THE ENGLISH " AGER PUBLICUS."
IF the Stonehenge estate is bought by the nation, the purchases of land by the State for other purposes than building or agriculture will nearly equal the area of the New Forest. The result is that we are now in possession of a
national estate, partly inherited from the days of the Normans, and diverted by a natural process from the sole enjoyment of the Monarch to that of the " sovereign people," and partly bought with public money for the use, but not necessarily for the exclusive use, of the Army and auxiliary forces. These two objects, war and the chase, for which the land has been set apart at such remotely distant epochs, have given the nation a property suited also to a third and much needed purpose. One of the first conditions of its appropria- tion in either case was that it should not be ordinary agricut tural land. To the Normans this would have seemed a waste of revenue. At present, as agricultural land is mainly enclosed with fences, it is not only costly, but unsuitable for manceuvring troops. Parts of Salisbury Plain were arable, but unenclosed by hedges, and mixed with large areas of primeval down. Thus by the force of circumstances the nation's land is now mainly of a kind especially valued and needed at the present day, land open and wild, and in great part survivals of the original forests, heather, foreshore, or downs of old England. Thus it comes about that in making the extensive purchases recently sanctioned by the Treasury for what may properly be described as business purposes, large areas of natural scenery are at the same time preserved, which with con- siderate management will become a source of permanent enjoyment to the people when not actually occupied by troops at manoeuvres or field practice.
If a survey of the public land, old and new, with its character and position, were now made, it would be found to extend in a chain of properties, of great size and beauty, from the West of Essex to the Isle of Wight. Scheduled for brief inspection, their position and area are somewhat as follows. Starting from Epping Forest, with 3,400 acres, the line is continued through the London parks, with a gross area of 900 acres, to the group made by Wimbledon Common, Putney Heath, and Richmond Park, with certain small subsidiary commons. Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common represent more than 2,700 acres. The total probably reaches 2,500 acres. This Metropolitan group is connected with the second or Windsor group by the newly acquired Burnham Beeches, secured to the public, like Epping Forest, by the Corporation of London. Windsor, a greater Richmond, with soil and scenery of the same class, lies 15 miles west of the latter. In these days of bicycles the gap is scarcely notice- able. Originally 160 miles in circumference, the area of Windsor Forest has shrunk ever since the days of its enclosure by the Duke of Cumberland. But the great park of 1,800 acres, and many of the finest remains of the old forest with its purlieus, are still open to the public. Swinley Forest, the heath and lake at Virginia Water, hundreds of acres of woods, commons, and greens, besides Ascot Heath and its racecourse, which the race-loving Duke of Cumberland secured for the enjoyment of posterity for ever, must be counted in the Windsor total. The chain is continued to the south-west by properties all of which are of considerable extent, while two are larger than those held by any private owners in the South of England. These are the heaths of Aldershot and Bisley, Woolmer Forest, with its adjacent forest of Alice Holt, the New Forest, the Bere Forest, north of the Portsdown Hills, and Parkhurst Forest in the Isle of Wight. To the north of the New Forest, in the adjacent county, and drained by the river Avon and its tributaries, which unite to form the western boundary of the Forest, lies the magnificent new estate pur- chased on Salisbury Plain. If Stonehenge be added, some 150,000 acres of the ager publicus, separated only by a section of the Avon Valley from Salisbury to Downton, will extend from the Wiltshire Downs to the Solent. The Aldershot link in the chain is important, not only from its size and situation, but because it was the first of the modern addi- tions made not from sentimental motives, but for military purposes. The disasters of the Crimean War made it evident that we could no longer rely only on barracks and drill to teach our soldiers their business. In 1859 the first purchase of three square miles of Aldershot Heath was made to form a permanent camp. This was expanded by later purchase of the moors, saudhills, bogs, and plantations which now form the manoeuvring ground of our Southern Army Corps. The acquisition of the far more beautiful heaths of Bisley, a natural sequence of this early purchase in the pine and
heather country, has given to the nation a part of what is perhaps the most beautifully situated wild land in the South, lying between the Windsor domain inherited from the Normans, and the Forests of Woolmer and Alice Holt created by the Angevin Kings. Woolmer, three-fifths of which lies in the parish of Selborne, contains 5,949 acres ; Alice Holt, which is adjacent to it, contains 2,744 acres, making in all a most varied and beautiful domain separated only by the Hind Head Ridge and its spurs towards Fren- sham from the Surrey and Berkshire heatherland. The gap between Woolmer and the northern boundary of the New Forest is considerable. It includes the greater part of Central Hampshire, the district of chalk and chalk streams. In spite of the suggested "vast improvements," the prospect of which might conjure back Cobbett's ghost to his Hampshire home at Botley, there is still space enough in the Forest for
the nation at large to appreciate the magnificence of this part of its inheritance. Parkhurst is an enclosed and planted forest, made in the bad old days, in the centre of the Isle of Wight; Bere, a much-encroached-upon but ancient forest in a little-known corner of Hampshire, is cut off from the sea by the Portsdown Hills, and avoided on either hand by the railways, which swerve right and left to avoid this barrier range.
Our enjoyment of this national estate necessarily depends upon its character and management. The former, as we have hinted, is nearly all that could be desired. It includes nearly every feature of the wilder natural scenery of the South. In Epping the forest scenery of the clay land, with the charac- teristic trees of the clay, hornbeam and oak ; at Richmond and Windsor the finest park scenery in England, fern, oaks, and birches ; on the heaths round Virginia Water and Ascot the deep heather and rhododendron covers ; Bisley and Aldershot are open moor ; Woolmer shows the wildest morasses and swamps east of the New Forest; Alice Holt, a planted wood of mature oaks unrivalled in England ; while the beauty and variety of the New Forest scenery is almost beyond description. On Salisbury Plain we have now much of the most representative down scenery in England, with at least one exquisite chalk stream, with, in a short time, possibly, Stonehenge.
The question of management is less simple, and though necessarily under two separate Departments, the War Office and the Woods and Forests, is more complicated than is necessary. Woolmer, Bere, Alioe Holt, and Parkhurst Forests, for instance, are under the same control as the New Forest. But only the New Forest is secured to the public by Act of Parliament. Woolmer, nearer to London and almost as beau- tiful, is let on lease to the War Office, and to walk over it is technically a trespass. But the nation is in the temper to bay, especially for military purposes. If the War Office can meet the public by giving them facilities for enjoying its new estates, by permitting them to enjoy the amenities of space and scenery when this can be done without interference with the troops, these purchases will become popular. It might add a large area of Dartmoor, in addition to the artillery range at Okehampton, to the land reserved for manmuvres, or join the heaths of Frensham and the Upper Wey Valley to Aldershot and Woolmer.