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The early history of Marshalls Heath is poorly known. It may have been under cultivation in Roman times, particularly as Roman burials were discovered last year only 700 metres north of the Heath at Turner's Hall Farm, evidence that there was a large Roman villa in the neighbourhood. Like most of Hertfordshire, if the site of the Heath was cultivated it probably reverted to wildwood after the Romans left, as the population of England declined drastically. It is likely to have remained as woodland for at least the 5th to 7th century A.D. The settlement of the uplands of this area in Anglo-Saxon times was carried out haphazardly, and usually involved cultivating land close to the old Roman roads.
Clues to the first areas cleared of the wildwood can be found in the names "End" or "Green", both of which mean a clearing. There are several such names in the Wheathampstead, Kimpton and Harpenden area: Blackmore End, Thrales End, Ayres End, Porters End, Kinsbourne Green, Coleman Green, Peter's Green etc. The clearance took place very gradually, with individuals clearing and farming bits of land here and there. The first reference to Marshalls Heath was in the early 14th century court rolls, when it was referred to as "Mareschales Green", connected with Adam le Mareschale in 1272-7. The Norman French "Mareschale" probably refers not to a Marshal in the military sense, but to someone connected with horses: a shoeing smith, farrier or most often someone who tends horses, or a horse vet. The earliest reference to Mackerye End, 600 metres northwest of Marshalls Heath, is in 1307, about the same time. This indicates that these clearings have probably been there for at least 700 years.
Precisely when it became a heath is a matter for speculation, but it has presumably been farmed or used as grazing for animals for several hundred years. As common land, anyone could have grazed their animals on it or generally used it for recreation. Lowland heaths are usually a product of intensive, unplanned use of land, mainly grazing and burning, the end product being an infertile soil. The term "blasted heath" has been in the language for centuries, and William Cobbett, writing in 1821, is very scathing about heaths as useless and unproductive, and he clearly regards them as waste land. But it is this low soil fertility that has given them their characteristic flora and fauna, that is now becoming increasingly rare.
Where these heathland plants and animals existed before the activities of man helped to create heaths is again a matter for speculation, but it has been suggested that they originally grew on and around animal trails, many of which later became human roads. A classic example is the Icknield Way that runs across northern Hertfordshire. This is presumed to have originated as a trail created by herds of large animals that colonised the area following the retreat of the ice at the end of the last ice age ten to twelve thousand years ago. At some stage it was also used by prehistoric man, and was already a major thoroughfare when the Romans conquered Britain. It continued to be used throughout the Roman period, and then afterwards until the present day. It is possible that something similar has happened at Marshalls Heath: the Roman burial site at Turner's Hall Farm indicates that there must have been some kind of thoroughfare in the area during Roman times, and it is possible that this came through the site that is now Marshalls Heath. The heathland plants and insects that once bordered this thoroughfare would have colonised Marshalls Heath as repeated over-use caused its soil fertility to drop.
To return to reality from these dreams of what might have taken place, the earliest accurate map of Marshalls Heath is part of a survey commissioned privately by Charles Bennet Drake Garrard Esq., one of a long line of landowners from this prominent local family, in 1827. He had all his lands surveyed that year, clearly with proper theodolites and surveying instruments. The southern part of Marshalls Heath can be seen on the survey of Causewell Farm (now Castle Farm). It is not given a name, presumably because then, as now, it was common land, though two fields to the west are called Great Marshals Field and Little Marshals Field. The accurately surveyed boundaries of the Heath are the same as they are today. The name is given on the first Ordnance Survey 25 inches to the mile map of the area published in 1878, and again the boundaries of the entire Heath are identical to today, as is the position of the road.
In 1878, Marshalls Heath is shown as being clear of trees, though lines of trees are shown to mark its borders in most places. This was still the situation in 1947 and 1949, when the first air photographs of Marshalls Heath were taken. There are many tall trees around the perimeter, but on the Heath itself, there appear to be three or four small trees only. This ties in with the memories of local people, who confirm that tall elms surrounded the site, but the rest was more or less clear, though there was a hedge by the road on the east side, and this can just be made out on the air photos north of the present gate on the east side. Though memories go back to before the last war, no one can remember animals being grazed on the Heath, though this must have happened until well into the present century. A Wheathampstead man interviewed in 1956 remembers that his first job as a twelve-year-old in the 1890s was to "mind the sheep along the sides of the roads", haphazard grazing being common practice in country districts then as it had been for centuries, and Marshalls Heath would doubtless have been a favourite spot for everyone.
The lack of grazing over the last 60+ years, coupled with the disappearance of rabbits during the 1953 myxamotosis outbreak, has caused a change in the character of Marshalls Heath that is probably greater than any that has occurred over the past 700 years, and possibly over the last two thousand years. The change can be clearly seen in surveys carried out in 1967 and 1971, and on air photographs taken in 1973, 1980 and 1990. A survey by St Albans Rural District Council dated January 1967 shows that dense thorn scrub and a few self-sown oaks cover about 25% of the site, but the rest is still classed as rough pasture with anthills. By 1971 however, when the Ordnance survey reissued the 25-inch map, about 40% of the site is shown as covered by scattered trees and bushes. The air photographs of 1973 show that about half of Marshalls Heath is covered by trees and scrub, and that the trees are growing taller. The trend continues, with the air photos of 1980 and 1990 showing the trees and scrub taking up about 60% and 70% of the Heath. The photograph below shows woodland west of the road, January 2003.
The idea of designating it a nature reserve was apparently first advocated by Mrs Cory-Wright of Mackerye End in the sixties. A management plan was drawn up in 1969 by Bruce Ing, which recommended control of the thorn scrub, the opening up of the woodland on the western edge, and the mowing of the main heathland twice a year in April and September. This is very similar in aims to the much more comprehensive plan drawn up 24 years later. After negotiation with the Parish Council, some of whom considered that nature conservation was having too high a priority, it was agreed that a triangle in the southwest corner of the reserve nearest to Manor Road should be designated a play area, and the anthills here were bulldozed, and swings and a slide erected by the Parish Council. Marshalls Heath was not designated a nature reserve until 1972, when an agreement was made between the Parish Council and the Herts and Middx Wildlife Trust. The Trust managed the reserve until 1992, when the Parish Council terminated the agreement.
The question remains as to why the woodland and scrub has continued to spread so devastatingly across the site, despite the fact that the problem was recognised very early on. It has to be said that notwithstanding the best intentions of all concerned, enthusiasm for the management of the Heath has gone in fits and starts. The situation now is that soil fertility near the woodland edge is increasing drastically, and left to itself the entire site would probably be invaded by scrub and secondary woodland in 5 to 10 years. The ideal method of management would be to return the site to grazing, and to carry out burning in some selected areas, but this is probably impracticable.
Updated 23 Feb 2003