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Our Local Landscape – Fields, Hedges and Churches

Fields are an obvious feature of our landscape but they are not natural and vary greatly in size, shape and age.  We take our hedges for granted; they can be ancient boundaries especially if they mark parish boundaries.  Hedges can also mark the limits of medieval deer parks.  Parish boundaries are often boundaries of ancient estates, stretching back into the pre-Norman Conquest era.

It used to be thought that hedges were solely the result of the Parliamentary enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries.  In fact Parliamentary enclosures often meant a ‘tidying up’ of an older landscape, much of which had been enclosed by private agreement in previous centuries.  Parliamentary enclosures did mean that ancient common rights were extinguished.  This brought about the end of the peasantry with their rights on common land.  They were replaced by the waged farm labourer, whose life is so vividly described in the novels of Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928).  

Hedges can be dated using a technique developed by Dr Max Hooper (see ‘Hedges and Local History’ 1971), if we count the average number of species, excluding herbs or brambles, in a 30 metre section of hedge, this will give us the approximate date of the hedge in centuries to plus or minus 50 years.  This technique has been shown to be remarkably accurate, using documentary evidence.  Fields with ancient hedges are usually irregular in shape, predating the age of the professional surveyor.  Some local examples can be found between Walcot and Pickworth and Newton and Folkingham.  I have counted up to six species (my botany may not be entirely accurate) in the hedge bordering Getton’s Lane (OS ref 045350): hawthorn, dog rose, guelder rose, field maple, ash and elder and in the hedges on the Folkingham Walcot lane.  Where you find filed maple (acer campestre) the hedges are always more than 400 years old.  Field maple is apparently a very slow coloniser and hedges are a managed linear habitat.

Hedges are thus one of the oldest features of our landscape.  A six hundred year old hedge will have been planted in the decades after the Black Death (1348-9).  No living part of the hedge will be as old as this.  Shrubs die and will be regenerated over the course of time, taking much longer to do so than in the natural landscape.

The Black Death itself was an enormous demographic catastrophe when the population of England fell by more than 30%, a population already weakened by decades of poor harvests, epidemics and very cold winters earlier in the century.  Arable farming rapidly declined and sheep farming boomed, ironically producing much of the wealth of later Medieval England, which refurbished many of our churches.  Many villages disappeared or rapidly declined, hence the names of villages in gothic type on OS maps e.g.Medieval village of West Laughton (site of).   Keisby is a site where the shape of the medieval village has been beautifully preserved (OS ref 036287).  Ploughland was abandoned and medieval ridge and furrow can still be found although most of it has disappeared with modern ploughing.

The shortage of available labour after the Black Death lead to the gradual ending of villeinage and serfdom.  By the middle of the 15th century the English peasant was a free man.

If you walk up the footpath to the south from Greenfields Lane (Os ref 073334) keeping the water tower in view, you cross two sets of ridge and furrow set at right angles to each other.  Other good examples of this are the field at the side of the A15, to the west of Willow Holt, and the field to the south of Gettons Lane in Walcot.  Medieval ridge and furrow has a characteristic curved ‘S’ shape and many modern field boundaries and paths follow this shape.  With a team of oxen it was difficult to plough in a straight line.  Ploughing in an arc made it easier to turn the team around at the headland.  Oxen were still being used well into the 20th century in parts of England.