A Green and Pleasant Land - Part 2

Italian influences...
Much of pre-Roman Britain was composed of an 'open field' system of agriculture; each field being unenclosed and subdivided among farmers, rather than being cultivated in 'common'. Fields were often square in shape, and in upland areas the boundaries sometimes became, or were, banked up with earth [a lynchet enclosure].

When the Romans appeared so, too, did new forms of farmstead: - the almost self-sufficient villa type [villa being the latin word for a country-house or farm], and holdings awarded to loyal army veterans who stuck it out in Britain's rainy landscape. The invaders brought with them unknown animals and plants, while importing exotic goods such as olives (as archaeological evidence shows in places like Roman York). Among the plants believed to have been brought to Britain by the Romans are parsley, alexanders, cabbages, walnuts, vines and roses.

The Roman's brought 'a new degree of planning' to their agricultural endeavours (well usually), and we began to see field systems that included more rectangular shapes. And being rather disciplined people they frequently laid out fields on a grid system with lanes for access.

After several hundred years Rome's influence waned, to be replaced by new incomers - the Anglo-Saxons and Danes. To an Anglo-Saxon mind the word 'field' meant a piece of 'open country', which they had cleared of its trees by axe or fire. Indeed, the name of the Essex town of Brentwood means burnt wood.

Like place names [see our on-line Place Names article], much of what we can learn about Britain's landscape is to be found in field names; the name given to a field frequently identifying an ancient or early land usage or condition of the land. 'Iron acre' might indicate a place of iron ore extraction or manufacture, for example, and 'breck' cultivated soil.

Anglo-Saxon settlements were sometimes centered round a village green [although there are examples 'greens' even before the Romans arrived], or strung along an old road. However, the one common feature of all Anglo-Saxon communities was that they arranged their land usage communally. The arable fields were large open spaces and were divided into strips (ridge and furrow), with common grazing land and common woodland for other uses. The Anglo-Saxons also developed the 'three field system' - wheat, barley, fallow - of crop rotation. They also drained Suffolk's fenland area for arable farming - a legacy which enabled farmers in the middle-ages to graze the sheep that gave rise to the prosperous, wealth creating wool trade in the Suffolk area. Although it should be noted that the Romans had carried out some drainage during their stay.

As mentioned, lowland open fields in Anglo-Saxon times were divided into half to one acre strips and separated by gullies or trenches which gave the landscape a 'ridge and furrow' appearance. These strips (called selions), were usually bundled together in 'furlongs' and each strip was cultivated by a single farmer.

Determining the exact size of a farmers 'strip' was an inexact science since a furlong (a furrow's length) was measured as the distance a plough team could pull before they ran out of puff and came to a standstill - before being turned by the farmer to plough the return furrow - while an acre was the amount of land which could be ploughed in a single day by a plough team of oxen. However, the amount of work able to be done by the plough team was obviously dependent upon the nature of the soil - whether it was stony, loam, or clay based.


If you're one of the frequent visitors directed to this section by a search engine when looking for a history of the British countryside, take a moment to look around the rest of the website. We also have a piece on Britain's place names within the 'Places to Visit' section.

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