The woodlands of Hornsey are very old indeed, and are likely to have existed without a break from prehistoric times. The Parish of Hornsey today contains four oak/hornbeam woods, Highgate Wood, Cherry Tree Wood, Queen's Wood, and Coldfall Wood, with a total area of 97.5 hectares. There is documentary evidence that Bishop's Wood, now built over, had been managed as far back as the 13th century. No doubt the same applies to all the other woods.
A pollen analysis of an area in Hampstead Heath about three km to the south-west of Highgate Wood (Girling & Greig 1977) showed that before 3,000 BC the area was covered with a mixed deciduous forest predominantly of small-leaved lime, Tilia cordala, and also contained oak, elm, birch, Scots pine, alder and hazel.
In the second phase, around 3,000 BC there was a decline in elm and lime and the first appearance of cereals and the weeds of cultivation. Heathland vegetation, which often accompanies the signs of human activity, also appeared. Charcoal found in the third phase of the Hampstead sample, on the light Bagshot Sands, suggests that this area was cleared for cultivation, probably by burning. Without more evidence however it appears unlikely that there was any extensive clearance in Highgate Wood before Saxon times, as it is on the much heavier London Clay. Small clearances would not have had any permanent effect on the wood as a whole as it would have quickly regenerated.
The Roman Pottery
About AD 60, in Roman times, the timber and clay supported a pottery which helped to supply the needs of London. In 1974, A.E.Brown and H.L.Sheldon reported on the excavation of a number of kilns in Highgate Wood. The fragmentary remains of one kiln was found, with its fire-bars lying in a mass of burnt clay and pottery debris. Lower down was a puddling pit containing clean green clay. Nearby were other kilns, so that the picture emerged of a pottery which was developed and redeveloped over a period of lime, in a series of production phases between AD 50-60 and AD 140-160. It was not a permanent settlement, but the clay ridge 'appears to have been visited for the purpose of pottery manufacture for a period of perhaps some 100 years.'
The number of kilns and the amount of debris suggests that total production must have been small and no permanent buildings were found. The archaeologists considered that the potters were itinerant, visiting the site occasionally and working for a few weeks to supply local needs before moving on.
A large number of pottery sherds were recovered, enabling no less than 95 different vase and bowl shapes to be recognised. These were classified into different phases and dates which showed that early ware was produced by local potters to supply pre Boudiccan London, while later pottery was of a finer quality for a more selective market. For some reason production stopped about AD 160, perhaps because it became cheaper to transport pottery from further afield, or it may reflect the fall in population known to have occurred at about this period and with it, the lack of demand.