The Bourne Woods.

Past, Present and Future.



The Bourne Woods as we know it today covers an area of 533 acres of which 333 are owned by RSPB and the remainder belongs to the Forestry Commission.

The mounds and hills are alluvial layers of sand and gravel deposited from the shallow seas that existed when there was still a land bridge to mainland Europe.

The land is extremely free draining and before man settled close by, it would have supported a thicket of Birch and Oak.

Iron Age Bowl barrows exist along the East side of the wood just above Dene lane. These face East across the Wey valley where deceased chieftains could enjoy the beauty of the rising sun in perpetuity.

From that time on, low density grazing may have taken place with the traditional slash and burn removing the scrub. The more intensive farming of the 12th and 13th centuries would have scoured the nutrient poor soil causing a desert type landscape. Four hundred years later historians Gough and Camden both described it as a dreary place with bare sandhills with occasional patches of heather.

John Roque, a notable 18th   century map maker annotated this area as Farnham Common and the name appears to have stuck. In fact it was officially designated as Wasteland and belonged to the Diocese of Winchester and thus it remained until the middle of the 19th century.

The Nicholson family, owners of Waverley Abbey house and a great part of south Farnham, were granted enclosure of large portions of the wasteland, which they promptly planted with Scots pine. The young pine would have been harvested to supply the poles in their hopfields that stretched from the Ridgeway down to Farnham Town.

Waverley Abbey House changed hands; hops became less profitable and the influence of the great house waned.

1914 saw a change as Canadian forces stationed at Aldershot used the woodland as a training ground but it appears to have remained in the ownership of Major Rupert Anderson, the owner of Waverley Abbey House.

During the Second World War the Canadians returned to train their soldiers and traces of their activities remain today.

Circa 1945 it was purchased by Sir Sadiq Abbassi Muhammid V, the Nawab of Bahawalapur, who started a replanting programme. Sir Sadiq sold it to the Forestry commission in 1948 and the reforestation was completed at that time.

Part of the forest is owned by the RSPB who claim to be restoring it to its original state. This is clearly misguided as they want arid heathland to attract species of birds uncommon to this country, but not rare in a global sense.

The remaining 200 acres contain many footpaths, now registered through the efforts of The Bourne Residents Association and formerly used by generation of workers as they followed the ebb and flow of employment between the agriculture of the villages, the mineral extraction of the Bourne valley and probably the building of 20th century South Farnham.

It was the expressed intention of Sir Sadiq that the woods would remain open for the recreation of local people; unfortunately these intentions were not transferred to the legal conveyance document.

The current situation has become very complicated and involves conflicting government aspirations.

The government has an overall plan to reduce its forestry holdings by about 14 per cent per annum. Clearly this means that small low profit sites will go first. It also has a contrary policy to open forest sites up for recreational use. A further statement of intent is to reinstate the forests to their original state, which presumably means replanting with broadleaf species as the softwoods are harvested. The Bourne Woods fall into the small category but have been protected from development by its status as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and being inside the boundary of the Greenbelt. The Government’s proposed new planning regime weakens these constraints considerably.

Ten years ago a film was made in the woods and this was followed by a Radio 4 feature programme, “Lights, Camera Action.” Since that time filming activity has increased to an almost continuous operation. Whilst it has been an interesting activity to many it has also been a great source of nuisance to those who live on the periphery of the woodland.

The income from the Film industry far exceeds timber values and raises The Bourne Woods to a very valuable non disposal status.

The main issues are noise, closure of footpaths, and deterioration of the woodland habitat. These points have been raised by TBRA with the Commission and they fully appreciate the problems, but they are caught in a bind. If they put too many restrictions on the Film companies they will probably go elsewhere. If they do nothing then “change of use” planning pressures could be applied which could lead eventually to the disposal of the woods.

In our discussions with the Commission we have tried to encourage a “good neighbour” policy in which the film companies would limit some of their activities to reduce the nuisance. The problems arise in the implementation of this approach. In the short term safety aspects and artistic flair may inadvertently take priority over imposed restrictions and compromise any agreement we may make.

The situation today is that the public have a right to roam freely except for a maximum of 30 days during the year when their safety may be compromised and even then the registered footpaths will remain open.

A committee member has been appointed to act as a liaison officer with the forestry commission and we will do our best to retain this area as a place for both activity and relaxation but sadly there will be an inevitable reduction in much valued tranquillity.