History of Charnwood

Charnwood has drawn people to its rocky outcrops for centuries. At its heart lies the ancient pre-Cambrian rocks, believed to be the oldest on earth. The fossils they contain have provided clues to what David Attenborough, whose career was inspired by them, has recently described as the first chapters in the history of life itself. The geology of Charnwood has shaped its history and created its unique heritage.

The struggle to exploit the riches beneath the ground and the poor rocky soils above them have shaped the lives of local people for millennia and continue to do so today. The heritage of Charnwood is found in the landscape, rocks, fields, boundaries, roads and farmsteads, in the factories, homes, place names, monastic ruins and country houses, and in documents, paintings, photographs, songs, customs and memories. Together these fragments of the past give Charnwood Forest its special character.

This project will explore the interaction between people and the landscape of Charnwood, uncovering and explaining how the area’s resources were exploited through the centuries, shaping both the culture and physical features of this part of north Leicestershire. The research will focus on four interlocking themes: Working Lives, Building Communities, Crime and Conflict, and Landscapes of Leisure.

Working Lives will explore how Charnwood’s landscape supported and was shaped by successive generations of local people. It will examine the work of miners and quarrymen, farmers who struggled to cultivate the poor rocky soils, monastic communities that found new ways to exploit local resources during the middle ages and hosiers, footwear manufacturers and engineers who developed Charnwood into a centre of industry.

Since the first known settlers arrived in Charnwood 3,000 years ago, a steady stream of migrants have come to live and work here, bringing with them their own cultures and religious traditions. Building Communities will investigate social and cultural transformations, brought about by the movement of people, from the earliest settlements to the strong, diverse communities that have developed in this area since the 1960s.

Crime and Conflict will probe the dark side of Charnwood’s history: theft, corruption and violence. We will explore how successive conflicts, local and national, have been played out in Charnwood, from disputes between villages over land in the medieval period, poaching, the fierce resistance which met attempts to ‘enclose’ the land in the 18th and 19th centuries and industrial unrest. We will also consider the part that Charnwood’s communities played during global conflicts, from the signals unit at Beaumanor Hall (which gathered messages for Bletchley Park), to the tales of schoolboys who passed the endless days of war playing with live ammunition shells that lined the roads of Charnwood Forest in preparation for the D-Day landings.

Landscapes of Leisure will investigate changes in the use and accessibility of the landscape. In recent centuries, deer parks and hunting grounds for the wealthy have been transformed into a tourist attraction for the many. Part of Charnwood now lies within the new National Forest and the area is popular with both local people and visitors for leisure and quiet enjoyment.

These four themes draw together the history of a landscape owned, exploited, lived, worked, fought for and enjoyed.