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Mendip Forest

Priddy Hill largeForest now means woodland but it original meant an unfenced area reserved for hunting or some other special purpose. The Mendip Forest once covered a large part of the Mendip plateau and the land was involved with hunting, mining and agriculture. The picture shows what was once part of the Mendip Forest that is near Priddy but is now part of Chewton Mendip parish.
Chewton Mendip initially comprised of four  tithing or divisions, of which three, West End, Middlesex and East End,  directly joined the Mendip Forest whilst the village itself was within the Town tithing. A fifth tithing, Widcombe,  as added when parts of the area were deforested c1300.
The map covers roughly the same area as the 1640 map but the ground concerned was not show in the 1794 map. The land was subject to the special conditions of the Forest Law which were repealed at about the time the map was produced in 1800. Newspaper articles dated 1797 advertise the land for sale which extended to Shooters Bottom.
The Forest laws were similar to the Tithing system were each ‘freeman’ was responsible for maintaining the law and order within the area they lived and worked in.  Priddy was in the centre but it may not have been a separate village for a large part of the post Roman era. The boundaries of several villages meet near Priddy.
Royal Hunting Forest
Hunting was probably one of the first activities that bought humans to the Mendips and this evolved into a form of agriculture based on sheep grazing. The first documentary evidence for hunting was from the Saxon times. Edward the Elder, the son of Alfred the Great, was hunting in the Royal Hunting Forest above Axbridge when he almost plunged to his death over Cheddar George.  He became King in 899 on the death of his father who personally held the manor of Chewton Mendip which was the centre of a Hundred and contained a minster church responsible for several  subsidiary parishes.
The Normans greatly extended the range of the Royal Hunting Forrest  but identifying the boundaries is complicated by the tendency for people to adopt different second names  but the Royal Hunting Forest may have included most of the Mendip Plateau and reached down to Farrington Gurney and Widcombe between the Harptrees and Bishop Sutton. Axbidge and Cheddar were part of the Wintestoke Hundred which still reached to the Harptrees in the 18th century.
The restrictions on the use of land in the Royal Forest created conflict with the occupiers of the land. Roughly one third of the land was owned by the church, one third was Royal Forest and the remaining third was owned by about 30  families who were interconnected by marriage. The disputes about Royal Forest became such an issue that a review was conducted  at the end of the 13th century and a significant percentage of the land was released from the hunting restrictions in 1298.
The Royal Hunting Forest  persisted after 1298. An argument between Royal foresters and servants of the Bishop about the right to cut firewood  in 1332 resulted in the foresters having to pay penance in Winscombe church even though the foresters appeared to have been in the right. They were threatened with excommunication unless they publicly confessed their ‘sins’ in  Wells cathedral,  Cheddar and Winscombe churches.  The Royal foresters were required to stand barefoot and dressed only in a shirt (in December) in front of the congregation holding a lighted candle during mass. This may have been humiliating and uncomfortable but the Foresters would castrate or blind men found hunting illegally within the Royal Hunting Forest.
Mining Forest
 Chewton Mindery todayThe historical records are shrouded with  mystery and later mining has destroyed much of the earlier physical evidence so it is not clear when mining began. Lead was the primary metal produced but zinc, iron, manganese and silver were also mined.  Coal was mainly produced further north but there was some small scale coal mining near the Mendip Forest boundary. The pictures show the Chewton Mindery as it is today, ironically, the trees are the modern incongruity, they are an alien species planted in the 20th century. The water is incorrectly called Priddy Pool its correct name is  Waldegrave Pool.
Agricultural use
 The Royal Hunting Forest used by Edward the Elder may have only comprised of the Manors of Axbridge and Cheddar and some the landscape today is probably quite similar to how it looked when it was Royal Forest.  The land is where Edward the Elder was chasing a stag towards Cheddar Gorge steep, rocky and is only fit for rough pasture. Old photographs show the area was almost bare of trees through the grazing of sheep but it has reverted to a more natural appearance of  scrub, gorse, ferns (or furzey ground) with some larger trees.
 The name of Court of the Mendip forest set up to  enforce the Royal Forest laws, The Swynnemotte (or Swinherd’s Court) , shows it was not an exclusively a hunting reserve .  A charter dated 1277 specified the Bishop of Bath and  Wells ‘s right to clear ,or  assart,  land for cultivation. Agistment was the right to graze animals in the Royal Forest. One reason for producing a map (DD\X\BKS/58) of the former Mendip Forest in 1800 was to record the responsibility for paying the agistment tithe.
 The land  on the hill, or on Mendip to use the local expression, was sometimes called ‘wasteland’ which gives a false impression. It may have been a wild and untamed place but it was not abandoned, unused or fee of human habitation. The land was uncultivated and unfenced and there were restrictions on what the local could do but there was some human activity throughout history.
 Widcombe was fist mentioned in 1283 when it was owned by the De Forz/Fortibus family which was a name used by the Lords of Chewton.   There influence may have resulted in the former  Royal Hunting Forest  land in Widcombe becoming a fifth Tithing of Chewton Mendip.
 The De Gurney Family held Farington Gurney and the Harptrees  where  Richmont castle was their strong hold. The wider  De Gurney family were involved in a range of activities that bought them into contact with royalty and  they were involved in other property transactions in the area.
 It is possible that a deal was brokered between the De Gurneys and De Forz families which resulted in some of the land around Hollow Marsh being converted from deer park into  hay meadow after land was released from the Royal Forest in 1298. Parkland is another term that has significantly changed its meaning; it meant enclosed land in the medieval period.
The Forest Laws were repealed in 1795 and some the land that had been  recently enclosed was offered for sale in 1797 when it was incorporated into several  farms.
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