3.3.5 South-east England

In the early 7th century much of south-east England may have been dense woodland, unreclaimed marshland, or poor soil. The general topography of the region has been outlined in general in Section, and the forest of the Weald was discussed as a case study in Section The heavily wooded character of the Weald at the start of the Anglo-Saxon period is demonstrated by the number of Old English names associated with the clearance of woodland, such as lēah, meaning clearing in woodland. In Sussex this element appears exclusively in the Weald, but in Surrey the distribution is more widespread. There are also areas of common woodland pasture in the Weald, denoted by falod names. At the eastern end of the Weald hamm place-names are particularly common, and may mark the use of rich pasture lands in the broad valley bottoms of the Rivers Rother and Lympne.

However, woodland and common land was not confined to the Weald (Drewett et al. 1988, 292). Forests extended over much of the North and South Downs, and over fertile coastal areas, including the Sussex coastal plain. Large areas of East Kent comprised infertile clay-with-flints. Initially settlement appears to have been confined to the river valleys, but as the population grew, it expanded up the valleys and onto the Downs. Place-names such as Sibertswold that incorporate the element wald (from which Weald is itself derived) indicate other wooded areas. At one time forests on the Kent Downs stretched from Wye and Deal to almost as far north as Canterbury. There were also densely wooded regions in Hampshire, to the west, particularly in the area of the New Forest, which, despite its name, has been described as one of the best surviving areas of primeval forest in western Europe (Bond 1994, 120-1).

Areas of wetland also constrained Anglo-Saxon settlement, and Brookes (2003, fig. 8.1) provides an excellent map. Romney Marsh was mostly uninhabitable, with the exception of the south-east corner where the estate centre at Lydd was located. Brookes' map shows the likely extent of the Wantsum Channel separating Thanet from the Kentish mainland.

Nonetheless, by Domesday there was dense settlement in some regions. The pattern of estates centres was established at an early date, with expansion onto less attractive land during the Anglo-Saxon period.

Early medieval settlement: archaeological and historical background
Patterns of early medieval portable antiquities


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