The Last Open-field Farming in Notts

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'The Last Open-field Farming in Notts' page
Photo: Illustrative image for the 'The Last Open-field Farming in Notts' page

A report on the rural organization of the village of Laxton, as outlined by a leading farmer


Farmer Stuart Rose, a lifelong resident of Laxton village, gave an account of how the open field system of farming, which originated in England during the Middle Ages, has survived in Laxton amidst the more modern system of farm enclosures.

Mr. Rose, who holds the office of Clerk to the Gaits and Commons (see later explanation), reminded his audience that, no matter what the legal rights may be, discretion as to the choice of farming-methods is qualified by the type of soil of the area; Laxton was built on heavy clay. Nevertheless, there is scope for choice. The population has opted to maintain tradition, and this is reflected in, amongst other things, the open field system, the structure and tools of the farms, and the popular culture.

The open field system, the speaker said, was once prevalent across most of eastern England and in Europe. Much of Lincolnshire still bears index to its existence, but only in Laxton can it be seen as a working-model. Summarily, the entire farmland of the village would be divided into three fields, of which the resident lord of the manor would hold the rights of ownership; although he, under the feudal system of government, would have been granted these rights by the king, who headed the apex of power. The fields had no hedges or other marked boundaries, but were divided into strips. Each strip was one furrow long, and these would be ploughed in different directions, in order to distribute fair shares of soil quality as well as to accommodate the physical lie of the land. Strips were separated by gaits, or narrow tracks of unused land. Farm-labourers were responsible to the lord; they depended on him for their livelihood and that of their families, in return for day-to-day work on the land. Each farmer was allocated ten strips, and these would be spaced singly across all three fields. There was no discretion as to the choice of crops. In one field grew wheat. In the second grew winter crops or another cereal, such as barley. The third field lay fallow, or unfarmed, for one year, in order to allow the soil to regain its goodness after the previous year's growth. Each year, the use of the fields was rotated by one place in the cycle. By the fourth year, the cycle could begin again. Farm-labourers also held certain other rights, such as the use of common land for grazing pastoral animals (later called gaitrights) and, historically for the provision of wood for household fuel; this was a ‘peasant’ population with no alternative income.

Elsewhere, the reorganization of farming into enclosed fields gave the farmer, as landowner, the rights of jurisdiction as to crops and techniques. Enclosure began in England during the early eighteenth century, in what became known as the Agricultural Revolution, and was ratified by the 1845 Enclosures Act. The new system was commonplace by the reign of Queen Victoria. There must have been a question-mark over the future of Laxton. The only change that had happened was the fact that, since the seventeenth century, there was no longer a resident lord of the manor. Popular opinion favoured retaining the traditional system, a decision that was confirmed in 1952 by a government preservation order. In the 1980s, ownership of Laxton passed to the Crown Estates for £2,000,000. This involved 2,000 acres, fourteen farms, eight cottages and one public house.

The 1665 map of Laxton, extending into Kneesall, reveals that the system of farming by strips has been scaled-down by the present day and more extensive acreages are now farmed on the outer edges of the Laxton fields. However, the principles of the open field system have not altered. Today, there are some 2,200 strips, still allocated to each farmworker on a scattered basis. More current maps mark each strip by name. This ensures equality of good and bad land in terms of distribution; essentially this is a community system. Ploughing is done by traditional equipment; grassy areas of poor soil, of varying widths, known as sykes, are left unworked at the edge of strips and marked out by boundary posts that are rigidly enforced. These not only enable movement by any farmer amongst his strips; they also enable his plough to be turned for travelling-purposes. The ploughing of one acre involves an overall walk of eleven miles around the estates! Additionally, some 85 acres of sykes are unploughed as the land is of special scientific or conservational interest. Sykes grass obviously creates interest, as it is auctioned at a levy of £2 per sale, payable on the shortest day of the year, 21st December.

The fields are named on the successive maps as as West Field, Mill Field (harking back to heritage architecture, the village mill damaged in the storms of 1967), and South Field. Wheat is still grown and a fallow field is observed. The crops in the final field have been subject to some change, currently consisting of winter cereal. Spring beans and other leguminous crops have been chosen in their time. No root crops are grown. The three-year rotation is observed rigidly.

Observation of regulations pertaining to the open field system is thoroughly monitored, by means of its own locally-appointed jury. Annually, on the last Thursday of November, the farming-lands are inspected, and new marker-pegs inserted where strips meet sykes.. After one week, the jury must prepare a presentment paper for the leat court or manorial court. The court meets to follow a prescribed agenda, beginning with the oath of homage before proceeding to the swearing-in of a new jury for the forthcoming year, presentment of the prepared paper, and decisions taken as to fines that are deemed necessary for any contempt of the legal boundaries or other breach of community-conduct.. The court officials include a solicitor, a bailiff (who chairs the court meeting), a foreman and a steward. The last-named has ultimate responsibility to decide procedure. Then the court will be closed, but a general discussion usually follows concerning forthcoming matters. The manorial court has the prerogative to fine offending farmers without reference to any other legal body. The system is characterized by its legal terminology and propriety.

The speaker then proceeded to supplement his talk by means of a 1933 monochrome film. Entitled Mediæval village, this was made by H. L. Beales and R.S. Lambert. It should be noted that the open field system log predates the county's local hero, Robin Hood! Laxton is shown in its seventeenth-century setting with manor-house (the residence of the Lord of the Manor), and village church. Once there was also Laxton Castle, but this had gone by the aforementioned century. No defensive structure was needed here, even in the days of the English Civil War. West Wood Common was marked on the map as a location for the farming-community to graze cattle. Today, though, this area is intersected by a highway, bringing all the modern hazards of traffic nuisance. It is the task of the local pinder to round up stray cattle, for there are no gates to keep them within their boundaries, partly owing to intolerant motorists!

Laxton has survived the years, nay, the centuries, amidst an aura of changelessness elsewhere. Only individual faces have come and gone. Tombs in Laxton Church bear witness to the continuity of great family lines. The church itself was restructured in 1860, although the original chancel has been retained. Cottage-homes bordering on the street were built in the space-saving manner, with the gable-ends outermost. Each boasts its date of origin etched into blue bricks. Original walls of sedimentary rocks earmark road-boundaries with farms, for it is the latter that line the lanes of the village. Laxton is very much a rustic community, where even shops or schools are marked by their absence, necessitating neighbouring facilities to provide accordingly.

© Roger Peacock for NALHS: 15 th November 2012

This page was added by ROGER PEACOCK on 06/02/2013.

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