THE HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH COUNTRYSIDE
As far as our English Landscape is concerned the Roman’s are not very evident since their road system has very often been incorporated (and tarmaced over) into modern roads such as the Fosseway, Icknield Street, and the A5 (Watling Street) their towns have survived but the remains were built over by medieval and later citizens with the exception of protected sites such as Viroconium (Wroxeter) near Shrewsbury and their worked stone was robbed out in antiquity and reused. The Anglo Saxons – be they Saxon, Angle or Jute – did not like Roman remains generally so they deteriorated: the main way the Saxons survive to the present is in some churches (i.e. Kilpeck and Wooten Wawen) but chiefly in the original forms of many place names (a specialised subject in its own right). SAXON Charters for Worcestershire have survived for over 1000 years and we saw a modern map with the Saxon Boundaries for the Manor of Overbury at the foot of Bredon Hill indicated.
After the Norman conquest of 1066 and the introduction of the Feudal/Manorial system we can very often see the evidence in many of today’s towns and villages. Mr Jarman took us to Hawling near Overbury (Worcs’) where the key ingredients of a typical English Village, founded in the medieval period have survived to the present even if, as so often happens, their original function has changed over the years. The Manor House, Parish Church, Rectory and Tithe Barn were situated fairly close together at the nucleus of the village sometimes, but not always, surrounding the Village Green: many village greens have been built over. Hedgerows with trees dividing fields were not a feature of traditional medieval farming and belong to the enclosures of the 17th Century onwards. In medieval times each village was surrounded by 3 large ‘Open Fields’, common meadow and pasture. Each Open field was divided into furlongs (the length of a single furrow that a team of oxen could plough without a break), each furlong was divided into strips held by each villein (villager/peasant) who would have several strips (not always together) in each of the fields. Every year one field was left fallow whilst one of the others would have winter-sown crops and the other spring sown. Every year a ‘management committee’ would control the running of the fields, adjudicate on disputes on strip boundaries (by stone, stake or a pit. At Laxton in Nottinghamshire this system has prevailed to the present day.
Road following the reversed ‘S’ curve of medieval
ploughing probably from a ‘headland to
the right of the picture
Ridge & Furrow extending up a hill to
form Strip Lynchettes – being grazed by sheep
Drove Roads were a later creation when it was the practice to drive heards of cattle or sheep across country; Welsh cattle often travelled from Welshpool to London to become salted beef for Nelson’s navy. These roads are readily identifiable by having wide verges: the ‘Welsh Road’ from Kenilworth to Southam and beyond is an example. Green Roads are as the name suggests are routes that have gone out of use, never been surfaced and used only by walkers and animals: road names such as ‘Green Lane’ may reflect a former condition adapted for 19th/20th Century housing estates. (Books have been written on Drove Roads and Green Roads of Britain – just ‘Google’ Drove Roads……). Salt was an essential commodity in antiquity and many ancient tracks were adapted by the Romans and Saxons and used to transport salt from locations such as Droitwich to towns around the country –usually referred to a Salt ways/roads.
Toll Roads are very much a feature of the 18th Century and came into being because of the appalling state the Kings Highways had become through lack of maintenance and upkeep by the Parishes through which they passed. A group of wealthy citizens (usually local land owners) would obtain an Act of Parliament and pay to have the road improved and surfaced and then charge the users for the privilege of using it. Toll Keeper Houses/Cottages and associated toll gates became a feature of the countryside (an example can be seen at the Avoncroft Museum, Bromsgrove). The same applies to the Canal and Railway Ages with Bridges, Lock Keepers Cottages, Railway Stations and other buildings surviving even if converted to domestic accommodation in a rapidly changing world perhaps changing much more quickly in the last 100 years than the previous 1000!
The Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Reformation in the 16th Century has given us many Romantic Ruins and Stately Homes to visit around the country all formerly owned by ‘the Church’ and many under the care of English Heritage and the National Trust. Not far from Bredon Hill the village of Bredon has one of the best examples of a Great (former monastic) Tithe Barn. Nearer to home the village of Temple Balsall is yet another link with our religious and medieval past while the effects of the Reformation can be seen in the hiding places of Baddesley Clinton House. Near Redditch are the remains of Bordesley Abbey a former Cistercian Monastery whose features are only visible to us these days because of an archaeological programme over many recent decades that make for an interesting walk on a summer afternoon.
Man has always been territorial and ‘property’ markers still exist in the landscape that may have originated in the Bronze Ages. Very often in the form of standing stones deliberately erected or utilised as found on the ground. Mr Jarman showed us the ‘Gilbertstone’ a boulder that marks the division between Yardley and Olton Parishes while (again back) on Bredon Hill we saw the Banbury Stone (known also as the Elephant Stone because viewed from some directions it has the appearance of an Elephant): in the same setting are the King & Queen Stones that many believe have healing powers that will cure your ills (rheumatism) if you can squeeze your body through the gap between them!
Another well documented topic that was mentioned was Folklore and customs many of which survive in our English Villages and countryside. Holy Wells, Morris Dancing and Maypoles (Welford on Avon) Beating the Parish Bounds on Rogation Day for which the Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers are well known; their Horns are said to be Reindeer Antlers and are stored in the local church as they are said to have been for centuries.
Everywhere you go for a walk in the British Isles you are going to come across a feature, place or object that relates to our history or bygone traditions and we are very grateful to Mr Jarman for coming along and sharing just a small part of his extensive knowledge with us; thank you so much John Jarman.
Readers interested in the development of our countryside from the earliest to the latest should read Michael Woods ‘A Story of England’ written to accompany his TV Series shown early in 2011 (a DVD is also available). Although this dealt with Kibworth in Leicestershire the majority of the historic events apply to every village in England.
We are always pleased to welcome guests and visitors at our meetings, the next of which will be on 12th May when the topic will be ‘Birmingham Churches’ presented by Bill Dargue. The following meeting will be 9th June. Meetings are held in the Spencer Lounge Bar at Arden Hall, Water Orton Road at 7.45pm.
NORTH ARDEN LOCAL HISTORY SOCIETY