Hounslow Heath, one of London's largest statutory nature reserves, is the last remnant of the vast heath that once covered this area. It was created in the C13th when a stretch of royal forest between Hounslow and Staines was cut down. Although Henry VIII still hunted here in the C16th over 1700 hectares was commonland. The Heath became a place of military musters and a haunt of footpads, which brought it an evil reputation. It was not enclosed until between 1789 - 1819 in a series of Acts when land was parcelled out. Part of the area in the north was acquired by the government for military training in 1800. In the 1920s the first commercial air service was established on the east side and there were allotments and market gardens on the west. In 1977 a golf course was established on the west, the remainder maintained for nature conservation and recreation.
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Hounslow Heath is one of London's largest statutory nature reserves so designated in 1991, and is the last remnant of the vast heath that covered this area of London. The name Hounslow was earlier Honeslaw or Hundeslawe, lawe meaning 'rising ground', hundes possibly coming from 'hounds'. The A30 was a Roman road from London to Silchester but there was no Roman settlement here. A tournament was recorded here shortly after King John was forced by the Barons to accept the Great Charter in 1215, and two years later the Dauphin of France presided over the conference here between Henry III and the Barons that led to the Treaty of Lambeth. The Heath was created in the C13th when a stretch of royal forest between Hounslow and Staines was cut down. Although Henry VIII still hunted here in the C16th over 1700 hectares were commonland and people were allowed to rear geese, ducks, cattle and sheep, and gorse and peat could be gathered. A map of 1635 by Moses Glover shows the heath as a barren plain from the village of Hounslow south to the River Crane at Isleworth.
Traditionally the Heath became a place of military musters and a haunt of footpads, which brought it an evil reputation. It was a favoured camping ground of the Parliamentarian Army and James II later established a large camp here where in 1686 he reviewed 15,000 men. However, the king's repeated visits to the camp on Hounslow Heath and the 'attendant gaieties' caused it to be looked upon as a pleasure resort, but following the waning of his popularity the camp became a menace rather than a security.
Hounslow became the first coaching stage on the London to Bath road. Rows of gibbets lined the route across the heath in the C18th. In the late C18th the botanist Sir Joseph Banks was once arrested while collecting specimens on the heath, suspected of being a highwayman. The area around the Heath was increasingly used for pasture and arable land although marshland and osier scrub along the Thames remained. It was here in 1784 that General William Roy set up the base line for the first triangle with which the Ordnance Survey of England began. The Heath was not enclosed until between 1789 and 1819 in a series of Acts when land was parcelled out. William Cobbett commented in the early C19th: 'the land between Egham and Hammersmith is as flat as a pancake and the soil a nasty, stony dirt upon a bed of gravel. Hounslow Heath which is only a little worse than the general run is a sample of all that is bad in soil and villainous in look'.
Part of the area in the north was acquired by the government for military training in 1800 and as late as 1948 a large area remained a military exercise and review ground. In 1919 the first flight from England to Australia took off from here and the first commercial air service between England and Paris was from here before the airport opened in Croydon in 1920.
Allotments and market gardens existed on the east side of the heath in the 1920s. From the 1850s gravel had been extracted from the heath, which continued up until 1957 and pits were initially filled in with rubbish and levelled by the mid 1960s. The northern border of the heath today is bracken and scrub, with oak woodland on the south east, mixed woodland and scrub to the north west. In 1977 LB Hounslow created a Golf Course on c.25 hectares on the west of the Heath, the remainder maintained for nature conservation and informal recreation.
A Saunders, ‘The Art and Architecture of London’, Oxford, 1984; Ben Weinreb & Christopher Hibbert, 'The London Encyclopaedia' (Macmillan, revised ed. 1993); 'A Brief History of Hounslow Heath' (n.d.); Sir Clifford Radcliffe 'Middlesex', Evan Brothers Ltd, (c.1950); David Pape, 'Nature Conservation in Hounslow' Ecology Handbook 15, London Ecology Unit, 1990; The Parks Agency 'Commons, Heaths and Greens in Greater London. A short report for English Heritage', 2005