A Weald circular walk taking in Milland and Coombe Ponds and the history of the area
The cannons that sunk the Spanish Armada in 1588 were probably forged in the Weald. For over 300 years the ancient forest (the “Wald”— named by the invading German tribes) was cut down to fuel the furnaces that made the “Cold Iron” of Kipling’s poem. Now “The tranquil beauty of the South Downs National Park…its rolling green pastures and ancient woodlands” hide a nightmare past.
The Weald runs from the English Channel near Hastings to Harting Coombe where it narrows and butts into a steep greensand ridge at Rake. From about 1350 the Coombe, like the rest of the Weald, began to fill with fire, smoke, noise and human activity.
Iron production usually required a furnace and a forge. The Harting Coombe furnace was partnered by the West Harting hammer mill or forge several miles away. (The names suggest their interdependency.)
The furnace and forge required huge quantities of charcoal sourced from the surrounding forest and ship builders also needed “hearts of oak” for building the Tudor navy. There are well-documented disputes in the 1580s between the two industries. The forest never recovered from the clearances but villagers were able to graze cattle on the new commons.
Before steam power, industry depended on fast-flowing water to power waterwheels to drive machinery. The headwater for the Coombe furnace was held in Coombe pond and sluices controlled the flow. Ironstone was dug from pits in the clay and each pit was backfilled as the next pit was dug. Big lumps were broken down by an initial heating, then the stone was packed into the furnace with the charcoal, heated and blasted by the draught from the bellows. Eventually the molten iron ran out at the bottom of the furnace into sand moulds shaped like a sow with piglets– as pig or cast iron.
Ox carts hauled the cast iron out of the steep-sided Coombe possibly using tracks, now footpaths 1164-1 then 1165, to Bull Hill and then “Furnace Lane”, now North Street, Rogate. From there, it was taken to the hammer mill close to where the later railway bridge crossed the Crundall stream, near Nyewood.
Nyewood supplied the wood for charcoal and Crundall stream fed the Harting Ponds, which powered the forge bellows and the waterwheel that drove the huge hammer. The noise was continuous and deafening. Impurities were beaten out of the iron resulting in wrought iron, ready for processing into nails, horseshoes, cannon balls and cannons.
About 1700, Abraham Darby of Coalbrookedale invented coke which produced far more heat than charcoal, or even coal. The Wealden industry could not compete and gradually shut down after more than 300 years, leaving the peaceful countryside we know today.
The Harting Furnace Pond was dismantled in around 1632 but Coombe Pond remains as a private fishing lake. A footpath runs along one side of it, which can be visited using the walk below as can the Milland Pond, which was also connected to a furnace. Across the Weald names like “pond field” “hammer wood” or “hammer pond” are all that remains of the “dark satanic mills” that once dominated our peaceful countryside.
Words: Mairi Rennie
Photos and Map: Caroline and Tony Douglas