Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Exciting Adventures with Torf Delving: Part One

What would you do if you happened to be a mediaeval aristocrat whose entire estate consisted of peat marsh and swamp? Well, according to ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’, you’d build a succession of castles on it, in the full knowledge that the one that didn’t sink would be the ‘strongest bloody castle in England’. Monty Python, of course, wasn’t historically accurate, and if we’re being honest here (which we always are) legal documents stretching back centuries from the Fylde and Wyre are littered with accounts of aristocratic landowners spoiling for punch-ups over their much valued bogs and quagmires.
You see peat marshes produced turbaries and the invaluable commodity of, what the locals call, ‘torf’. By way of example as to how treasured these peat marshes were (and this is only one case out of dozens I should point out) in 1254 Roger de Heton (the owner of Bourne Hall) and William le Boteler went head to head over accusations of trespass into Roger’s turbary at Bourne (or Brun as it was known back then), William, allegedly, “…throwing into a pit the turves which Roger had cut and gathered, and also for ill-treating Roger’s men.”
There’s nothing like being kicked in the turbary to make the eyes water, I reckon.

Anyhow, the process of ‘torf’ or ‘turf’ delving continued for centuries, until one epiphany-filled morning the environmentalists’ lobby suddenly realised that, once ‘delved’ the peat couldn’t be replaced, and that entire ecosystems based around bog-dwelling creatures (and we’re not talking about the residents of Pilling specifically here) were being destroyed. Now, understandably, the practice has become a thing of the past.
So, what made torf so valuable then? Well, for centuries it was used as both fuel and animal bedding. Dried into thin blocks torf was excellent for burning (this was before the days of junk mail and central heating you have to remember) and when torn into shreds could be used to insulate animal pens against the winter.
According to old laws every tenant of the moss lands was once allowed to ‘delve’ or ‘dig’ the torf for they own private use, which presumably meant the above referred to activities, and nothing so perverse as has just entered the minds of at least one third of our unsubtle readers.
Okay…what is torf then? Well, torf is naturally produced from partially decomposed vegetable matter (again, if I hear one single comment against the residents of Pilling after I’ve posted this, I’ll be very annoyed) such as sphagnum moss and cotton grass. Sometimes rotted birch and alder trees were added to the mix. After thousands of years spent rotting in the ground the mulched material became compressed forming the peat mosses that thrive around our spongy countryside (and provide the sheep with that jovial looking spring to their step).
Back in the old days, when ‘torf delving’ was still alive and kicking, the torf was carried away from the moss on specially constructed barrows (such as the one illustrated below). These barrows could hold as many as twenty-four torf blocks at a time, or what the ex-‘torf delvers’ we’ve spoken to as part of our research for this article would call a “buggerin’ massive weight!”

Crossing the mosses was a wet and dangerous business, similar in many respects to pogo-sticking through blancmange. To make the going easier the ‘torf delvers’ would wear pattens (see the illustration below) on their feet. (Well, they’d look bloody stupid walking on their hands, wouldn’t they?)

Pattens were constructed from the top bits off old clogs, stripped down to form spats, which were then fastened to flat boards. These simple (and frankly ridiculous looking) devices acted in much the same manner as ski-shoes, spreading the weight of the body over a much wider surface and preventing the wearer from inevitably sinking.
If it was difficult for the ‘delvers’ to cross the moss then it was even trickier for the horses to pull the torf carts.

Horses were heavier than people (well, heavier than most of them anyway) and far more liable to get bogged down in the soft ground, so they were given their own form of pattens (as can be seen above) to be worn over their rear hooves. Their front hooves, of course, were left uncovered otherwise there’d have been a lot of equines wearing frightened toothy expressions skidding about all over the place.
Right…that’s enough for one article. And before you start complaining that you’ve heard enough about peat bogs now, just remember we went to a lot of trouble to research and illustrate this rubbish for you. So if you know what’s good for you, you’ll come back in a few days time for some more educational punishment.


RVB said...

Peat bogs sound frankly amazing. I'd love to live in castle when my peasants had to wear such comical shoes.

Ann oDyne said...

and all this time I had thought Torf Delving was the little-known but highly significant 5th member of ABBA.

and RVB should take care his wish is never granted. The Peasant catch 'im larfing at 'em, they piss in 'is soup man.

This Comment is dedicated to The Tolpuddle Martyrs.

RVB said...

I never take care, Ann...always hashish.

shirley said...

Brian my grandfather did a story called the 'Turf Cutter's Sweetheart'

will post pic of gravestone in Fleetwood to you for putting up.

Brian Hughes said...


They'd be brogues you're talking about.


I always thought Torf Delving was a character out of the Moomins.


Cheers muchly. I'll go and post it over at the forum in a minute.

RVB said...


By the way, Robbert has returned on my blog...or so I'm led to believe.

Brian Hughes said...


By the looks of things it's too articulate for Robbert. And not quite camp enough.

John said...

Without Delving too much into it, i suppose it pays to be a Torf Accountant, then, wot? (Notice the puns)

The woodcut is too cool... do you know what it's really about? Did Medieval gentry have the ability to raise the dead for their own amusement? THAT would be an interesting post.

Still, let's not get Bogged down in side tracking, for Peats sake.

Although I do see a certain Patten developing here...

Okay, I'm leaving, JOHN :0)

Brian Hughes said...


Don't use all the puns up too soon...there's another two parts to the article yet.

I suspect that woodcut's actually some mediaeval visual metaphor for the 'spectre at the feast' or 'death is no respector of wealth' or something. Then again it might be Henry VIII and Ann Bolyen visiting Catherine of Aragon...I can't remember where I found it now.

John said...

A 3 Part article about turf... man, you do lead an exciting life, don't you? :0)

I just hope there's some history in that there peat, and that the cult of the severed head gets a mention in here somewhere.

As for puns, don't stop me now! I'm on a Bog roll...

Oh, somebody stop me! JOHN :0)

Brian Hughes said...


I'm forced to agree with you. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Now it's everybody else's turn to suffer, I'm afraid.

See you all in three weeks time folks.

Andrew said...

So you dig this peat stuff up, put it in front of a peat fuelled fire to dry it out, then you can use it as fuel for your fire. Something does not sound right here but I can't quite put my finger on it. Was the work sustainability around back then?

Where are you going for three weeks? Sunshine in Costa del Fish 'n' Chips?

Brian Hughes said...

Andrew...not quite. We'll be getting on to the drying techniques in due course, you'll be glad to hear.

"Where are you going for three weeks?"

I'm not going anywhere. I just suspect everyone will be until the torf delving trilogy is over.

John said...


I apologize for my levity. Mediaevil History isn't my strong point, but considering my family came from the UK, chances are some of them had to deal with peat. (Actually, I had an Uncle Pete, but that's different.)

I anxiously await your next installment of the history of rotten plant material and it's many uses. Seriously.

Seeing how people lived then certainly makes one look at the current state of things with a lighter eye.

Cheers, JOHN :0)

Brian Hughes said...


No need to apologise. It is a bit of a dull subject (well acvtually it's an extremely dull subject) unless you're an ex-torf delver, of course...way too dull for a three parter really. One of these days I really will have to look into the much negelected art of editing...or at least being a bit more selective.

Jayne said...

I have a picha postcard wot got Irish turf/peat cutters on it somewhere.
With all the pagan sacrifices and delving I'm surprised there weren't more bog bodies uncovered....or perhaps they were and they became fuel for the fire/pyre, too ?

Brian Hughes said...


There have been a couple of Bronze Age skulls come out of the peat round these parts. Only for reasons best left to the drunken fugue I was undergoing when I wrote this, I forget to mention them. Another posting perhaps...