Country diary: in Richard I’s day this field was a hi-tech hub | Environment

Patches of snow persist in the most sheltered spots alongside Harpers Brook, the pasture dense with a complexity of mounds and earthworks that hints at a significant history. The sloping field by the grey limestone edifices of Pipewell Hall is crowned with a variety of trees, some fairly ancient, and a medley of a dozen horses and ponies come over to say hello; each in turn blowing gusts of warm breath on to the back of my hand, some lingering to gently nuzzle or allow a brief stroke.

A Cistercian community, St Mary de Divisis Abbey, was established here in 1143. The monastery and cloisters were surrounded by many facilities – an infirmary, a bakery, a granary, a brewhouse, a quarry, a cemetery, a watermill, carp ponds and refuse pits. A little further to the west the community built one of the first English windmills.

This was a thriving, bustling and progressive place, at the forefront of technology, clearing forest and selling timber to create a little agrarian idyll.

King Richard I chose the abbey as the location for his first Great Council, just two weeks after his coronation in September 1189. Decorated tiles found here show hunting with dogs, and King John, Richard’s younger brother, was known to hunt in Rockingham Forest.

But decline started in the 1280s, as the oak was overexploited and became harder to obtain; the value of timber was also falling. Another king, Henry VIII, eliminated the abbey in 1538, leaving only impressions in the ground.

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Pipewell quarry with wind turbines in the distance. Photograph: Matt Shardlow

Pipewell is today a small hamlet of 15 scattered houses, the hill to the south-east topped with magnificent white wind turbines, bringing renewable power back to the valley.

To the north of the village, running east-west, is Pipewell Wood, a two mile-long site of special scientific interest. The varied woodland includes extensive hazel coppice and oak standards that resound to the crowing and squawks of pheasants, signs of a more recent hunting history.

Oaks are still felled and sold, their hulks resting in rows. Above the wood a grim-looking watchtower provides a vantage point for shooting deer; it gives the wood the air of a wildlife concentration camp.

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