"Park Wood" on the Biggin Estate as it is today. Biggin Deer Park was recorded in 1327
The Deer Parks of Rockingham Forest
The forest of Rockingham contained at least eighteen deer parks in medieval times and two more were added in the seventeenth century, for example at Deene and Apethorpe.
The John Speed map of 1611 shows a scattering of enclosed deer parks two of which are named, Fotheringhay Park and Clyff Park. Remnants such as the original earth boundary banks can be found at Brigstock and elsewhere, while the one shown near "Laxton Forest" probably became incorporated into the more modern Laxton Park.
Part of the famous John Speed map of "Northamton Shire"
(John Speed, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons). The deer parks known to Speed at that time are clearly shown, outlined with what look like palings.
The word park has meant many things down the centuries but the classic meaning in England is an enclosure for semi-wild animals. The Anglo-Saxon pearroc meant any piece of land with a fence round it. The medieval deer parks consisted usually of wood-pasture enclosed by a pale (as in the word palings and the phrase "beyond the pale") or deer-proof fence around the perimeter. The pale was sometimes a wall, as at Cliffe Park (King's Cliffe), described by the Tudor observer Leland as ‘partly waullid with stone’. But far more commonly the pale was made of cleft oak, very expensive to produce both in terms of timber and labour. The paling fence typically surmounted an earth bank with an inside ditch. Keeping these boundaries deer-proof dominated park economics, since deer are as strong as pigs and more agile than goats.
All this structural work was to keep deer within the park. Sometimes there were deer-leaps, designed so that deer could enter from the wider forest but not subsequently escape. Deer species included native Red and Roe Deer but also non-native Fallow Deer. These were probably introduced by William the Conqueror and certainly by the Normans, because they were easier to retain in the park. To this day, two introduced deer species - Fallow and Muntjac Deer - are very common in the Forest.
At Rockingham the deer parks were just part of the larger forest, all of which was intended for keeping deer. For centuries forest meant a place of deer rather than of trees. After the Norman conquest the king’s commissioners were briefed to seek out prime hunting land across the country and claim it for the king. The forest became subject to Forest Law, whereby any poachers were severely prosecuted for taking the king’s deer.
The medieval forests would have looked very different from our current ones. They were a mosaic of pasture, woodland, scrub and wetland. Named forests like Rockingham Forest, were preserved for the king's hunting with forest laws and certain rights, such as pannage, which was the fattening of domestic pigs on acorns beneath the trees. (More about pannage here.)
Parks on the map (still)
In King's Cliffe the road north from the centre of the village is called Park St, a reference to the former Deer Park.
Harry’s Park Wood (SP946876) is part of the complex of woodland north of Brigstock.
Close to Fermyn Woods Hall at (SP953960) is an open area labelled Deer Park on the OS map.
Park Wood. A 20ha wood between Biggin Hall and Oundle (TL020888)
Laxton Park (SP955966) is marked on the OS between Laxton Hall and the village. A little further to the east there is also a woodland block called Park Bushes.
Weldon Park (SP946903) is an area of woodland between Deene and Weldon village.
A lawn on the map
Morehay Lawn (TL003941) was once a clear area within the forest. Now it is the complete opposite: an isolated strip of woodland in the middle of large arable fields.
Deer parks usually consisted of large trees, mostly oak, with areas called lawns or launds which were cleared of trees where deer would graze and could be more easily hunted: hunting deer is almost impossible in a dense thicket. In addition a royal hunt often provided the opportunity for spectacle; sometimes there was a built structure known as a standing where the non-hunting nobility could see clearly what was going on.
The lawns were often the location of the keeper’s lodge. The holiday-cabins of the new Rockingham Forest Park were built on a medieval lawn (Jacks Green) with a keeper's lodge. The sites of lodges sometimes survive as modern farmsteads such as Huskinsons Lodge and West Hay Lodge near Kings Cliffe. Woodland in the deer park provided much needed cover for the deer. Deer parks, dominated by these relatively isolated large trees in pasture, provided what is now a very important habitat called wood pasture. These trees were often pollarded - cut at 6 feet from the ground leaving a massive lower trunk with a continuous crop of poles, stakes and winter fodder.
Rockingham Forest had many royal connections. There were castles at Rockingham, Benefield, Fineshade and Fotheringhay, and palaces at Collyweston and Apethorpe. In the reign of Henry III grants of deer from the royal park at Kings Cliffe were frequently made to various lords. As all deer were the property of the king, permission to enclose a deer park had to be obtained from the crown. There were numerous licences to impark awarded in Rockingham Forest. Parks were a status symbol belonging to the upper classes down to the minor gentry. For example, Edward III granted his queen, Philippa, a licence to make a park at Brigstock. This was an exceptionally large double park covering 890 hectares. Venison from the park was reserved for feasts and honoured guests.
In the 18th century there was a revival of parks as romantic ancient landscapes promoted and designed by professional landscape designers such as Capability Brown. Although Burghley House lies outside the current area of Rockingham Forest, it is a good local example with ancient oaks and sweet chestnuts and a herd of fallow deer. However, it was first created by William Cecil in the reign of Elizabeth I and some of its oldest trees make up the avenues of veteran limes planted by London and Wise in 1702.
The royal deer park known as "Cliffe Park" was first recorded in the early 13th century. It contained 1,854 acres, its boundaries being partly walled and partly fenced round. Deer were taken into the Park to be available for the King and his royal hunting parties during their stays at "the King's House".
It was customary to lop the twigs from the oaks and other trees to feed to the deer in winter. This fodder was called derefal wode or browsw. The amount cut depended on the season; in 1488, for example, Lord Wells, as Master Forester, had 26 loads of derefal cut in Cliffe Park, but only 16 loads in 1489. Records from that time show that there were considerable numbers of deer in Cliffe Park.
A century later in 1592, Queen Elizabeth I granted the park to the Earl of Essex and, on his disgrace, to William Lord Burghley in 1598, who disparked the area and divided it into numerous fields.
Taken from Kings's Cliffe, the Rockingham Forest Connection
by Sue Trow-Smith. King's Cliffe Heritage
The surviving deer-park wall near Harringworth Lodge on the Bulwick Estate
The wood pasture now surviving from some of these parks contains some of our largest and most ancient trees. England may have more ancient trees than any other European country, often as old pollarded oaks. These ancient trees, with their very distinctive and diverse fungi, lichens and beetles, are a real English speciality. The renowned woodland expert, Oliver Rackham has written "England has been given the special duty of preserving old trees".
The remains of Rockingham Forest's deer parks are now in fragmentary form. The patterns and shapes can sometimes be found as archaeological features such as woodland banks, but large tracts of woodland have gone. Deer hunting has been replaced by fox hunting and pheasant shooting. Now the deer population has increased hugely so that Fallow and Muntjac Deer need to be culled to protect the young coppice and arable crops.
View across Laxton Park from Wakerley Great Wood. This may be the site of the Deer Park shown on the Speed map and also the one referred to in the BBC news article
This page of the website describes parkland as we recognise it today.
Some of the parks described there certainly started off as Deer Parks.
Modern-day deer problems
These pages describe in detail the growing number of deer in Rockingham Forest, the problems that they cause and some of the ways in which the problems can be solved.
A lodge with standing in Wakerley Wood
This BBC news report from 2003 describes the remains of a Tudor Hunting Lodge in what was thought to be a deer park in Wakerley Wood - perhaps the Laxton Deer Park?
Kings Cliffe Heritage Centre has produced an excellent description of the royal hunting forest around Kings Cliffe.
Foard, G. R., Hall, D. N. and Britnell, T. (2004). The historic landscape of Rockingham Forest. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/51443.pdf?repositoryId=126