in 1593 100 packs of charcoal were exported to Cornwall. In 1603 George Owen stated that “Narberth Forest” and Canaston Wood were two of only nine woods in the county capable of supplying building timber. Other small woods are listed but these only served their local manors whereas Canaston was described as “one of the best standing woods at this present of Pembrokeshire wherewith the county is served for buildings and other necessities” 35. A 1608 a survey of all the royal forests of Pembrokeshire recorded that Narberth, Coedtraeth and Cilgerran Forests contained 2666 timber trees, 22,884 decaying trees, 21,032 saplings, and 786 acres of coppices 36. Another early 17th century survey recorded 3071 “timber trees for use of the navy” and 11020 “firewood trees” and 21000 “sapling Oaks” in Narberth Forest. The timber trees were said to be valued at £1. each and the firewood trees at 10s. each37. These surveys suggest that the Forest woods were providing timber and coppice wood as well as firewood for the commoners, perhaps from pollarded trees, variously described as “firewood trees”, “decaying trees” and “dotards”. In 1609 the Kings surveyors sold 180 “timbers” out of Narberth Forest for the repair of the King’s mills in Haverfordwest. These trees may not have been particularly large ones but 20 “great timbers” were also sold to a tenant at Lamphey.  In 1625 Narberth Forest was described as “the chiefest fforrest that the princes magestie hath… in Pembrokeshire”. Local people stated that “there grewe tymber trees for… building” and noted that “barques and boats of good burthen come to fetch and carry tymber” from Blackpool, where the Forest ran down to the tidal Eastern Cleddau River (NLW, Slebech 3961). Clearly at this time the Forest was still being managed to provide a range of timber and wood products, everything from fire wood and wattling rods to ship and house building timbers. These forms of management, that had continued for many hundreds of years, were about to change with the coming of the iron and coal industries.

4.3. 17th century woodland management for a charcoal-fired blast furnace

In 1635 articles of agreement were drawn up between John and George Barlow and an iron master, George Mynne, of Woodcote in Surrey. Mynne was granted a lease of the 'decayed mill called Canaston Myll, with “free liberty of the river and other waters,” the right to erect a furnace and forge and other buildings “for melting iron” within one mile of the mill. Mynne was also granted “A proportion of timber for the use of the iron works ... in the woods of West Wood, Toft Wood, Pickhill Wood, Myndweare Wood and Penglynes Cliffs.” Forty acres of Minwear Wood had been sold to Hugh Owen, a local landowner and other parts such as “Beggarsland” (modern Long Wood) and the western end of Minwear were to remain for John Barlow’s use. These woods that were excluded from the lease were described as “for the most part high woods” i.e. woods managed primarily for their timber trees rather than for the underwood. Barlow also reserved a parcel of 8 acres of wood and coppice in Pickhill Wood that was described as being “in the Parke” (the deer park belonging to Slebech House) “on the hill that the Lodge standeth on”. The document recording the terms of the lease gives a great deal of information regarding the establishment and maintenance of the Furnace and forge (NLW, Slebech 441).

The establishment of the furnace

The blast furnace smelted iron ore to produce pig iron, which was then processed and refined in the forge. A forge was probably established on the site of the old corn mill at Canaston (now Blackpool Mill) and the blast furnace was established close to Castle Lake Brook in Canaston Wood. The site of Mynne’s furnace has been identified though evidence on the ground is slight. The site comprises a furnace leat, the furnace site itself and tailrace leat. On the site small quantities of Coal Measures ironstone have been found along with some anthracite. Other materials found include burnt stone and iron slag with fragments of charcoal. There seems to have been a stone-built structure on the site 38. The buildings associated with the iron works were built of timber and stone and Mynne was to have choice of the trees felled that year in “any three Welsh acres” of the woods. He was also allowed to dig for stone, earth and sand in the streams and brooks, woods and waste grounds (NLW, Slebech 441). The Canaston location provided all the necessary requirements for the establishment of a charcoal fired iron furnace and forge. Large tracts of woodland and coppices provided charcoal for smelting and there is likely to have been a work force available from among local tenants and the coal miners on the nearby Pembrokeshire coalfields. Limestone was used as a flux to which there was easy access at the nearby limestone quarries at Mounton, Newton and Robeston. Iron ore was obtained from ‘ironstone’ deposits in Newton North Parish or could have been brought up the Eastern Cleddau River. The produce of the forge could easily be carried away, down river from Blackpool mill, the “shipping-place” for Narberth, at the tidal limit of the Eastern Cleddau River.

Charcoal production

Agreements were made as to the rights of both John Barlow and George Mynne. Mynne was allowed “full power to doe and commit waste and to cut downe, take and carrie away any of the trees and coppices” and to have “fower thousand cords of wood at the lest or any greater quantitie not exceeding five thousand cords” per year as needed, to supply the forge and furnace. (A “cord” was a measured stack of wood). These cords he was to “convert into charcoles for the melting of iron” (NLW, Slebech 441). Charcoal production took place in the woods on “charcoal hearths”. To make charcoal an area of ground was cleared and levelled, becoming the charcoal hearth. Wood was then stacked vertically around a central pole several feet high at the centre of the hearth. More wood was added creating a dome shaped stack. The wood was the covered with “Turffe, earth, mosse, heath, ferne, marle, furze (Gorse) and brush”. The central pole was then taken out and hot embers were dropped in. Once lit the central hole was covered, a few vent holes made and the charcoal allowed to burn slowly for 5-10 days 39. Charcoal hearths and pits were to be made freely in the woods and coppices, many of which are still visible today. The “topps” of the coppice poles that had been felled for charcoal were to be used as “bavins” i.e. faggots, bundles of twigs tightly tied and burnt. “Spray stuff”, small hazel rods, twigs and the like were made into hurdles which were used as wind breaks around the charcoal hearths to ensure that the burning process was a slow one (NLW, Slebech 441). A charcoal burning platform has been identified in Canaston Wood and there are at least seven more in Newton Cliff and Penglyns Cliff Woods as well as many more in Nearby Minwear Wood. Fragments of charcoal found here appear to be Oak spp. and some of the small wood was charcoaled with the bark still on. The bark may have been removed from larger wood, though there is no mention of this in the agreement. For ease of removal of its bark, Oak for tanning is cut in late spring or early summer, April to June in Wales 40. The agreement stipulates that the wood for charcoaling was to be cut between the 1st of October and mid May, largely missing the bark-peeling season. This suggests that much of the cordwood was burnt with its bark on. Mynne’s men were to carry away all felled wood and charcoal within one and a half years of cutting, implying that the wood for charcoaling was usually burnt whilst still relatively green (unseasoned).

Charcoaled twigs down to 4.5 cm (13/4 inches) in diameter have been found. These were probably the top branches and twigs of the felled coppice poles, stacked around the kiln as an outer layer before the earth covering was put on, helping ensure a more air tight covering for the kiln. The charcoal hearths are somewhat oval in shape measuring roughly 7m X 5m or 6m. The charcoal kilns probably occupied much of the hearth area and were probably about 5m (15’) in diameter and perhaps 2m (6’) high. Each burn may have used up to 7 or 8 tons of wood and produced 2 ton of charcoal. Charcoal was usually burnt close to where the wood was cut so there must be many more platforms in the woods but they are not easy to locate and identify, apart from where they occur on sloping ground when they form a small “terrace”. Charcoal has in the past also been burnt in pits 15-25 feet across and 6-8 feet deep. Such pits may be found to occur in the woods. Quantities of water were required during the burning process to dampen cracks and gaps in the outer cover of the kiln and to quench a kiln when burning was complete. It was said that it could take as much as 50 gallons of water to quench a 7 cord kiln 41. A part of the Penglyns Brook, close to several charcoal hearths is diverted into an embanked pond that may have been constructed to collect water for the Woodcolliers. The articles of agreement between Barlow and Mynne state that Mynne could “dig, cutt and make” new weirs, trenches passages and ponds as required for the iron works.

For his part, Barlow retained the right to take 12 wagon loads of wood and such “topps” as were not needed by the charcoal burners. He also would “marke out such… wood and coppice as he shall think fit to be barked and shall dispose of the said barke at his pleasure”, provided that the trees were felled between the 1st of April and the 7th of May and that the work was completed within 5 days of felling (NLW, Slebech 441).

Wood consumption & iron output

Just how much wood the forge and furnace actually used is unknown. Calculations of wood consumption can be made, based on the yields of coppice woods and the quantities of charcoal required to produce a tonne of Iron. For these calculations to be made the output of the forge and furnace needs to be known. Unfortunately no records of pig or bar iron exports have yet been found 42. Further complications arise because iron production may well have been sporadic and subject to large fluctuations. Therefore any figures can of course be nothing more than best guesses. However George Mynne was an experienced iron master with interests in the Forest of Dean and is unlikely to have contracted to purchase much more wood than he could use or much less than he needed.

West Wood was said to be 500 “Welsh acres”, Minwear and Penglyns Cliff, 400 acres and Toft and Pickhill Woods to be 300 acres (NLW, Slebech 441). The customary acres used in Narberth hundred were equal to 1.46 statute acres. However the sizes given for these woods is close to their present day size, as measured using statute acres. It seems therefore that these woods were in fact measured in statute acres. The size of both Minwear Wood (142 ha or 350 acres) and Canaston Wood (202 ha or 500 acres) have remained more or less stable since medieval times. It seems likely that Toch and Pickhill Woods have been somewhat reduced in size. These two woods were together said to be 300 acres but today are only around 68 ha or 168 acres. Using the figures given in the 1635 agreement the total area of woodland given over to the supply of the furnace and forge seems to have been: Canaston 202 ha, Minwear 161 ha, Toch and Pickhill 121 ha, giving a total of 484 ha. The present day area of all these woods is around 430 ha. It was agreed that 4000 cords of wood could be used annually for the supply of the furnace. The provision of such a large volume of wood put heavy demands on the woods and was to continue only for as long as “there may be found wood enough over and above the standles and storers (timber trees)”. Clearly Barlow intended to preserve his woods and was not going to sacrifice good timber trees to the needs of the furnace. One ‘Statute cord’ was 8 x 4 x 4 feet and had a stacked volume of somewhere around 2.17 m3.  The 4 foot cord of the Barlow-Mynne agreement was 8’ 4” X 4’ 3” X 4’3” with a volume of 2.56 m3. The area of coppice needed for an annual sustainable yield of 4000 of these cords, given that Coppice woods give a yield of around 5.25m3 per hectare per year is around 1950 hectares 43. The woods given over to the supply of the furnace and forge amounted to just 430-485 hectares and could not have yielded enough wood if they were all coppices. To have yielded anything like 4000 cords, the woods must have been densely stocked high woods of quite young growth, as well as coppices. Documentary evidence hints that this may indeed have been the case (NLW, Slebech 441, 5550 and Owen, H. 1914 p 142-143). Perhaps the high woods were being heavily thinned prior to establishing a coppice-with-standards system and the trees felled for tan bark were being converted into billets for charcoal production. The alternative suggestion is simply that 4000 cords were never actually used in any one year. Five loads of charcoal were required to produce one ton of bar iron and about four cords were needed to manufacture one load of charcoal. Therefore a total of about twenty cords of wood made one ton of iron 44. Given these figures and assuming that 4000 cords were ever used annually (as per the agreement) then an output of around 200 tons of iron per year is possible.

By the 18th century the blast furnace had ceased to operate but a forge continued at Blackpool Mill. Fenton stated that “above a century ago” (i.e. prior to 1700) the forge consumed “800 cords of wood” per annum at 9s. per cord and said that “Canaston….was appropriated for many years to the maintenance of the iron forge at Blackpool, and admitted of a certain proportion being annually cut forever; for by the time the whole was gone over, thus parcelled in regular rotation, the first cutting was again fit for the axe” 45. This clearly shows that Canaston wood was by now carefully managed as coppice, cut on regular rotation. Even if by this date the smaller statute cords were being used (with a volume of around 2.17 m3 per cord), a yearly consumption of no less than 1963m3 can be assumed. Using a yield class of 5.25 cubic metres per hectare per year, around 330 hectares of coppices would have been needed to provide an annual sustainable yield. Canaston Wood alone (at about 202 hectares) was not large enough to supply the forge suggesting that wood would also have had to have been cut in Minwear Wood to provide a sustainable annual supply.

In 1709 A Mr Rea held the lease of the forge and was “obliged to take 305 long cords of wood”. This was said to be short of what he should have taken according to the articles of agreement, perhaps suggesting that at this time there was a shortage of suitable wood. (See also below; “Management of the woods supplying the furnace & forge”).

Management of the woods supplying the furnace & forge

The 1635 Barlow-Mynne articles of agreement (NLW, Slebech 441) show that Barlow was ensuring that his woods were preserved whilst deriving a good income from them. There were strict requirements placed upon Mynne to ensure that the woods and coppices were used sustainably. These requirements allow us an insight into the organization and management of the woods at the time. The coppices were cut on a rather short cycle of just nine-years, the agreement noting that a ninth of the woods and coppices were to be cut as the “proportion to be yearlie taken”. The coppice stools and trees were to be cut “well fairlie and husbandly” within 8 inches of the ground between the 1st of October and mid-May for the “better preservation of the springe and growthe of the coppices”. At each cutting, “standells and storers (timber trees)” as well as some “spring Woods (coppice stools)” were to be left growing, “according to the statutes”. This was a reference to the requirements set out in laws such as the 1543 “Statute of Woods, or Act for the Preservation of Woods” whereby, after felling at least 12 timber trees were to be left on each acre of coppice and the coppices were to be enclosed and fenced. The wood was to be cut and made up into such cords as “it shall fall out most aptlie to yeald… with least waste”. Any wood down to a minimum of 2.5 inches “in compass”, roughly the thickness of your middle finger, could be taken but nothing smaller was “to be put into any cord”. The wood from each felling was cut into billets of various lengths, 4’ 3’’, 3’ 23/4’’ or 2’ 11/2’’. These billets were measured out into cords, stacks of billets 8’ 4’’ long and 4’ 3’’ high. The “fower foote” (4’ 3’’ billet length) cords were sold at 3s. 5d. the “three foote” (3’ 23/4’’ billet length) cords for 2s. 71/2d. and the “two foote” (2’ 11/2’’billet length) cords for 1s. 9d. Assuming that 4000 cords were sold annually and that these sales included equal numbers of four, three and two foot cords, an annual income of £519. 6s. 3d can be calculated. This amount can be roughly equated to around £64000 in today’s money (conversions based on calculations using the retail prices index at:

This shows that the woods and coppices were valuable assets that were carefully managed for the supply of the furnace and forge, with much consideration being given to their future preservation. It also seems that a more formal “coppice with standards” system was at this time being developed. In later times it seems the woods were not always so well managed and Fenton noted that upon the sale of the Slebech estate, its new owner “from an over anxiousness of gain” felled all the woods. This apparently overstocked the market locally and brought “only disappointment”.

Many writers have claimed that the forges of the “iron masters” were responsible for the destruction of huge areas of woodland. Indeed the contraction of the woodland in this part of Pembrokeshire has been at least partly attributed to “the need for charcoal for the iron forges”, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries46. The careful attention given to woodland management set out above suggests that in fact the opposite was true. In 1760, 125 years after a blast furnace and forge was first established at Canaston, a lease confirmed that the owner of the forge at Blackpool, a Mr Morgan of Carmarthen had ‘the right to cut timber in Canaston Wood within four miles of the forge’. The only substantial woods within this 4 mile limit were those that had always supplied the blast furnace. These woods were now mostly managed coppices well capable of providing for the forge and meeting other local demands and were treated as valuable assets to be nurtured rather than as a resource to be exploited and destroyed. Papers relating to the iron forge at Blackpool dating to 1806 show that the Morgan family still owned the forge (NLW, Slebech 3505).

In 1794 Charles Hassal complained of the “mutilation” that these woods had undergone47. He noted that “it is not likely that the woods will be suffered to grow timber” due to the heavy demand for charcoal and pit-props. These comments show that, rather than fearing that that the woods were being destroyed, he was concerned that coppice management for the iron and coal industries left little room for the growing of timber trees. In 1833 it was noted that the “Iron-works at Black Pool, near Narberth, were carried on for many years, and at last abandoned only on account of the great difficulty of obtaining charcoal, the fuel which had been always employed” 48. However, as Hassal had noted 40 years previously, the local coal mines were using “vast supplies of small wood”49 and the lack of availability of wood for charcoaling is more likely to have been due to the high demand for pit props rather than to any actual lack of wood.

It remains a fact that these woods supported an Iron industry from 1635 until at least 1800, a period of 165 years. It is also a fact that those woods named in the lease of 1635 which were to supply Wood for charcoal production: Canaston Wood, Toch Wood, Pickle Wood, Minwear Wood and Penglyns and Newton Cliffs, all survive today. East wood which was not included in the agreement, but which was left for the use of the commoners, has been lost. The year before John Barlow granted the lease for the establishment of an iron works in Canaston wood, common rights had been extinguished here. The two events are probably connected. Up until this time the commoners of Narberth and the parishes surrounding the Forest had exercised their rights to take wood for a variety of purposes and to graze their animals in the Forest woods. Clearly the iron masters needed as much wood as possible for the blast furnace and probably regarded the commoners as little more than thieves.

4.4. 18th century management – pit props & tan bark

As well as timber and domestic fuel, the woods also provided bark for leather tanning and charcoal for iron smelting and for lime burning. In 1794 Charles Hassal gave detailed descriptions of coppice management around the Slebech/Canaston area and noted the major uses that the coppice products were put to. He described the “usual course of management in these woods”. A newly cut coppice stool was left to grow for around 3-4 years when an initial thinning of the inferior shoots took place, leaving between 4 and 6 poles per stool. About 5 years later (i.e. at 8-9 years growth) another thinning was taken to provide cordwood, the poles “being come to a fit size for making charcoal”.  The stools were then left for about 15 years and, at around 25 years old, were sold as pit props for local coal mines. Bark and some small cordwood poles were also sold at this cutting, the bark going to local tanners or being shipped to Scotland where tan bark prices were high. Hassal does not seem to suggest that the demands put on the woods by the collieries were damaging them but he does stress the “necessity of preserving…the growing crop” and of making new plantations wherever possible 50.

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5.1. Pollard trees

Pollarded trees are generally rare in Pembrokeshire and the area around Narbeth Forest is no exception. Those Pollards that are present in the county are often of no great size or age and some are unconvincing, perhaps having a “pollarded” appearance due to frost or grazing damage to the leading shoot when saplings. Some exceptions do occur, such as the group of magnificent Sweet Chestnuts (Castanea sativa) At Wiston Castle, about four and a half kilometres to the north west of the Forest. There are numerous historical records of grazed woodlands from all around the county, suggesting that woodpasture was once a commonplace land use in this area. The Black Book of St Davids, a 14th century survey of the Bishop of St David’s lands, states that the bishop was “able to sell boughs from the aforesaid wood (at New Moat) without injuring its value”, a statement that seems to indicate that trees were indeed being pollarded52. At Llawhaden, a few miles to the north of the Narberth Forest, the Bishop had “Seven carucates of land in plain and wood”, a description suggestive of wood pasture. Early editions of the Ordnance Survey maps show a c.22 hectare open area of heath or rough grassland in the middle of Minwear wood and indicate a sparse tree cover. Even as late as the 1930`s the Land Utilisation Survey of Great Britain mapped this area as “Moorland & Heath” with scattered trees. This area has never developed into dense mature woodland, becoming a Forestry Commission tree nursery in modern times. Some fine old maiden oaks and a single pollarded beech survive here still.


It is clear that wood pasture existed in the Forest, at least to the extent that both the East and West Woods were grazed. For example, in the time of King Richard II the accounts recorded 2s. Received from the tenants of Newhouse who “before that tyme had not common of pasture with their cattle in the common wood”. Whether the more typical form of wood pasture with pollarded trees in a semi-open landscape was present is unclear. However, the surveys of the early 17th century refer to  “firewood trees”, “decaying trees” and “dotards”.  These are clearly references to pollarded trees indicating that, within the Forest woods, pollarding of trees did indeed occur. This suggests that the knowledge of the benefits of pollarding, as well as the skills to carry it out were locally available. This being the case it is highly likely that out on the wastes and commons at least some trees would have been pollarded as the commoners sought to preserve their supplies of fire and building wood from the ravages of the grazing stock and deer. Most parts of the Forest were grazed, but in areas such as West Wood and, for a time at least, East Wood, this was clearly well controlled. Elsewhere in the Forest, pollarding must have been rather limited and grazing and wood cutting over a period of many hundreds of years reduced the once extensive ancient woodlands to wooded pastures and, eventually into treeless commons. Indeed, Fenton writing of the Forest commons, states that though they then had just a few stunted oaks “The commons of Templeton and Molleston…had been of entirely the same foresty quality, with that of the more preserved part (of the woods)”.


5.2. Pasture, grazing and pannage

As well as being of value for their trees, the wastes, commons and woods also provided   grazing for farm animals. The Forest tenants exercised grazing rights on the wastes and commons and also had rights to common of pasture in the “common wood” (NLW, Slebech 3040, 344, 3076 etc). This “common wood” seems to have originally included both the East and West Woods. Cattle (often referred to as “great beasts” ) are the most frequently mentioned grazing animal but geese, sheep and horses must have also been present. Rights of  pannage were also exercised. In theory at least, pannage was the autumn fattening of pigs on fallen acorns, hazel nuts and beechmast although it may have often simply involved grazing pigs on whatever food was available in the woods. Pannage payments allowed tenants to graze “hogs and swine” in the woods, the payment being usually of a fixed sum, perhaps 1d per pig. Pannage payments are recorded in Foresters accounts going back to the 13th century (NLW, Slebech 1-16), with Pannage dues of 2s. 6d. being recorded at Molleston as early as 1282.


King Henry the second’s charter to Pembroke, dating from the second half of the 12th century, had allowed grazing within the Forest51. The Forest accounts of the 1300’s record agistment payments, small rents that allowed tenants to graze their animals in the King’s forests (NLW, Slebech 1-16). George Barlow noted that Forest accounts from the reign of Edward III recorded that £4 “was payed that year for agistment of strangers cattle” suggesting that not only Forest tenants could graze here but that grazing was rented out to other local farmers. In 1424 “agistment of the said (Narberth) Forest” was valued at 6s. 8d. The fact that, at the start of the 17th century, over 400 years later, the forest was still well wooded indicates that the grazing was, in some parts of the Forest at least, well controlled. This implies that the forest was a mix of waste, wood pasture and well-defined and protected woods. For example Canaston (West Wood) was banked and hedged and no doubt these huge wood banks, dating back to at least the 13th century, served to keep livestock out of the woods. The grazing that took place in Canaston Wood, whether by livestock or deer, was clearly controlled and did not seriously affect natural regeneration as is shown by the high numbers of Oak saplings recorded there in the 1609 survey.

Occasional grazing must have continued (almost certainly illegally) in Canaston wood right up until the late 18th century. In a letter dated 1792 the writer felt it worth reporting that “I have not seen any trespass of cattle in any parts of the woods lately”.


Deer were present in the Forest, throughout medieval times up until the 17th century (see below, section 6.1.). Records indicate that deer numbers were generally low but it is likely that they will have had some effect on woodland regeneration.


A system must have been in place to exclude grazing animals from recently felled coppices, to allow them to re-grow. This may have involved active “shepherding” of livestock or the construction of banks, fences and dead-hedges around recently felled areas. There is little sign of internal compartmentalization in Canaston Wood and shepherding is the most likely option, it being the means by which livestock was kept away from arable land in the open fields of Pembrokeshire. Outside of the preserved woods the domestic animals and deer grazing the Forest would have had a significant effect on the regeneration of trees. Table 2 shows pannage and agistment payments recorded in the Forest accounts in the late 1300’s.


Table 2 The profits of Pannage and agistments in Narberth Forest 1357-70









2s. 3d.

5s. 4d

15s. 1d.

15s. 1/2d.

11s, 4d.

8s. 1/2d.


4 s.





4s. 1d.


6s. 3d

9s. 4d.

19s 1d.

19s 1/2d.

14s. 4d.

12s. 11/2d.





5.3. Wastes & the Forest commons

Narberth Forest contained large areas of common land and wastes. Common land was land belonging to the lord of the manor or some other owner but upon which some neighbouring landowners or tenants exercised certain rights, such as right to graze animals or take fuel. “Wastes” or the “waste of the manor” was rough land used in much the same way as common land, for grazing and peat/turf cutting etc. However the people who used this land did so merely by custom rather than by right. There is no common land today in the area once covered by the Forest. Up until 1786 there were extensive “waste grounds” and commons at Narberth, Templeton, Molleston and Robeston Wathen 53. At Kilfoden 7 acres of “Mountain land” referred to as “Kylvoden Common” 54 were recorded, suggesting that there were substantial areas of rough grazing on the eastern edge of Canaston Wood. Parts of these Commons may well have been wood pasture (see above, section 5.1.). The vegetation would most likely have been a mix of wet moor-grass pastures and heath with Purple Moor grass (Molinia caeruleau), Heather (Calluna vulgaris) and Western Gorse (Ulex Gallii) etc with varying amounts of tree cover, presumably mostly Oak spp. and Downy birch (Betula pubesens). A study of documents, place names and early O.S. maps suggests that these large wastes and commons occupied a broad swathe stretching across the southern parts of Newton North, Mounton and Narberth parishes, joining with the larger commons at Molleston and Templeton Mountain. 19th century O.S. maps show  large areas of rough pasture here and the limestone quarry in the manor or parish of Newton (on the site now occupied by Oakwood Leisure Park) was said to be in the unenclosed “outgrounds”, showing that in the 17th century this area  was open rough pasture land. Templeton Airfield was built over much of Templeton Common. The airfield is now disused and there are some good areas of natural vegetation remaining.

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6.1. Hunting

References to deer, the animal theoretically central to the function and purpose of a Forest are surprisingly sparse for Narberth. Indeed, prior to the 17th century their presence in the Forest can only be conjectured. However, given that between 1241-5 hunting rights were granted to the Knights of St John in Minwear Wood 56 it is reasonable to assume that they were present in the Forest too.

In the 17th century, when the Barlow’s came into possession of the Slebech Estate (which included Minwear Wood) they inherited, from the knights of St. John the right of free chase meaning that they could legally hunt the beasts of the chase such as deer, fox, marten etc. on their own lands. It seems that the crown soon had reason to suspect that George Barlow and his son John were hunting the Kings deer both within the Forest as well as in their own woods. In 1625 it was noted that Barlow’s Woods were unfenced, having no “parke or pale”. This suggests that there was a suspicion that deer were being “stolen” from the Forest, encouraged into Barlow’s Woods and possibly used to stock his deer park at Slebech. Local freeholders were questioned about the Forest deer and any hunting that was taking place in and around the Forest. Witnesses stated that the deer did indeed go into Barlow’s woods but that they did not know of any hunting taking place. Another witness who had been steward and Forester of Narberth reported that there were indeed “Redd deer in the Forest” and that they had come from the King’s park at Laugharne in Carmarthenshire (NLW, Slebech 3961). It seems that earlier stocks had become so depleted that the Forest had had to be restocked in the recent past. It has been noted that some Forests were regularly restocked with deer, indicating that deer populations in Forests were unable to maintain themselves. This can hardly have been due to environmental conditions, and was presumably due to hunting, poaching, wandering and stealing. One of George Barlow’s men, Thomas Lee admitted that he, John Barlow and others “have byn at the hunting and killing of the deer being found and shot within the defendants (Barlow’s) woods”. As to the claim that they hunted within the Forest he answered that the deer “Sometymes being hurt they have byn found deade in the forest” (NLW, Slebech 3961). It seems likely that the Barlow’s were indeed hunting deer within the forest but that a cover story had been developed. Eventually the deer from the Forest almost certainly ended up in the private parks of Slebech Hall and Picton Castle where they were still to be found until the late 18th century.

Deer were not the only animals hunted in the Forest. Woodcock were netted in “Cockshotts”, which were looked after by the Forester and Hayward. David Howell who had been a Forester remembered how he had received Woodcock from the “Cockshott of Talch (Toch Wood)” and delivered them to the Steward (NLW, Slebech 3961).

6.2 Quarries & gravel pits

The quarrying of stone and extraction of clay and gravel occurred in the Forest, but not on a large scale. Early O.S. maps show quarries and gravel pits, usually referred to as “old”. The Royal Commission on the historical monuments of Wales (Carn database) also lists numerous quarries and pits. Most quarrying was for the extraction of Old Red Sandstone from small roadside quarries. Limestone occurs on the Southern side of the Forest and was used for Building, burning in lime kilns and for use as a flux at the Iron forge in Canaston Wood. The Barlow-Mynne 1635 articles of agreement record an “Antyent lyme stone quarriy in the outgrounds of New House” (NLW, Slebech 441). In Newton North parish Ironstones were quarried as a source of iron ore again for the forge 57. The Charcoal burners must have been responsible for digging numerous pits for marl and earth on the wastes and commons and in the woods. The many small pits and depressions that may still be seen in the woods today are probably the result of such diggings.

6.3. Lime kilns

There were several lime kilns around the forest, mostly located alongside the Eastern Cleddau River and across the south of the parishes of Newton North and Mounton. These were probably fired by coal and charcoal, burning limestone from Mounton, Newton and Robeston Wathen. The burnt and crushed limestone was spread on fields to reduce the acidity of soils. The Kiln at the western end of Minwear Wood, beside the Cleddau River is recorded in 1635 (NLW, Slebech 441).

6.4. Mills

Several mills operated in and around the Forest. Mills are recorded at Pen Glyn and Canaston (Newton North parish), Valley Gate (Narberth parish). In 1555 a “lease for 21 years to John Watkyns of the mill called Caniston Mille, the weir called le Blackpole” (NLW, Slebech 359) was granted. This mill was presumably a corn grist mill. The mill had fallen out of use by 1635 when it was leased out for the establishment of an iron works (See above, section 4.3.). In 1550 the court rolls of Newhouse notes the “taking up of possession by Robert Row of Newton of a fulling mill at Penglin in Newton” (NLW, Slebech 95). In 1532 this mill had been let to the church wardens 58. Another mill, recorded at different times as both a tucking and a carding mill is shown on early Ordnance Survey maps at valley gate. Fulling, tucking and carding mills were used to process the cloth, made from wool. The presence of these two mills indicates a small cloth industry operating in the Forest for at least 300 years. The wool used in this industry probably came from local stock grazed on the Forest. Sheep farming had clearly been established locally before 1330 when 86 sheep are recorded in Llawhaden 59. In 1634 it was recorded that the Freeholders and tenants around the Forest graze sheep on the Forest commons “In as large and ample manner as they and their ancestors have formerlie enjoyed” (NLW, Slebech 344).

6.5. Farmland 

The commons and wastes, along with the woods formed the basis of the physical Forest. Adjoining the woods and wastes of the Forest were a variety of agricultural land uses. The farms of Canaston, East Atheston, and Returno on the northern edge of Canaston Wood are all ancient settlements that have every appearance of having been carved out of woodland. At least some of these settlements probably predate the Norman occupation of Wales and are may have been early Welsh estates. The oldest recorded form of the name of Returno Farm is “Treturno”. The Welsh word Tre/Tref meaning home or settlement. This suggests an original Welsh settlement. Farms such as Kilfoden on the Eastern edge of Canaston Wood and Wood Office Farm on Narberth Mountain are recorded back to at least the 1500’s. A few examples will serve to illustrate the variety of land use in the Forest. In 1524 a grant was made at Canaston of “3½ acres of arable land and 1 stang (long, narrow strip) of meadow ….. the stang of meadow lying in le grete mede between the lands of John Gybb and Richard Molde (NLW, Slebech 309). Clearly this describes a strip in a common meadow. In 1572 an agreement was made “for the making of an estate for the said Thomas Baron and Alison Roger in 5 acres of arable land and 1 acre of grove or wood in the Englishry within the parish and reeveship of Nerberth, and about 12 acres of arable land and 36 acres of mountain ground in the Welshery at Moyleston in the parish of Nerberth” (NLW, Slebech 299). 

The 1609 survey of Narberth records a variety of land uses around the Forest. At this time much of the agricultural landscape seems to have been made up of various parks, crofts and closes, indicating a countryside that had been anciently enclosed. There were enclosed fields of arable, arable and pasture, arable and wood as well as pastures and meadows. There were also areas of unenclosed strip-cultivation though some of these may represent sub-divisions of larger enclosures rather than the remnants of true open-fields. Moor and mountain land are also mentioned suggesting a landscape of hedged fields, woods and large wastes. From the figures given in this survey it is possible to roughly calculate the percentages of the various land uses. Arable land was commonest making up about 65% of the area surveyed. Waste land followed at around 32%. Small woods (not including East Wood, West Wood and the other Forest woods) and meadows made up a mere 1% and 1.5% respectively. In the 1830’s Newton North parish was roughly 30% woodland and “uncultivated” land. The remaining 70% was “enclosed and cultivated”. At the same time Mounton parish was mostly “Good arable and pasture, which is enclosed and cultivated” 55. Arthur Young in his “1776 Tour of South Wales and South Midlands”, on his way to Narberth from Haverfordwest, passed the Forest, saying only that “three miles before Narberth are some extensive woods”. Around Narberth he noted that “The country is generally in tillage, and ploughed tolerably well, but in the low lands good meadow” Oddly he finished this description by saying “Scarcely any such thing as waste land.” This statement stands in stark contrast to all the other evidence which clearly shows that whilst agriculture played an important role within the forest, certainly from the 16th century onwards, waste and uncultivated land still formed an important element in the landscape as late as the middle of the 19th century.  It seems likely that Young did not look closely at the Forest and that there was considerable stability in the proportions and patterns of land uses for several hundreds of years. It was only the agricultural “improvements” of the last century that finally altered these ancient patterns.

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7.1. Rights & customs

Generally the Forest resources were not considered to “belong” to the local populace but to the Forest owner, be it the crown or a private individual. Rights to its produce were however claimed by tenants of the lordship of Narberth. Many of these claims were based upon rights that had been granted in ancient charters. Henry the second had granted a charter to the burgesses of Pembroke in the 12th century. This charter allowed rights to take timber for house building and repairs as well as dead wood for fires and the right to the “vert and free pannage” in both Narberth and Coedtraeth (near Amroth) Forests 60. Usually a small “rent” was paid to allow individuals or certain groups of tenants to exercise a particular right. Some examples of the rights claimed and the rents charged are given below.


In the 1600’s George Barlow noted that “4d for any cord wood and two woodcocks” was paid by tenants around the forest to the steward, allowing them to take firewood from the Forest or, as Barlow put it, in regard of which “the inhabitants have lyberty to spoyle the kings woods at their pleasure” (NLW, Slebech 3164). As late as the 18th century the tenants of the Manors around the Forest still claimed the right of estovers. Estovers was the right to any legitimate taking of wood, to be used for a variety of purposes. A wood rent was paid by the tenants, allowing them to claim this right. In 1715 wood rents at Robeston Wathen were worth £2. 12s. 6d. (NLW, Slebech 881). In the 1609 survey of Narberth it was noted of Canaston and Penglyns Woods that “The inhabitauntes near thereunto adioyninge doe clayme common of Estovers upon the ground whereon their woodes standeth as percell of the fforrest of Narberth. In consideracion whereof I can value the soyle at no higher rate, more then the value of the wood that groweth thereon”. From these comments it seems that the commoners claim to rights meant that the woods could not be improved and commercially exploited. Circumstances such as these would have added impetus to later attempts to extinguish common rights in the Forest as a whole. The commoners also had rights of housebote, plowbote, cartbote, haybote and firebote “for their necessary uses” 61. These rights allowed them to take wood from the Forest for the repair of houses, ploughs, carts and hedges, as well as for firewood. Early Forest accounts record sales of oak bark for “houseboot”, but to what use bark was put in house building or repair, I do not know. In the 17th century that it was a Forest custom that “Twenty of the poorer cottagers can claim one rotten tree apiece yearly” 62 and documents mention “custom trees” taken by Forest tenants.


Mellage was a payment for the right to the “wild honey” in the forest. Wild honey is mentioned on numerous occasions in documents relating to Narberth and was clearly an important Forest product. The existence of (presumably) reasonably large numbers of wild bee nests in the forest suggests the presence of hollow trees in which they would have nested. This lends some further support to the possible presence of numerous ageing, hollow trees, most likely pollards. (See above, section 5.1.). This right was often leased along with pannage rights, on a yearly basis. Later these leases became fixed for 21 year periods.


 The Tenants of Robeston were said to have a “certain commons called viginge”. This may be the common right known as “vicinage”, the right of common possessed on each others’ wastes by adjacent manors/townships where those wastes were undivided63.


As well as the rights that the tenants had to some of the Forest’s resources, they also owed certain services. In 1282 documents record that the customary tenants of the manors around the Forest were required to carry firewood to the manor house at Christmas.  A payment known as a fire-gafol “Gabulo ignis” was made in lieu of providing this service. Tenants of Narberth paid two shillings a year, those of Robeston and Templeton one shilling 64.


A payment was due of the tenants of Narberth, Templeton, Robeston, Canaston and Molleston to the Forest owner known as fire silver or “vyrsylvyr” in the medieval Forest accounts. This is referred to as a “dutie” or “custom” and seems to be the same payment as the earlier fire gafol. 1d. a year was paid by those houses “havinge a chimney or hearth” or “havinge fewell (fuel)” (NLW, Slebech 3076). Fire silver was still paid to the reeves in the 17th century (reeves were tenants chosen to supervise the working of a manor). Wode-gafol was another customary service owed to the lord. In this case tenants were to provide wood cutting services for their lord. This and most other services seem to have been replaced by small payments allowing the tenants to not perform them. In 1366 Wode-gafol payments from Narberth, Velfrey, Templeton and Robeston brought in £1.19s.2d. to the lord 65. This would have been enough to allow him to pay for perhaps 235 days of wood cutting labour (assuming a labourers wage of around 2d. per day). As late as the early 17th century tenants in the lordship of Narberth had to pay 'kilthe corne' and 'kilthe money', this was a render due to the lord and assessed at the rate of three dozen sheaves of corn and 11d. paid by every plough keeper to the woodwards (NLW, Slebech 3164 and Jones, E.G. p 199). It has been suggested that this was a relict of the earlier Welsh taxation/tribute system by which the huntsmen were maintained 66. Payment of Kilthe money seems to have conferred certain wood cutting rights upon those who paid it. An early 17th century document notes that “in regard whereof the inhabitants have liberty to spoyle the Kings wood at their pleasure” (NLW, Slebech 3164).


7.2. Forest law and officers

A great deal has been written on “Forest law”, which was often claimed to be brutal and harsh. The laws did indeed prescribe harsh punishments such as blinding or castration. However Rackham could find no examples of such penalties ever having been exacted 67. The most usual punishments were, like those of the common law, imprisonment or fines. It appears that Forest law began as a law to protect the “vert and Venison” but that it soon began to operate as a system to collect “fines” which were in reality merely rents.


The Forest affairs were overseen by the Master-Forester or Forester-in-chief. These top-level Foresters did no work in the Forest, instead there was in most Forests a number of Foresters, deputy- Foresters, Verderers, regarders etc who did the actual work and saw to the day to day running of the Forest. Woodwards and deputy woodwards were employed to manage the woods. The steward of the lordship of Narberth was usually Forester-in-chief.  In 1429 Geoffrey Don was appointed steward and Forester “with the accustomed fees and wages” provided that “the King be answered of the profits of the said Forest”. Again, in 1460 the steward was appointed as Forester 68.  A document of 1625 notes that the Forest court was held before the steward, he being “also a forester”. In the same document one John Phillips stated that he was Steward for 15 years during the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1st and that during this time there was a Forester (presumably an under- Forester) and Woodward (NLW, Slebech 3961).


Forest officials usually received a wage but this was often supplemented by various perquisites. In 1609 the King was said to have a “Woodwarde for his woodes” at Narberth whose fees were “the bark of such trees that are fealled and the wyndfalld (wind fallen trees)” 69. It seems that often the posts held by Forest officials were honorary, given to local gentry who presumably set others to do any actual work in the woods and wastes. It was one of the duties of a forester to walk his bailiwick (area of jurisdiction) every morning and in 1399 the Forester-in-chief was paid £4. 11s. 6d. “in lewe of his walkes in the said fforest”. In 1632 this was said to be “still continued, by two foresters, for any day in the year, 3.d” (NLW, Slebech 3076). In this case “in lewe” must be being used in the sense of “in return for”, as used in Coke's Institutes of the Lawes of England 70.


Sometime prior to 1602, in what was doubtless another of his attempts to obtain ever more control over the Forest and its woods it seems that George Barlow attempted to have the Foresters chosen by his steward rather than by election by the freeholders. In June 1602 The Freeholders sent a petition to lord Buckhurst, the High Treasurer of England asking that they should have the right to elect the Foresters from among the freeholders as they had done “tyme out of mynd”. The tenants reported that the steward appointed a forester at his own pleasure and made him swear no oaths. Because of this the woods were said to be “very much spoiled” and likely to go to “utter waste” unless “somebody be quickly had” (NLW, Slebech 3182). The implication here was that the steward had appointed his own men as foresters and was felling timber without any controls. Buckhurst’s response was to write to the steward demanding that he respond to the petition or else meet the freeholder’s demands. The petition gives some detail of the oath that the newly elected foresters were to swear to. Amongst other things they were to deliver to the freeholders and tenants such “tymber as is due unto them” and they should not sell or allow any timber to be sold out of the Forest, unless by special warrant of the King.



7.3. The Forest courts

The Forest court was held by verderers, sitting regularly throughout the year and hearing the least important cases. Minor trespasses against the vert and a multitude of other small trespasses were dealt with here. More serious cases were referred to the next Forest Eyre, The highest court of the Forest. The earliest mention of the Narberth Forest courts is in the Chancery inquisition post mortem of Edward I. Here wood perquisites of 10s. are recorded 71. Again in the 1300’s “pleas and perquisites” of the Forest are recorded in the Minister’s accounts. Manor courts were held at Narberth, Canaston, Robeston Wathen and Templeton and a court is also listed under the heading “Forest” (NLW, Slebech 1-16). This was the court where general matters relating to the Forest were heard. Table 2 shows the number of Forest courts and the total revenue raised by them between 1357 and 1370 as recorded in various ministers accounts (NLW, Slebech 1-16).


Table 3 The profits  of the Forest courts, Narberth Forest 1357-70








Number of courts








20 s. 5 d.

29 s. 6 d.

28 s. 4 d.

22 s. 4 d.

21s. 7 d.

42 s. 7 d.


Writing in 1632 George Barlow noted that, in an account of 1349 that seems unfortunately not to have survived, there was then a “swanimote court”. The Swanimote was a forest court which met three times a year dealing mainly with areas such as pannage and agistment, and enforcement of the “Fence Month”, the season when the deer gave birth to their young and all other animals were banned from the Forest.


Records’ relating to the proceedings of Narberth’s Forest courts unfortunately do not appear to have survived. They were probably lost or destroyed when the court ceased to function. However there is a possibility that they were deliberately taken and disposed of. Proceedings were proposed by John Barlowe against Sir Richard Phillips, Sir John Stepneth, and James Protherowe, “touching the detention of court rolls of the lordship of Narbart which plaintiff as lord of the manor and lordship of Narbert requires to defend his claim to common of pasture in the said forest against the tenants around the forest.” (NLW, Slebech 468) It seems that these documents had been taken away from their proper place of keeping and lost or destroyed. Despite this, a few mentions of cases dealt with in the Forest court do appear in other documents. In 1625 witnesses recalled seeing the Forest “court booke or rolles” in which they reported seeing records of cases that were presented at the Forest court. Cases included that of one John Gibbon who was presented for “spoiling and cutting of the wood in Talch (Toch Wood)” and that of Hugh Kethin who was “by the jury… presented for spoiling of the Queens magesties wood” (NLW, Slebech 3961).


By 1634 a “forester or Woodward” was to be elected for East Wood only, the rest of the Forest having become the private property of George Barlow. From now on there were to be “two wood courts to be yearly kept as formerly” but these were now to be concerned only with such matters as “spoiles and wastes committed in the said wood” and the tenants were to be “freed from Fforest lawes” (NLW, Slebech 344). With the termination of Forest law at this time the Forest ceased to be a fully functioning legal entity but it did have an “afterlife”. A forester continued to be elected and the East Wood/Narberth Mountain area remained as common land and some aspects of Forest life, rights and customs continued. For how much longer the Forest and wood courts continued to operate is not known, but it may have been until at least 1640 when the “Act of limitation of Forests” brought an end to many Forest courts. Undoubtedly the final enclosure of the commons in 1786 brought an end to any remaining vestiges of Forest law, life and customs.

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References and abbreviations



Much of the research in this study relied heavily upon the Slebech collection in the National Library of Wales. Where reference is made to manuscripts from this collection the following abbreviation is used - (NLW, Slebech) 


Other manuscript collections relating to Narberth are held in The National Archives of the UK (TNA), in the Public Record Office (PRO). Where reference is made to manuscripts from these collections the following abbreviation is used - (TNA: PRO) 



1                     Rackham, O. Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape (London 1976)




5                     Rees, W. South Wales and the March, 1284-1415. A social and agrarian study (Oxford 1924)

6                     Rackham, O. (1976) op. cit.

7                     Thorpe, L (trans). Gerald of Wales: The Journey through Wales/The Description of Wales. Penguin, (London 1978)

8                     Walker, R.F. Henry II’s charter to Pembroke, Bulletin of the board of Celtic studies xxvi (1989)

9                     Leland, J. The itinerary in Wales of John Leland in or about the years 1536-1539 (ed. L. Toumlin-Smith, London 1964)

10                  Owen, G., The description of Pembrokeshire 1603 (Cymm. Record series, 1892)

11                  Pembrokeshire County History, Vol.3. Early modern Pembrokeshire (ed. Howells, Haverfordwest 1987)

12                  Fenton, R. Historical tour through Pembrokeshire (2nd edition 1903).

13                  Hassel, C. General view of the agriculture of Pembroke (London 1794)

14                  Most of the details concerning ownership of Narberth Forest come from Walker, R. F. ed. Pembrokeshire County History, Vol. 2. Medieval Pembrokeshire (Haverfordwest 2002) and various documents cited in Owen, H., A calendar of the public records relating to Pembrokeshire. Vol 2 Cilgerran & Narberth. (London 1914)

15                  Jones, E.G. Exchequer proceedings concerning Wales. (1939).


17                  Owen, H. A calendar of the public records relating to Pembrokeshire. Vol 2 Cilgerran & Narberth. (London 1914)

18                  Fenton, R. Op. cit.

19                  Owen, H. Op. cit.

20                  Owen, G, Op. cit.

21                  Lewis. S. A Topographical Dictionary of Wales (1833).

22                  Rackham, O. The History of the Countryside (London 2002)

23                  Ibid.

24                  Owen, H. Op. cit.


26                  Ludlow, N D, 1997c ‘Castell Coch, Newton North, Pembrokeshire: historical summary and structural description’, unpublished report by Cambria Archaeology.

27                  Rackham, O. (2002) op. cit.

28                  Jones, E.G. Op. cit. 309.

29                  Owen, G. Op. cit.

30                  Jones, E.G. Op. cit.

31                  Jones, E.G. Op. cit. 309-10.

32                  Fenton, R. Op. cit.

33                  Owen, H. Op. cit.

34                  Black book of St David’s. An extent of all the lands and rents of the Lord Bishop of St Davids 1326. (Cymm. Records series N0.5, 1902)

35                  Owen, G. Op. cit.

36                  Linnard, W. Welsh Woods and Forests a History (2000)

37                  Fenton, R. Op. cit.


39                  Armstrong, L. Woodcolliers and charcoal burning (Horsham 1978)

40                  Linnard, W. Op. cit.

41                  Armstrong, L. Op. cit


43                  Linnard, W. Op. cit.

44                  Ibid.

45                  Fenton, R. Op. cit.

46                  Dyfed Archaeological Trust. The Landsker Borderlands: Its History and Landscape. (Narberth 1992)

47                  Hassel, C. Op. cit.

48                  Lewis. S. Op. cit.

49                  Hassel, C. Op. cit.

50                  Ibid.

51                  Walker, R.F. (1989) Op. cit.

52                  Black book of St David’s.  (Cymm. Records series N0.5, 1902)

53                  Fenton, R. Op. cit.

54                  Owen, H. Op. cit.

55                  Lewis. S. Op. cit

56                  Walker, R. F. ed. (2000). Op. cit

57                  Lewis. S. Op. cit.

58                  Owen, H. Op. cit.

59                  Ibid.

60                  Walker, R.F. (1989) Op. cit

61                  Owen, H. Op. cit.

62                  Jones, E.G. Op. cit.

63                  Dr. Jack Langton. Pers. Comm.

64                  Rees, W. Op. cit.

65                  Owen, H. Op. cit.

66                  Rees, W. Op. cit.

67                  Rackham, O. (1976) Op. cit.

68                  Owen, H. Op. cit.

69                  Ibid.

70                  Dr. Jack Langton. Pers. Comm.

71                  Owen, H. Op. cit.

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