Ashdown Forest's iron industry flourished in the two eras when the Weald was the main iron-producing region of Britain, namely in the first 200 years of the Roman period (1st to 3rd centuries CE) and in the Tudor period (late 15th and 16th centuries).
Iron working requires large amounts of wood to make charcoal and iron ore. Ashdown Forest had both in abundance. The deep, steep-sided valleys (locally known as ghylls) could be dammed to provide water to power for furnaces and forges.
From the Romans though to the end of the medieval period iron ore was processed in small clay built 'bloomery' furnaces – these were blown by hand using bellows and produced wrought iron ready for the blacksmith. Evidence of iron working, often the waste slag, can still be found, usually beside a stream or head of a spring. At the end of the medieval period the iron industry was a dominating feature of the Weald, including Ashdown Forest.
Newbridge Furnace and Forge
Newbridge forge is one of the most important sites on the Forest. It was established in 1496 by Henry VII, with the aid of French technicians, as part of his preparations for war with Scotland. It was the second iron blast furnace in Britain and required water to be dammed to drive huge bellows for the furnace and the 'great hammer'. The furnace produced primitive artillery, particularly cannon balls and iron fittings for wagons.
Spurred by the development of blast furnaces, the iron industry grew very rapidly during the 16th century and became noted for the casting of cannons and cannonballs for the English navy. The celebrated ironmaster and gun-founder Ralph Hogge, who in 1543 made the first one-piece, cast-iron cannon in England at nearby Buxted, drew his raw materials from the southern part of the Forest. However, the huge demand for raw materials and fuel, particularly charcoal, heavily depleted the Forest's woodlands, causing much concern and prompting commissions of enquiry by the King. In due course coppice management was used to ensure a more sustainable supply. In the 17th century the industry declined and eventually died out as a result of competition from lower-cost iron-producing areas.