Norton Mandeville and nearby Norton Heath are largely forgotten as the traffic rushes by on the A414 trunk road between Chelmsford and Ongar. In modern times it takes no time travelling anywhere, but even in the 1970s Norton Heath was an important stopping point and as a result there is even a café there even today. The road was formally the A122 and ran from Epping to Chelmsford, with the road layout altered, most people still don’t even realise its there. Norton Mandeville appears in the Doomsday book too where its entry appears: Hundred: Ongar, County: Essex, Total population: 16 households, Households: 6 villagers, 4 smallholders, 4 slaves. Other resources: Meadow 10 acres, 2 cattle, 16 pigs. Lord in 1066: Godhild of Greensted.
Norton Heath Common is a former heath, which like many other, due to lack of management, has largely reverted to secondary woodland. This small woodland provides an important habitat in an area dominated by arable fields. As you wander,if you visit, keep a look out for dead wood. It is a vital part of the forest ecosystem, supporting many insects and fungi. On the woodland floor you may see remains of pits and banks which were created by old gravel workings. Some of these pits are now seasonal ponds offering resources for many species including birds and small mammals.
Today, the site has a largely closed canopy of mainly oak and birch, overlying very acid gravel soils. The only exception is a glade which has been created in the centre of the site. The common is surrounded on all sides but one by minor roads, but despite this it remains undisturbed. The canopy beneath the oak is very sparse with only the occasional hawthorn, holly, blackthorn or hazel surviving beneath the heavy shade. The ground flora is almost non-existent with bramble dominating and self-seeding birch beginning to colonise. There are a few sycamores of varying ages in the northern section of the site.
There are numerous ponds across the common as a result of the gravel extraction undertaken in the first part of the 20th century to build the early road. Ten species of dragonfly and damselfly have been recorded, comparing favourably with ponds within the wet heathland of Epping Forest. The total of nine Orthopterans (grasshoppers and allied insects) is also notable for an Essex heathland site. The 19 Species of butterfly recorded so far includes the Small Copper and Purple Hairstreak. In 2010 it was designated as a Local Wildlife Site.
Restoration of Norton Heath is well documented and the authors of a 1913 account give even more insight into its history. The report described the surface of the heath as being disturbed and that the resulting swampy heath and shallow pools “should prove happy hunting grounds for botanists”. The authors go on to list the array of heathland plants that were found and these included Common Milkwort…Heath Bedstraw…Heather…and Lousewort, to name but a few. Sadly these plants have all gone, and the heath is largely dark and shady woodland that has become established due to the absence of the digging, animal grazing and clearance of trees.
Heath Bedstraw (left) Common Milkwort (right)
It is hoped this area will develop as a woodland glade with a heathland plant community forming the understorey. Small gorse plants are appearing. More light and warmth reaching the floor the common will also be more attractive for butterflies, reptiles and amphibians. In March 2011 a management plan was compiled for the next five years of the project. The parish council was consulted and site visits took place. The important short-term tasks was the removal (by the root) of bramble and birch that was beginning to colonise the site.
Norton Heath is a largely forgotten, the pub the “White Horse” closed many years ago but does have history. William J Scudder, later landlord at The Leather Bottle in Blackmore, was publican there in 1898 and 1899. His son, William, who died during the First World War and commemorated on Blackmore’s War Memorial was baptised at Norton Mandeville Church on 13th August 1899. There is also further history and 140 Roman archaeological sites have been found within 5 miles of Norton Heath. In 1909 provisions for maintaining the natural aspect of the Common were brought into force and various bye-laws that could be enforced were created by the council. The scheme invested in the council the right “to execute any works of drainage raising levelling or fencing or other works for the protection and improvement of the common and shall preserve the turf shrubs trees plants and grass thereon”.
The council also had the duty to promote the Common as a place of recreation and had to keep the network of paths open, as long as no “bird-catching” took place! There is evidence that there was active enforcement of the bye-laws. On 15th May 1920, four persons were summoned for drawing caravans onto the heath. It involved travelling showmen on their way from Hertfordshire to Maldon and they had seven vans and twelve horses. The bye-laws appear to have been enforced by Arthur Smith, the Norton Heath blacksmith ! The council had the right to “form cricket grounds and allow the game to be temporarily enclosed with any open fence so as to prevent cattle and horses straying thereon”. Cricket was played as local club records prove but it’s difficult to imagine playing cricket on the Common these days, it is far too densely wooded and the surface so uneven.