Former city councillor Bill Shannon turns detective using ancient maps to unlock Bowland’s “forest” history

Dr Bill Shannon pictured after delivering the ninth Lord of Bowland annual lecture
Dr Bill Shannon pictured after delivering the ninth Lord of Bowland annual lecture

Former Preston councillor and Co-operative Society worker Dr Bill Shannon gained a PhD after he retired and is an expert on ancient maps of the Forest of Bowland. He tells Fiona Finch how he was honoured to deliver this year’s Lord of Bowland lecture.

It was once a royal forest, but did it have many trees?

Visitors to the Forest of Bowland AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) today may be surprised to learn the answer is no.

While the name of this 803 square kilometre “forest” still prompts visitors to scan the horizon for woodland, its history tells a different story.

Dr Bill Shannon former Preston councillor is just the man to tell that story. He explained:“A forest doesn’t have to have any trees. It comes from the Latin word meaning outside, foris. It is outside the normal law of the land, the common law. It’s set aside as a hunting ground for the king and his associates.”

Bill outlined Bowland’s development from medaeval hunting ground through to the 17th century when he had the honour of delivering the ninth Lord of Bowland annual lecture at Browsholme Hall, near Clitheroe.

It was an invitation he relished, for in retirement the Fulwood resident, former Ingol councillor and city Honorary Alderman has become an expert on ancient maps. Bill rediscovered academia after studying first for a Masters and then a PhD. His chosen subject was very specialist not to say niche.

He said; “My PhD was to do with landscape history, particularly to do with the enclosure of lowland mosslands of Lancashire in the Tudor period.”

These mosslands ranged from the Fylde and `Martine Mere areas and also included mosslands near Warrington. Bill said: “The wet areas began to be reclaimed for agriculture during that Tudor period. At the same time people were similarly looking in moorland upland areas to reclaim these to bring into agriculture.”

His studies grew from a longstanding passion for maps and landscape history. The 75 year old said: “I retired from the commercial world in 2002. I went to the University of Lancaster to do a Masters in local and regional history then a doctorate which I finished in 2009.”

It was work for the Greater Lancastria Co-operative Society which first brought him to Preston: “I was marketing manager for the Greater Lancastria CoOp based on Shelley Road. I then worked for the Co- operative Group. I had jobs in marketing, communications, government relations . I ended up on the executive of the Co-operative Group.”

But alongside his career, the Liverpudlian, who had graduated from Liverpool University with a degree in geography, retained his passion for landscapes and maps: “My main interest is historical geography and cartographic history, the history of maps. It always has been my abiding interest across 50 odd years. I always had this thing. I worked, I had a good job but my hobby /interests were always in map history and landscape history. I always planned when I retired I would do something about it. Now I write papers for learned journals – that very few people read!”

Maps known as dispute maps, which as their name indicates were often drawn up to provide evidence about land ownership and used in legal battles, provide the keys to unlocking Bowland’s history.

He noted: “There’s a big map made by one four most famous map makers of the 16th century Christopher Saxton. He was a Yorkshireman retained by the Duchy of Lancaster as a surveyor to make maps to help in court cases. He made the first county map of Lancashire in 1576.”

Bill also discovered a dispute map of Leagram deer park made in 1608 by Roger Kenyon. The dispute was over deer and the leaps or “salters” which gave royal deer access to the private estate.

Bill said: “If you look around the Bowland area today you see dry stone walls and sheep and perhaps scattered plantations of conifers. None of these would have been there 500 years ago. There would have been no walls, it was a deer forest and you were not allowed to enclose the land. It was not sheep it was cattle ranching country. There would not have been isolated farmsteads because people clustered together in hamlets called vaccaries.There might have been a few scrubby growths of alder and birch and that sort of woodland. The landscape felt completely different. It’s that evolution of the landscape I like to see and study. Maps and documents help you see how it changes from one type of landscape to a different type.”

Bill’s detective work means he can trace Bowland’s history from tis role as a hunting reservesoon after the Domesday Book was prepared into the 17th century: “Initially it was a private reserve set up by the de Lacy family from Clitheroe in the early Norman period from around 1100 and then it became part of the Duchy of Lancaster and became a Royal Forest through the Dukes of Lancaster. Then it was a Royal hunting reserve through the time of the Tudors.”

Bill notes that Henry VII, impatient that he had no use for these lands in the north and seeing them as a drain on resources, sought to increase revenue from the land: “One of his employees Richard Empson, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, started the process of driving the deer out and allowing locals to enclose land and improve it for agriculture.

Henry VIII had a different idea of what kings are about and the first thing he did was execute Richard Empson and turn the reforms on their head. It was really another 100 years before Henry VII’s ideas came to fruition. The deer were driven out, the land enclosed...it moved from cattle ranching to sheep.”

Bowland was becoming “disafforested” well into the 17th century and surveys then revealed little useful wood for building, only firewood.It was a (hunting) forest no more.

* Spellings of Bowland included Bolland ,Bocland, Boughlande,Boulend and Boelend. The word is likely to derive from a Norse word meaning bow or bend and is thought to refer to a bend in the river Hodder,

* Bill is also a member of a research group studying the Gough Map which dates from 1400 and is now located in the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford He said: ”It’s a three year project and there are 20 of us including historians and scientists.”

The map is named after Richard Gough who bought it at auction in London around 1770 and realising its importance published it and later bequeathed the original to the nation.

Bill said: "It is the first map of the island of Britain in any detail. ..It’s quite exceptional for its detail. It’s very much advanced for its date. There’s an awful lot to study about it.”