Living on the Forest

Listening to the Ashdown Forest Oral History Collection

By Esther Gill, Project Manager, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

I was born in Shoreham and soon after that we come up to Nutley, so I have been a Nutley lad for nearly all my life.’ (Colin Wickham ACC9997/1/11)

Recorded in 2005-06 and deposited at The Keep, the Ashdown Forest Oral History Collection (ACC9997) comprises 13 oral history interviews with long-standing residents of the Ashdown Forest. A talk at The Keep in 2019 by Professor Brian Short on Conflict & Conservation on Ashdown Forest, and the work of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project to preserve the recordings, have provided an opportunity to revisit this collection and to reflect on its significance and what the interviews tell us.

The interviews formed part of the Weald Heathland Initiative run by the High Weald AONB that aimed to conserve and raise awareness of the rich diversity and heritage of the heathland. They were recorded by local oral historian, Pat Selby, with people who grew up on and around the Forest.

As a collection, the 13 interviews give us a glimpse into life in a part of East Sussex that has been subject to huge change since the 1950s with changing patterns of work as fewer people live off the land, and increases in tourism, leisure activities and the accompanying traffic. Participants reflect on their memories of childhood and their lives on the Forest, along with the experiences of their parents and grandparents. Listening to their stories, you can hear a love and understanding of the Forest, the natural environment, the places that meant something to them.

They are rich in detail of everyday lives, such as the description of the local houses provided by Roy Pipe (ACC9997/1/8). Aged 11, he found himself living on the Forest after he and his family were bombed out of their house in Lewisham; coming to the Forest was quite a change:

Portrait of Roy Pipe taken as part of the Ashdown Forest Oral History Project

I got to know the people on the Forest through their houses, when you walked about the Forest there would be a small house. Two up, two down mostly. Pig sty outside. Rabbit hutches. There’d be an outside wash room with a copper in it – when I say copper I mean that’s where they did the washing and the need to collect wood off the Forest to heat the water up in the copper.

There would be a garden outside, a vegetable garden. Nothing else, very few flowers. Vegetable garden with a well or spring because there was no mains water at that time about the Forest.

In the, inside the house you would have a kitchen stove, a paraffin lamp for lighting as there was no electricity then, around the Forest. May be a primus, a paraffin primus or mostly a wood fire….in the morning when they got up they didn’t normally light the primus they would throw a few handfuls of twigs on the fire and boil the water up from that, boil the kettle up from that…this was quite interesting, quite new to me.

Change is a theme running through the interviews, but not necessarily in the way that one would expect. A common reflection is on the increase in tree coverage, especially birch, with the decrease in people exercising their Commoners’ rights:

In those days [1950s] the forest was much clearer of woodland that it is today, it was much more open. In fact, the whole of the valley along from Chuck Hatch to Coleman’s Hatch, that whole valley was virtually devoid of trees and then gradually the silver birch began to encroach and it is now quite a wood area.’ Fred Marshall (ACC9997/1/7)

But the Forest in those days [1940s] was open….there wasn’t all these big clumps of birch trees which are there now because the Commoners had forest rights which was they could cut two cord of wood a year and which they did because it was part of their life. But not only that, the animals which they grazed on the Forest kept the Forest right down so you could stand down at Nutley on the village green and you could look right across that valley and there was no trees in between, just grass and a bit of heather a few gorse bushes but no birch trees as there is now. You try and look across there now and you can’t see anything, you can’t see any of the houses. But you could look down and see all the houses, all the houses with their gardens with their hedges all around them, the chickens running round.‘ (Roy Pipe ACC9997/1/8)

Percy Scott – photographed as part of the Ashdown Forest Oral History Project. Percy Scott on his shed step.

Listening to these interviews as recordings (rather than reading them on the page), also enables us to listen to how people talk and not just what they say. We hear the accents, words and phrases that link back to past era, to the Forest’s roots as a medieval deer park. They talk about living ‘on the Forest’, about gathering litter, measuring cut wood in cords, about the ‘dawlin’ of the litter (a runt), working as a warrener. We also get to hear the incidental sounds of life happening around the interviews. Life-long Nutley resident Percy Scott was recorded in his shed with his hens busy around him. Here he talks about his memories of a particular pig.

Percy Scott talks to Pat Selby as part of the Ashdown Forest Oral History Project (ACC9997/1/10)

The Ashdown Forest collection is a rich example of the power of oral history to engage us with the past through lived experience, memory and shared anecdotes.  The collection supplements other historical resources, expanding our understanding of life on the Forest, the experience of change and how people choose to remember and recount their stories.

The 13 interviews have been digitised and catalogued as part of the UOSH project. Transcripts, summaries and listening-copies are available at The Keep (currently subject to revised access due to Covid19). We are also pleased to announce that from early 2021, they will be available to listen to at home via the new British Library Sounds website, created as part of the UOSH project.  

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