Brian Spencer travels to the highest point in Nottinghamshire to explore a still operating medieval farming system.
If there really had been a man called Robin Hood and, if he came back today, he would easily recognise the field pattern around the village of Laxton. Not only that, he would also have in his vocabulary, words that are still in use: words like ‘toft’, a homestead, ‘gate’ a road, or ‘flatts’ and ‘wong’, fields and meadows, or ‘sykes’, the grassy strips connecting them, all came from the language of the Norsemen who first settled in the Midlands.
Laxton is the last farming village in England where ancient custom of strip, also known as open field farming is practiced. Basically the land surrounding the village is split into three huge open fields, the remainders of four original fields that are shared on an annual basis amongst the farms, sitting comfortably beside the two roads connecting Laxton to the modern world.
Today the fields are much smaller than they were when William the Conqueror’s Domesday scribes recorded that Laxintune had land for 12 ploughs and was then worth 6 pounds. With an adult male population of around thirty-five, there would have been a total of around 110 people living in the village, in timber framed mud walled and thatched roofed homes scattered mostly along the street running south from the modern Dovecote Inn. They, like present day farmers lived at a distance from the land they worked, sheltered by a low ridge from cold north winds. Overlooking the village to its north was a sturdy motte and bailey castle at the highest point in Nottinghamshire. It was built on its original turf embankments and had timber palisaded walls. Even though it was important enough to provide shelter for the likes of Henry II and Edward I on their royal progressions north, the castle was never strengthened by stone walls. As a result all that can be seen are low mounds overgrown by trees and bushes.
Open field farming was practiced throughout the Midlands and much of northern Europe during the Middle Ages and only began to disappear when fields were enclosed and parcelled out around the nineteenth century. Open field farming is even thought to have been practiced in a small way as far back as the seventh century. Basically the system of open field, or strip farming, is to have three or maybe four massive fields where recognised farmers had the right to cultivate individual strips within the communal land. In Laxton, the ‘fields’ are known respectively as South, West and Mill, there was an East Field, but it is now taken out of the system and enclosed, as are fields all over the rest of Britain. Each ‘field’ is, in rotation given over to three types of crop – winter wheat in year one, spring crops such as barley or peas in year two; in year three the land is rested and left fallow, allowing animals to graze on the new grass. ‘Fields’ are reached by ‘sykes’, grassy strips leading from the village. The sykes are all fairly wide in token of the ancient method of ploughing by oxen, which needed a wider turning space than modern tractor pulled methods.
As each farmer is duty bound only to plough his designated portion of the ‘field’, a Court Leet overseen by a jury of local farmers is appointed to ensure that all is as it should be and no one has ploughed their authorised strips beyond his approved section of the field, or cut into the grassy syke. Usually the jury inspect the fields by the end of November when ploughing has finished. The Court Leet, one of the most ancient courts in the land, then meets in the Dovecote Inn to adjudicate on the jury’s findings. Mainly this follows medieval precedent in order to ensure that the right crops have been sown and boundaries adhered to. They must also ensure that the fallow field has been left to rest and also make sure that ditches (‘dykes’) are kept free of debris, although modern field drains are now more common. As none of the fields is enclosed, their boundaries and the edges of roads are marked by stakes fixed by jurymen. As most of the running of farms within the strip field system is done by farmers who have to live alongside their neighbours, offences tend to be technical rather than deliberate: in any case the fines are purely nominal, often as little as two old pennies. While the Court Leet carries out its obligations towards the end of the calendar year, the actual farming year end is late June, when nature’s produce is harvested.
In earlier times farmers would only have enough animals, cows, sheep and pigs, mostly for their families’ own use, although a few beasts would be sold to butchers in the nearby towns. These animals would be allowed to graze on common land, or in the fallow field. Acorns and other woodland produce would be collected to fatten pigs. Nowadays there are more cattle and they are grazed on enclosed sections of common land, much of it to the east of Laxton.
One of the officials still appointed by the court, is the pinder. It is (or was), this person’s job to round up stray unmarked animals and hold them in an enclosure until collected by their rightful owner. This enclosure was called a ‘pinfold’ and in Laxton it now stands near the Dovecote Inn where it is used as an open air classroom for visiting school children.
The size of the ‘fields’ has shrunk radically since they were mapped in 1635 at the height of their importance. At that time there were 2,280 strips on a total of 1,894 acres. Today there are only 164 strips on 483 acres of land. What is left is a microcosm of an ancient method of farming that has remained unchanged since the earliest recorded times or even longer. Due to the relinquishing of ownership by long standing landlords, several of the farms are now owned by the Crown, a factor that could well ensure the continuation of this link with bygone Britain.
There is a small, but well displayed information centre in one of the old stables next to the Dovecote Inn at the heart of Laxton. Lilac Farm on the Ollerton Road out to the west of the village also has a collection of vintage farming equipment amassed by the late Reginald Rose; the farm also provides bed and breakfast accommodation.
Laxton’s ancient open field strip system can be seen at any time, but late November and early December is when the Court Leet jury inspects the ‘fields’ preceding the court’s deliberations in the Dovecote Inn.
For more information read John Becket’s ‘A History of Laxton: England’s Last Open Field Village. The trustees of the Laxton Visitor Centre have also published a short booklet entitled ‘Laxton’, a comprehensive history of the village and its unique farming system.
Also check Nottinghamshire’ web site: www.nottscc.gov.uk/tourism