Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Mediaeval Agriculture on the Fleetwood Peninsula

Hold on! Don’t click that ‘Back Button’ on your browser yet! This article might be more interesting than the title suggests. Probably not, but some of us have gone to a lot of trouble researching this (well…all right, Michelle found a couple of books about mediaeval ploughing in the library, but that’s close enough), so the least you could do is give it a shot.
Now then, there are tons of local historians around the Fylde and Wyre – probably -- and the one thing on which most of them agree (when they’re not arguing about underwater Roman cities or whether the Danes Pad ever existed or not) is that Fleetwood Peninsula was nothing but boggy old salt marsh until the Normans invaded, at which point it became one vast rabbit warren sporting nothing but bunnies, sand and grass.

Okay, when I say ‘most of them’, perhaps that should read ‘some of them’…a few of them, at any rate. Look, in some of the books we’ve read one or two of the authors like to perpetuate this myth, and it goes without saying that they’re dead wrong.

Want proof? Take a look at this:

That’s Rossall School, that is. Frank Smith (Wyre Archaeology Aerial Reconnaissance Officer) likes nothing more than to get up there amongst the seagulls (one of these days I’m going to lend him my old man’s twelve bore so that he can dispose of a few of the noisy sods whilst he’s at it) and photograph our local landscape from unusual angles. When the sun is right and the conditions just perfect it’s amazing what details such photographs yield that can’t be seen from the ground. Take those plough lines, for example, running beneath the rugby pitches. They’re mediaeval, they are. How do we know? Because we’re archaeologists that how! And besides, they’re a lot wider and thicker than modern plough lines.

It used to be said back in Tudor times that the Fylde was the ‘Cornfield of Amounderness’, which really doesn’t make a lot of sense to be honest, because Amounderness and the Fylde are pretty much the same place, it’s just that one’s the Norse name for the area and the other’s Saxon. What they probably meant to report was that ‘the Fylde was the Cornfield of Lancashire’. Either way, it doesn’t exactly square up to our modern historians’…all right, fair enough, ‘some of our modern historians’’… point of view that the Fylde was a despotic, isolated dump infested with amphibious lupine. “Far too quaggy for crops,” “The soil being too poor for anything better than cress,” and even (amongst the more elitist, verbose type of antiquarian), “The acidic degenerative disposition of the loam would have proved inadequate for crop sustainability,” are all accusations levelled at our desolate spit of land.
Okay...the types of accusations levelled at our desolate spit of land then.

Well, perhaps the authors of such works could explain this to me then:

That’s Bourne Hill, quite possibly the marshiest, boggiest, most undesirable spot on the peninsula (at least it is round the base), surrounded in years gone by, according to those ‘in the know’, by the sort of land that sucks off your wellies and, should you hang around for long enough, your toupee as well.

But what are those? Mediaeval plough lines again? Surely not? And underneath the playing field too, exactly where they oughtn’t be…

However, it’s hard to deny that the plough lines are there, and that lazy backwards ‘S’ denoting the dyke, well, that’s typical of the headlands created by mediaeval ploughing that is.

But it doesn’t stop there. Here’s a photograph of Hackensall on the opposite bank of the river to Fleetwood:

Yes, the more observant amongst you are way ahead of us now. The plough lines are there again, and no they’re not modern; they’re underneath the golf course! In fact, if you look closely you’ll be able to see centuries of different ploughing techniques etched into the landscape, criss-crossing each other with casual disregard for their own ancestry.

The story’s pretty much the same wherever we look, from the salt marshes of Stalmine to the bad lands of Starr Gate; mediaeval ploughing, meaning mediaeval crops. That probably explains the number of windmills in the district, something our select group of modern antiquarians appear to have overlooked. After all, it’s a bit daft having upwards of forty-odd windmills in a country barren of corn.

When you stop and think about it, the mediaeval documents in the Lancashire Records Office are always going on about ‘plough lands’ and ‘half plough lands’ too – they must have been the mediaeval equivalent of pork bellies then, if there was no arable land in the area.

And, of course, there’s the ancient celebration of Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night, for which annual event our local farmhands dressed up as sword dancers, old women or animals, and travelled from village to village demanding ‘Ale Money’, ploughing up the doorsteps of those too skinflint to oblige. Where did they find the plough if there wasn’t any agriculture?

It makes you wonder where this idea of an infertile waste ground originates really. It’s amazing what notions can sometimes lodge themselves in local historians’ minds despite the vast amount of evidence to the contrary.

One last photograph for now, this one showing the view towards Knott End. Score five points for each ploughed mediaeval field you can spot and the first person to reach 1,000 can treat themselves to the privilege of buying a Harris & Hughes history book.


Anonymous said...

The lines on the Rossall photo, at least, look more like tile drainage to me.

Brian Hughes said...

Drainage on a level playing field? It's an interesting idea. If the school ever gives us permission to dig their rugby pitches up we'll be able to check...although somehow I suspect the board of govenors wouldn't be too chuffed with the suggestion.

Andrew said...

In the second last picture, the really obvious lines aren't what you are talking about are they?

Brian Hughes said...


No...they're more relatively modern ploughlines I suspect. The mediaeval ones are visble through them running at different angle.

John said...

I win! I topped 1000 points easy!

Very nice article, and great argument, that, mentioning the mills and stuff as support to your theory. Good point.

Whilst travelling from Avebury to Bath once, I snapped a photo of a terraced hillside which was mediaeval in nature, and we were told that in those days every bit of land was plowed and planted to support the population in those days. Even if the Wyre is/was a bit boggy, I'm sure many an agricultural technique was developed in that time to assure plenty of food for those who could afford it.

My mediaeval history is rusty right now, so maybe you could tell us why so much food was needed in that time period?

Cheers, JOHN :0)

Brian Hughes said...


Now that I come to look again (with a couple of strong coffees inside me) you might well have a point about that drainage system. I remember writing a board on the subject of field drains for the museum a couple of years back (which I'd forgotten about), and those lines do have certain herring bone layout to them. There are a few fainter lines underneath, though, and further up Rossall Lane in the field next to the car park at Farmer Parrs, there are some very distinctive mediaeval plough lines. (You can see them clearly at ground level...worth taking a gander at if you're into that sort of thing.) But you've got a good point about the Rossall School photograph.


"...maybe you could tell us why so much food was needed in that time period?"

Possibly because mediaeval fridges were no good. To be honest, I've never thought about it. Peaants seldom ate meat, I know that, so maybe there was a need to bulk up with lots of corn and stuff instead. Nowadays, of course, most of our vegetable crops are grown elsewhere in Europe. Britain's more independent status back then was probably connected to the amount of home grown food as well.

Jayne said...

I reckon they were in greater numbers than historians give them credit for.
Travel (of any distance) was unheard of,dangerous and Just.Not.Done.
They'd have just kept on marrying and breeding, in the one spot, increasing in number the mouths to be fed.

Jayne said...

Meant to add -
Owing to the gardening/agricultural rhyme
"One for the cutworm
One for the crow,
One to rot
and one to grow"
leads one to assume they had a high rate of crop failure and were sowing at least 4 times as much as they needed to assure harvest.

Brian Hughes said...


I've never heard of that rhyme. I do know that mediaeval farming was based on crop rotation, leaving one out of every four fields fallow (or something...I think it was one in four but I could be wrong...I'd need to ask Michelle really) to allow for the reintroduction of essential nutrients to the soil. The Anglo Saxon Chronicles also catalogue the number of droughts and fires and crop plagues etc that swept through Blighty in the early mediaeval period, far, far worse than you'd get today. So much for global warming.

Jayne said...

Yep, the 1 in 4 fallow field rotation was to also stop any bacteria/virus' building up in the soil from the same crop time after time.
There's a few different variations of that rhyme floating about but I first heard it from your favourite - Alan Titmarsh on one of his gardening specials :P

Brian Hughes said...

Ah...old Mr Titmarsh. What was that other rhyme of his?

'Decking for the patio,
And all the other bits,
And some for Charlie Dimmock,
As a scaffold for her sweet peas.'

At least I think that's how it went.

chris2553 said...

The version I heard ended with...

"As a scaffold for her melons."

Brian Hughes said...


fnargh fnargh!

I can't believe this. WV = Baygm! How Lancastrian is that?

John said...

Maybe a dumb question, but how do you know you're not looking at trails left by lawnmowers? I mean, I understand these type of sites are visible from the air, but if these furrows and stuff are casting shadows, how can footballers run on these fields without tripping every other step?

Maybe some grounsd photos to accompany these fantastic aerial photos would give a second perspective?

Thanks in advance, JOHN :0)

Brian Hughes said...


They're not created by lawnmowers because...well...Bourne Hill isn't the sort of place you would, or even could, mow with a lawnmower. (And besides, we were up there a couple of days before and after Frank took the photos, and nobody had attempted to mow the hill in the interim.)

The same applies to agricultural fields...people just wouldn't mow areas like that.

As far as Bourne Hill goes, you can actually see the faint undulations of the mediaeval ploughlines at ground level in the right light and so long as you know what you're looking for. We'd never noticed them before last week, because we didn't know they were there. It's a bit like one of those double-image visual puzzle things where you can only see the answer once you've been informed about it.