The Lay of the Land

 


This is a rather dry post I'm afraid, but the story of how the countryside in the region came to look like it does, underpins a lot of the detail in the notes on my bike routes and other posts.

Credits first. This is helicopter history. I do quite a bit of reading but if you want a clearer and better informed view, I must recommend David Crowther's 'History Of England' Podcast. It is mostly free but you currently need to pay a modest membership sub for the 'Life & Landscape' episodes relevant to this post.  That might change.  

Link:  The History of England Pod: Life & Landscape

And a plot spoiler. My inexpert summary is that there are three stages in the history of our farming landscape, the lost, the ancient and the planned. The last of these is the layout of scattered farms and regularly shaped fields which you see in many places today. It emerged incompletely and over centuries from the enclosure of the open, communally farmed fields centred on villages and hamlets of the ancient period. In some places, especially where open field farming wasn't practical, this older pattern clings on. It all grew out of the way that the land was farmed in Saxon times. There is little visible evidence of that now, but nonetheless it is where I will start.  

Sometimes I look back to the Millennium and ruefully think 'it was all going so well'. Fifteen hundred years ago, sitting on a hill and looking down at the landscape below, our ancestors might have echoed the thought. 

The Romans and their army were long gone whence they came, taking their urbs, pizza ovens and wine with them. The skeletal administration they left behind slowly disintegrated. 

Things really fell apart around 536 AD, when the sun went on sabbatical after massive volcanic eruptions caused catastrophic crop failures and the Justinian plague took a scythe to the population. 

In England the Saxons were muscling Britons out of power and off the better land, but in truth neither could chillax amid the chaos and decline. The Annals of Wales have this down as the year when King Arthur copped it, so a bad time for all.

We are certain about little of what happened for several centuries afterwards. The scanty documentary evidence we have is more akin to propaganda. Gildas, a monk and chronicler whose medieval likeness is shown below and who is a rare primary source, might have been at home raging on Twitter or GB News. 

Gildas

Anyway, at this point, the view from the hill would have been of a relatively empty land. Things had generally regressed and the climate was deteriorating. Sub
sistence farming was again the norm, trade was limited and the heavy ploughs favoured by the Romans and which ravished the soil, were replaced by the 'ard' or scratch ploughs light 'scratch' ploughs that were less productive and merely ticked it. 

An ard or 'scratch' plough 

No one seems to have been keen on living in the vacated stone-built towns and farms, or in building new ones. Their scattered settlements and timber buildings left meagre pickings for the archaeologists let alone for those of us who want something we can see. Thoughtless lot, we drown in ignorance and it leaves the first part of this post as mostly based on scholarly guesswork.

Remains of Roman Villa, Oxon

Scroll forward another century or more and two powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Wessex and Mercia, emerged from the fractured mess of southern Britain. Their respective fortunes and territories waxed and waned. Th western part of this area was initially part of Mercia but after most of that was sucked into the control of the invading Danes almost three centuries later and then it effectively became part of Wessex. Suffolk and Essex were part of the territory of the Angles, but both fell to the Danes early on and stayed under their control for much of the succeeding years. You can see the progress in this neat little video.  Link: Engelond

Saxon Subbuteo Team 

Under the aegis of the powerful Kings of Wessex, things were organised. Laws were drafted and larger towns appeared. Some were fortified against Danish incursions by Alfred the Great, whose achievements were only matched by his mastery of political PR. These included Buckingham, Oxford and Wallingford where the Saxon ramparts can still be seen; also the fortifications at Chisbury and and on Sashes Island in the Thames near Cookham. Yet more were permitted to hold markets, which facilitated trade, services and crafts. 

Saxon Ramparts at Wallingford

As time passed, some of these places grew and some shrank, but many have survived to this day. It is noticeable that most of them have names derived from Old English although a few seem to be Brythonic. This has fuelled an inconclusive debate about the power relationship between the two peoples, but It makes me wonder whether the Britons just weren't as keen on living in villages  as the Saxon immigrants.  

Initially farms and hamlets were distributed in a 'dispersed' pattern. You found a decent spot and settled on it. Notwithstanding, as the population grew, more fertile land was occupied, woodland clearance restarted and even more difficult land on the higher ground and in the clay vales, was brought into use. This wasn't a blind process. We should not underestimate the knowledge these people had of how to make the best use of their fields, rotating their uses and applying natural fertilisers. 

  

In what follows, I identify four broad phases in the development of today's landscape which affected both lowlands and uplands to varying degrees. The early Saxon period was followed by the widespread emergence of the 'Champion' system of open fields, especially on the lower ground. Then, in later Medieval times, came the piecemeal enclosure of many of those fields, a process that continued more systematically under the auspices of Parliament from the late 1600's. Finally, there is the modern age, starting with improvements in husbandry and land management, for example drainage, followed by radical mechanisation.

A caution: I have already referred to the paucity of evidence of what went on in the first few centuries after the Romans left although excavations at Rendlesham in Suffolk point to the existence of settlements far larger than expected. Once again, it looks like an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. 

 From the reign of Alfred onwards, there is progressively more archaeological, genetic, place name and documentary evidence. Sadly it is often conflicting, so while I don't think that the overall pattern of events that I describe below is particularly contentious, the interpretation of the detail sometimes is. With that caveat...…

In the early Saxon period, land ownership was often divided into smallholdings known as hides and the legal ownership might rest with a community, family, individual or a landlord with hereditary rights. In short, it was messy, but whatever the ownership, there was an obligation to a ruler to render service if called upon. This might be military or some other collective endeavour such as building Alfred's town ramparts. 

Nasty Normans

By the time Duke Bill & His Nasty Normans turned up, the population of England might well have doubled since that dark day on the hill to 2m to 3m people, or perhaps the same as it had been at the height of the Roman period. The Domesday book was created around 1086 to facilitate Bill's attempts to fleece the poor English. It is apparent that, at that time, a lot of waste land still existed, especially on the poorer, higher ground on the Chalk and Greensand ridges and in marshy areas. (Waste in this context simply meant land that wasn't used for anything specific).

At its simplest the better drained land was used for crops, the valley meadows were enjoyed by the cows, pigs sniffled in the woods, sheep grazed the downland, woodland was tended to provide fuel and building materials, and there was still land left over. 

In the two centuries that followed it seems that God loved the Normans even if the English didn't. The sun shone, the country prospered for a while and the population grew to maybe 5m. Once again, good land was intensively exploited and some marginal and waste land was brought into use, even though swathes still survived as Commons and Greens. Berkshire seems to have been the odd one out hereabouts. It was more varied and wooded and the main impact was more land being eked out of those woods as 'assarts' for farming, especially in the upland valleys.

Chorleywood Common

As I understand it, the arrival of the Normans didn’t initially change the layout of the landscape or the day-to day management of farming, so much as who profited from it. The old system of ‘free’ farmers holding land in their own right but with obligations to the King, was replaced by the feudal system of holding land under a Lord of the Manor or other landowner, to whom there was an obligation of service. You might have heard that this was an innovation of the nasty Normans, but in fact it appeared earlier, as an efficient way of gouging the peasantry. It is a bit like the relationship between slavery and the British, who certainly didn’t invent it, but organised it more thoroughly. In effect, rather than owning your plot and being periodically press-ganged into nipping off to fight a war, you held your land at the Lord’s pleasure and had to spend some time doing his farming for him. 

Throughout, the rather haphazard pattern of Saxon agriculture seems to have slowly morphed into what is now known as Champion countryside. 

In essence this aimed at making the best use of land and water resources on a communal basis that was increasingly underpinned by law and customary practice. The formerly dispersed settlements began to coagulate into hamlets and villages at the centre of a system of open fields, often with a small wooden church at its heart. Christianity had taken root. 

Around each settlement there might typically be three of these fields together with some common, waste and perhaps meadowland. These would be managed collectively. Every year  two of the fields would be used for a crop of spring or winter wheat or barley while the other was left fallow or sown for grazing by the villager's livestock. 

Three Field System

Each field would be divided into ‘strips’ a 'furrow-long' (a furlong, but not the racing measure) and a chain wide. That made each strip an acre in size and thus capable of being ploughed with oxen in a day. These were allocated on a rotational basis between the village households, presumably agreed over a warm pint in Ye Olde Saucy Sow.  

Everyone shared the sowing and harvesting but folk got to keep the produce from their own strips and could perhaps further improve their livelihood by keeping some livestock on the common and fallow land. Demarcation was minimal, often simply low mounds of earth called baulks. You wouldn’t have seen many fences or hedges

Medieval Open Fields

There were clear advantages of cooperation. By this time heavy ploughs were back in use and could be shared. Water, which was a problem in some areas, could be used more efficiently. In principle, this system should give most people a fair share of the best land. I do wonder how it ensured a fair share of the work, although some reckon that life wasn't necessarily as the endless toil complained of by the likes of Baldrick. The pic below is a Bruegel painting. He liked to paint it as he saw it, but then again maybe the Flemish in the 1600's  just had it easier? 

Bruegel : Harvest Time : 1624

This isn’t altogether unheard of today. My grandfather had a small Irish hill farm and shared the job of harvesting and the use of a tractor with neighbours. His crop would mostly be used to feed his tiny dairy herd and his personal transport was a horse and cart. He wasn't exactly an agreeable bloke, so it is a tribute to the early communities that despite the scope for disagreements among neighbours, they made the system work.

It isn’t clear how this open-field system emerged, not least because it did so before written records were kept. Now, the only place where it is still (proudly!) practised, is Laxton in Nottinghamshire. Google it up or visit it; they have a bijou museumette next to the pub.  And if you want to see how they manage it, check this link: Laxton Manorial System

Laxton in 1635


Laxton Open Fields Today

The system was practical rather than compulsory, and quite flexible when faced with more complicated topography. Exposed higher ground was often less fertile and more wooded. The  scattered smallholdings making use of small sheltered patches of decent soil or assarts carved out of woodland, didn't lend themselves to communal management.  

The result is reflected today in the small, irregular fields and patchy woodland of the Chilterns and the land flanking the Thames near Newbury. This is sometimes referred to as 'ancient countryside' as opposed to the 'planned' countryside elsewhere which I will describe later. Contrast the two pics of the land around Chinnor in Bucks shown below. The first is the 'planned' lowland and appeared later and the second is the upper dipslope of the Chilterns. 

The valley

The hillside

The villages in the populated land below the Chiltern Scarp often combined their use of the open fields with rights to land on the scarp for grazing and timber and which was often in the same parish. A similar pattern can be seen elsewhere. In the Cotswolds the freeholders on the higher land at Dun’s Tew and Wotton were cutting hay in the remote meadows of North Aston and Steeple Aston respectively. 

Originally, in ancient countryside, the quotidian means of getting from 'A' to 'B' would have been footpaths and the ‘holloways’ etched out by the movement of carts and livestock and avoiding obstacles and the land in use. 'B' in this case might have been their fields and grazing land, woodland for fuel, water, the church or the nearest market. The result was that both roads and paths wandered all over the place, Many of them remain, mostly as footpaths. In the pic below, notice how many ways out of the village appear to be mere tracks. 

Padbury, nr Buckingham

If you can zoom in a bit, you can see the pattern of tracks linking high and low ground on this extract from an OS Map, 

Tracks uphill from Great Missenden

You might notice lots of banks and ditches in the Cotswolds, Downs and Chilterns. These are hard to date but are often old field or woodland boundaries, sometimes with the remnant of a hedge on top and usually with the ditch on the field side to keep the stock away from the valuable undergrowth. Some are very old and date back to the Iron Age or earlier. These are , more likely to be old political or ownership boundaries but it is rarely obvious. An example is Grimm's Ditch which pops up in several places. 

Grim was a nickname for Odin so in time honoured fashion ,if people were puzzled by the origin of something sizeable, they put it down to the Gods. Maybe in the future HS2 will be renamed 'Grim's Line'?

Grim's Ditch nr. Nuffield

Hedges can have a long life too. The 'Black Hedge' at Monks Risborough is thought to pre-date the Norman Conquest. I would be surprised if many were not older, but sadly there is no reliable way of calculating their age. One rule of thumb is gauging the age of a hedge by the number of species it contains or, even more crudely, the size and condition of any mature trees in it. 

As the population grew, more of the inferior or difficult land was cultivated. On slopes, strips of arable land were created, following the contours to make ploughing easier. The mouldboards on the heavy ploughs piled earth onto the downslopes, creating banks or terraces called strip lynchets. These can still be seen in many places, again often on land that has avoided or survived ploughing. 

Strip Lynchettes in Wiltshire

On level fields you might see a pattern of wide stripes known as ‘ridge and furrow’. Those heavy ploughs were not very manoeuvrable. At the ends of the fields, their turning circle often forced the earth into banks called ‘headlands’ and their progress followed a slightly curved path. A result was the slightly sinuous field boundaries which can be seen in many places. 

Medieval Plough

Two cautions. When trying to make sense of the patterns on hillside pastures, don’t confuse the lynchets with ‘terracettes’. The former are wider; they accommodated the hefty plough. The latter are narrower, more like sheep tracks and a natural result of soil creep. Gravity is to blame! Also if you find an arable field with narrow stripes, that is probably the result of more recent ploughing. 

One other feature that you might notice in the chalk hills is the hollows or dells. There are a variety of reasons for these, many are natural, but some of them resulted from the use of large quantities of chalk being dug out to use as fertiliser. This is known as 'liming'; the alkaline chalk balances more acidic soils. 

Chalk pit in upland woods

The Lords and landowners arranged many more things for their profit and convenience and these also affected what you see today. An increasing amount of land was enclosed as ‘demesne’ for private use or designated as deer parks or ‘forests’. Again, the Normans didn't introduce these, they simply formalised them. 

For clarity sake, a Forest wasn’t necessarily woodland, but rather a legal designation of an area in which the rights of the common folk were restricted. Sherwood is the famous example where, as you know, Robin Hood was deemed naughty for hunting the deer. More local examples include Savernake, Windsor, where the forest dominated what is now Berkshire until the mid 13th c. and Bermwood, which at its height around 1200 A.D. comprised much of the land to the East of Oxford and was a playground for King Edward the Confessor, a bloke whose posthumous beatification echoed the propriety of a Boris Johnson honours list.  

Is that your Deer? 

All good things come to an end, hubris followed by nemesis etc. Several events led to the demise of the Open Fields System and more profoundly changed the landscape. During the 1300's the climate became colder and wetter as Southern England headed into the 'Little Ice Age'. You might have seen pictures of the frozen Thames. Failing harvests led to the deadliest famine in European history, not helped poor farming practices.  History rhymes. Again, much of the best land was overused to the point of exhaustion while poorer land, which wasn't very productive in the good times, was increasingly deserted. In the modern argot the population was being 'rightsized'. For many this meant destitution.  

Making the best of it

The icing on the cake was the Black Death, which arrived in 1348 and did what bubonic plagues usually do, returning intermittently until culminating the Great Plague of 1665.

What was the King while all this was going on? From 1337 with a tea break during the worst of the plague years, wasting treasure and bodies fighting the Hundred Years War over control of bits of France is what. Agincourt was a good story but no benefit to the poor sods turning sods in the rain-lashed fields and undersupplied with turnips and beans. 

Overall the weather gods, the rats and their passengers, starvation and power hungry monarchs possibly halved the population. 

One well known legacy of all this turbulence is the scattering of abandoned settlements, often misleadingly referred to as Plague Villages. That is misleading. In most cases the desertions were not usually the direct result of the infected, buboe-covered yokels applying boot to bucket; but rather the cacophony of horrors of the period as a whole. And the changes seen in the rural economy as it slowly recovered from the horrible 1300's, also contributed to settlements moving or disappearing.  

And you thought Covid was bad! 

One such change was a radical increase in sheep farming. This was bad news for the rural poor. Not only did the landowners need fewer shepherds than labourers in the fields, but it necessitated the enclosure of many of the open fields, commons and waste lands.

Sometimes this was driven by shared interest and agreement. Fields with animals needed fencing and changes in the wider agricultural economy begged a response, but powerful landowners inevitably played a leading role. Why let a good plague go to waste when profits could be turbo-charged by evicting the tenants and focusing instead on profitable wool production? This link to a record of events in 1488 tells of the fate of Burston, whose traces can still be seen and are pictured below.  Link: The Enclosure of Burston

Deserted Burston, Bucks. 

Again, the pace and extent of change varied across the region The more wooded Chilterns seem to have been less affected and is some areas such as the downlands, sheep farming was probably already predominant. 

The pattern of tenure slowly changed as landlords found it difficult to find or keep tied labour to farm for them, and preferred instead to simply rent out parcels of their land. This is the origin of the word 'farm' which comes from 'fermer', the French word for rent. It was another two hundred years before it acquired its current meaning. 

There were some positive changes. The reduced workforce was in a position to demand better wages and the peasant released from spending days working (or skiving) on the Lord's land in return for a payment of rent, was incentivised to improve his own lot. It is noticeable that people started to spend more on their housing. (I aim to do a separate post on the old housing that can still be seen). 

Also, we shouldn't underestimate the extent to which the medieval settlements adjusted to changing circumstances. They were not seen as permanent and immutable in the way they are now. Necessity or advantage often drove relocation and rebuilding. The Germans even have a word for this - Wanderseidlung, or wandering settlement. Take a look at the story of Quarrendon, just outside Aylesbury. Link: Quarrendon. Movement & Desertion 

Quarrendon from the air 

In the lower and more fertile areas, what is left of all this early medieval landscape now is just a palimpsest. Ploughing is a merciless destroyer of the evidence of the past. But more traces remain on pastures and higher ground where many old tracks and boundary markings still exist together with the marks of old building plots and enclosures.

On the cycle routes, I have waymarked some of these, but the sites of lost villages are often only discernible as earth-marks, best seen in half-light and/or from a raised vantage point. A passenger hot-air balloon would be perfect if you happen to have one. 

Sometimes a stone built church, often in ruins for want of a congregation, has survived the death of the settlement it served, Many are marked on the 1:25000 series OS Maps. Sometimes a single farm has replaced them.  The pic below is the earthworks visible from the road past Fullbrook Farm, north of Quainton Hill, which is a great example.

Medieval settlement markings

It is hard to over-emphasise the pivotal role of sheep in all of this. They were primarily kept for wool rather than meat, and fuelled the economy for centuries and, despite its ups and downs, radically changed the landscape. If you ever wonder why small villages sometimes sport grand churches, the answer is usually that someone out of them was trying to invest in improving his chance of enjoying life in the hereafter. If you want a bit more detail on story of sheep farming in England, check this link: Sheep farming in England


Medieval Sheep Farming

By now change to the view from the hill would have been profound. Before enclosure took hold, little of the old lowland landscape with its wide open ‘strip farming’ fields, was obstructed by woodland, let alone a clutter of easily visible boundaries. 

Enclosure changed all that by dividing up the old large fields into smaller ones, using hedges and fences, often around the existing villages and hamlets. An odd result was that the outline of the new groups of fields sometimes fossilised the slightly curving borders of their forebears. I have waymarked some on my cycle routes and they can be seen in the pictures from Laxton. Here is an example from Berryfields, just north of Aylesbury.


N. of Berryfields

In 1540 John Leland, the 'father of English local history' remarked on the extent of sheep pasture in the Clay Vales and noted that the Chilterns were still mostly wooded. Large parts of Berks and Herts probably were too, but I doubt that he would have seen as much of a change in the Wessex Downs, which had been popular with sheep and relatively clear of trees since the Late Stone Age, or in the pastoral countryside that still survives on higher ground in Mid Bucks? 

Wansdyke on the Wessex Downs
 Daniel Defoe (the author of Robinson Crusoe) also referred to the woolly wealth in the Vales in the early 1700's, when there was a much greater interest in improving the profits to be made from more general husbandry and arable farming. The picture below is the Enclosures Plan for Wingrave, just east of Burston and The story of the open fields and their replacement during the enclosures  is summarised in this video clip. Link: Agricultural Change
 
  
Enclosures Plan, Wingrave 

Because the changes usually required a measure of persuasion, by fair means or foul, things could move slowly but after the Civil War in the late 1600's, things could be speeded up, which does hint at whose side Olly Cromwell's Roundheads were actually on. 

This involved obtaining an Act of Parliament which sometimes allowed for the enclosure of whole parishes. These often came with conditions aimed at ensuring a degree of equity but were generally more responsive to landowner interests. The pace of change varied a lot. In some areas enclosure was well underway at that time, in Oxon, by the time Parliament had got their hands on the process, one third of the county was already enclosed. Elsewhere the majority of the land wasn't enclosed until the early 1800's.

An Enclosure Act 

At the same time an increasing interest in Dutch agricultural techniques and a drop in the price of wool relative to corn stimulated an interest in further improvements, mainly in the form of drainage schemes (some of those field drains have been there an awful long time!) and better transport, but also new approaches to animal husbandry and improving crop yields. 

An example was the Greensand Ridge that runs east from Leighton Buzzard. Infertile soils meant that little was grown there until new techniques and market opportunities arrived. The sandy soils then offered an advantage, warming quickly in spring and allowing vegetables to be cropped and sold before produce from other areas could reach the markets. 

'Dutch' Drains

Another is Otmoor in Oxfordshire where the local population had adjusted to life in the common land of the marshes, and in the early 1800's rioted to hold up plans to drain them.  This gave rise to the famous rhyme: The law locks up the man or woman /  Who steals the goose off the common  / But leaves the greater villain loose / Who steals the common from the goose.

The Otmoor Riots

The planned landscape that emerged from all this was much more geometrical, with bounded fields in single ownership, fewer footpaths and more wider and straighter roads, sometimes in a loose grid. The reduced emphasis on collective endeavour meant that it was more convenient for people to build their farmhouse on their own parcel of land than to remain in a hamlet or village. In broad terms this is the pattern you see today, with many long-standing isolated farmhouses and still more built on the site of earlier iterations. Farmers now live on their farms and not in the villages, which have increasingly become local service centres or just pleasant dormitories.

Aylesbury Vale. 

I have already made the point that, away from the clay vales and the densely farmed rolling countryside, enclosure and rationalisation was not straightforward. Generally, the floodplains next to rivers offered meadows while the high ground offered pastures, heaths and woodland.  These were neither immune to rationalisation nor well-suited to it. Farms created as assarts tended to be smaller and efforts to enclose common land were often frustrated by the many commoners with rights to use it. Often, woodland was worth more than the arable land anyway, and many areas were better suited to pastoral farming than to large fields for crops. You can see the result. In the hills, the fields often remained small and the roads more winding. 

In addition, the gravel terraces on on the side of many of the river valleys provided some of the most fertile arable land and benefited from proximity to springs. Clean water was always important and you might notice the string of 'spring line' villages strung out below the scarp scopes of the Chilterns and Downs. Villages like this usually came with a more complex pattern of existing rights and interests. 

A good deal of the Chilterns in particular was, and still is, 'ancient' woodland. To be clear, that doesn't mean that the trees are ancient. A few are, but not many. Rather, old maps and documents suggest that the area was wooded in 1600 i.e. it is the woodland as a whole rather than the trees within them that are considered ancient. Before then organised planting was uncommon. If you want to know which woods are thought to be that old, see this map. 

Map of Ancient Woodlands

On the chalk hills and the Greensand Ridge, woodlands probably comprised oak and other acid-tolerant species that were useful for coppicing. The cities cried out for firewood! Later, once coal could be shipped by barge, the demand fell away. Some trees were planted to meet specific needs. For instance, the beech trees that are a feature of the high ground in the Chilterns today, were planted in the 1800's for use in furniture manufacture. The craftsmen were the original 'bodgers' and not for nothing are Wycombe Wanderers F C known as the 'chairboys'. 

Coppice Trees

This highlights the increasing orientation of the countryside towards meeting the needs of London and other rapidly growing towns. The people who benefited most from all of this were those with the capital needed to invest in new equipment and methods. 

An early result was a growing number of large ‘estate’ farms owned by the 'monied' gentry, but in time a greater impact came from the huge tracts bought up by the ‘landed’ gentry. The entire area is peppered with these, some of them rose and fell with the fortunes of their owner, many were substantially rebuilt later, while others were flattened to provide land for the towns. Stonor Park near Henley, shown below, is a good example of a survivor, where the fluctuating fortunes of its owners reduced the number of 'improvements'. 

Stonor Park : A late Medieval Manor

The grandest homes of the gentry often had vast grounds that were planned in the fashion of their age. There are lots of beautiful Elizabethan and Jacobean manor houses scattered around, most of which are never open to visitors. Stonor is an exception. But they pale in comparison with the scale of later palatial houses like Blenheim, Wotton, Woburn and Stowe which sit in vast tracts of parkland, often fashioned as romanticised versions of the natural landscape in the style made famous by Capability Brown. Some were 'recreationally' farmed, as they are now.

Blenheim

In 1786 two future Presidents of the United States, Adams and Jefferson, visited some of these great houses. They pronounced them beautiful but were disgusted by how they were financed!  As usual, the peasants often paid the price. Dispossession by greedy landowners was common. A good example is Glympton on my 'Highs and Lows of Cherwell' cycle route. 

Blenheim : A Georgian Manor

Better transport hastened change. The early roads were maintained by the parishes and were usually very poor. During roughly the same period as the 'improvements', many fords were replaced by bridges and turnpike roads were introduced, run by trusts established by Parliament. Look out for roads that have milestones and the wide verges which characterise both the turnpikes and the roads established by both Parliamentary Enclosures. The dictatorial highway planning that we experience today, has a long history!  

The canals appeared later, at the end of the 1700's, followed some fifty years later by the railways. I guess you know the story from here on in. They created new industrial opportunities, driven as ever by the rising urban population. Proximity to cities encouraged market gardening and more industrial activity in the countryside such as brick making and digging out the aggregates used in building, from deposits laid down millennia earlier by the braided glacial outwash rivers. The exhausted pits left us with groups of lakes, such as those in the Colne Valley and at Marston Moretaine near Bedford. 

The Grand Junction Canal c. 1800 

The impact of the Victorian period and beyond is more readily visible and easily understood so I do not intend to delve into it now. If you want to see the kit that the Victorians used, they have a rusty display at the College Lake Visitor Centre near Tring. Some of the ploughs don't look much better than their medieval predecessors!

Early 19th c type horse drawn plough

The tendency was that the land specifically suited to arable farming (e.g. below the Chiltern Scarp and on the River terraces) and for raising livestock (old pastureland, meadows and parts of the clay vales) tended to stay that way, while the intermediate quality land tended to swing between the two depending on circumstances. 

In the first part of the 1900's there was a general decline in agriculture and a further shift away from arable farming to husbandry. More land fell out of use altogether, but this trend was more  about Government policies and market prices as the location and soils. It reversed when exigencies of food supply in wartime resulted in government encouragement for arable farming and much of it stayed that way afterwards, partly because improved machinery - those monster machines you see nowadays  made sowing and ploughing easier.

Modern Plough 

While in most places the overall lay of the land from the enclosures remains, the early move from collective to individual control of the land and further consolidation of its ownership later, coupled with the industrialisation of farming, led in many places to the recreation of vast, open 'prairie' fields and the destruction of hedgerows and older boundaries. Some begin to look, once again, like the long-gone open countryside of the early medieval champion countryside, while simultaneously destroying many of its remaining traces in the process. 

In the changing landscape one layer blankets another, like snow. Often, the relics of the past are now only clear in fields that have remained as pasture or meadow; perhaps an old headland running down the middle of a field or the stripes of ridge & furrow running under a more recent boundary. Take a look at the pic below. The lynchets have survived because the higher field is now used for pasture. In the field below it, if you zoom in, you can see the old furrow marks seeming to run under the hedge. 

It is still changing, usually not in a good way. It is hard to find a place where it is improving! Maybe that is just a prejudice against the new and the outcry about new wind turbines might support that  But I am not so sure. While we have come to see the old train lines as part of the scenery, I doubt we will ever feel the same way about the more intrusive trunk roads! 

Many of the old hedges have been removed and footpaths closed. Perhaps more important just now is the threat to the character of the woodlands. The elm trees have mostly gone, ash trees are currently being cut down because of 'die back' and oaks are also under attack. Meanwhile the pressure for additional housing is slathering the greensward with concrete and tarmac, HS2 is slicing through the area and the tangle of branch lines bequeathed when railways were the tech boom of the 1800's, has come and mostly gone, truncated in the 1960's by Dr. Beeching's guesswork followed by axe work. 

But there are still plenty of places where you can sniff the fresh wind, and embrace the less sweet memory of medieval fertilisation and cess pits! 

It cannot be emphasised enough that all of these patterns played out in different ways in different places. Local context is always important. If you want more fine grained detail, check out my other relevant blog posts which include a list of books and other background material. Meanwhile, the medieval legacy is still just about visible if you look for it. These are the old, aching bones of England. We should let them lie!


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