Exploring a land that time forgot

STARE at these reflections in the woods at Burnham Beeches for a bit and it’s hard not to be swamped by images of the past.

For this water surrounds Hartley Court, a medieval moated farmhouse built here at some time between 1250 and 1350 (in other words, after the signing of the Magna Carta and before the Black Death ravaged the land).

Buried deep in the woods near the north-western corner of Burnham Beeches and one of three ancient monuments on the national nature reserve, the site is sufficiently distant from the main car parks to be largely overlooked by visitors, although it lies just off the Beeches Way footpath.

And on a glorious November morning with the leaves on the ancient oaks and beeches an exotic array of golds, yellows and browns, it’s easy to feel like a traveller back in time.

What would this part of Buckinghamshire have looked like in the Middle Ages? Not so very different, perhaps. The people who lived here made a living from the land, with cattle, sheep and pigs grazing and foraging in the surrounding woodland.

Some of the oldest oaks could even have been here when those settlers from Hartley Court ventured out to get firewood for heat and cooking.

The monument itself takes the form of a roughly rectangular central island surrounded by a moat, broad ditch and an outer bank which might once have been topped by a wooden palisade fence.

The moated central island was situated inside a larger diamond-shaped enclosure and was surrounded by a ditch which retains water for much of the year, supplied by rainfall and the natural water table.

Moated houses were popular during this period, more for fashionable reasons than for defence, and there are other examples across Buckinghamshire. No buildings remain at Hartley Court today, but the archaeologists believe there is evidence of a principal dwelling, a well and possible other outbuildings which might have included kitchens, stores, brew and bake houses.

Cultivated land inside the enclosure would provide produce for the homestead, while the boundary earthworks may have been designed to keep out livestock, and other animals grazing the surrounding woodpasture like pigs and deer.

Many settlements in the Chilterns had been recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, but populations were generally small, so that much of the area would have been characterised by scattered hamlets and isolated farms during the Middle Ages, with the Thames providing the easiest transport route for heavy materials.

Powerful lords of the manor became an established part of the feudal system introduced by the Normans following their victory at the Battle of Hastings, when William the Conqueror distributed land as a reward for loyalty – typically between 1200 and 1800 acres, which would support farming land, forests, common pasture land, a village, a mill, a church and a manor house.

The English landscape of the Middle Ages would have included numerous impressive manor houses, from where the lord of the manor would rule over the lives of their subjects, holding numerous privileges including hunting and judicial rights, presiding over the complaints of those working on the manor – from bailiffs and reeves to serfs, cottagers and servants – and overseeing the running of farm lands and collection of income and taxes.

Deer parks were common all over medieval England too, particularly in woodland areas, forming part of the lord of the manor’s demesne lands and providing an opportunity for sport, as well as the ready supply of venison.

There would have been castles around this area too – Windsor, of course, but Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, Chalgrave and Totternhoe in Bedfordshire, Donnington in Berkshire, Boarstall and Oxford in Oxfordshire.

Woodlands were the biggest natural resource of the Chilterns during the Middle Ages, providing construction materials for houses, carts and fences, as well as all the fuel and heating needed by peasants and their feudal lords – not to mention providing clay for bricks and tiles, and food for livestock.

But the area around Burnham parish was always remarkably well wooded – woodland enough to feed 600 swine, according to the Domesday Survey – and Hartley Court may have been included in land bestowed with Burnham Manor in 1266 as part of the foundation charter for Burnham Abbey by Richard, Earl of Cornwall – or retained by Richard as part of his manor at Cippenham, which he had bought in 1252.

Richard is known to have maintained his land there as a deer park for hunting and was close to his brother Henry III, who lived at Windsor Castle.

You can imagine the pigs snuffling for acorns under these trees as the residents of Hartley Court went about their daily business on this smallholding, a rather more humble existence than the feasting of the royal hunting parties, but not an uncomfortable one, especially with such a ready supply of top-quality timber (and widespread carpentry skills).

It may be impossible to tell what life was like here all those centuries ago – and before the plague would devastate English populations in the 1340s. But staring into the still waters of the moat on a tranquil day, it’s only too easy to be transported back in time…

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