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Even in the late 20th century, the Kennet Valley around Hungerford is well-wooded, but much of the woodland we know today is relatively recent, created by the owners of Victorian country estates. Although we might expect that there was much more woodland in the 16th century than there is today, it is difficult to be certain.
What is clear is that woodland was under considerable threat even then. In 1587, a Special Commission investigated reports of mismanagement of the Duchy of Lancaster's estates in Hungerford, Aldbourne and East Garston. Two Duchy officials, Henry Sadler and Richard Inkpen, were accused of illegally felling trees, sometimes with the 'connivance' of their tenants (PRO SC25/14; extracts in H Hall, Society in the Elizabethan Age). In Helmes Heath, which was in the far south of Hungerford parish, the Commissioners were informed that 1200 trees had been felled, which was estimated to have lost the Duchy £600 in income.
More will be said about Henry Sadler later, but his impact on the local landscape, and especially in Hungerford Park, can be mentioned here. Hungerford Park dates back to the early medieval period. It was once part of Savernake Forest, but Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, was given a licence to make a deer park within the limits of the forest in 1246 (VCH Berks, Vol 4, p. 188). Traces of the banks which once encircled the park can still be seen today. A survey of 1553 says that the park contained 300 acres whereof 100 acres is "in playne ground the rest wood ground well set with fayre oak and the underwood is hazel and blackthorne - there bee in the same park 180 deer and 66s 8d will set the pale in very good repair" (PRO DL42/108). The 'pale' was the fencing which was placed on top of a raised earth bank, with 'deer leaps' at strategic points, to allow deer to enter the park, but designed to prevent them leaping out.
By the close of the 16th century, the Park's function was changing from that of medieval hunting ground to a country park, complete with a gentleman's residence. In 1587, three copses had been sold, 230 oaks had been felled and there were only 66 deer left (compared with 300 in 1584). Henry Sadler built a new house, with many handsome rooms in it and on the north a base-court walled about and gatehouse in front of the house. There was also a hopyard, a pond for his cattle and a new gate for his carriages. The exact location of this gracious house is uncertain, but it may well have been on the site of, or close to, the position of the 19th century mansion.
In the closing years of the 16th century, the Park may have had a famous visitor. Queen Elizabeth's favourite, the Earl of Essex, was granted the Park in 1595, but we do not know if he ever hunted there.
(From Elizabethan Hungerford, Julie Shuttleworth et al, 1995)
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