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Maelor Saesneg Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

Maelor Saesneg

The Agricultural Landscape

Agriculture and landuse

The predominant land use of Maelor Saesneg at the present day is largely pastoral, though in recent years there has been a greater emphasis on arable farming in the eastern part of the area, resulting in some loss of boundaries to create larger fields. The sources of evidence for the past history of agriculture and land use history of Maelor Saesneg are many and varied and include settlement history, field shapes and sizes, the incidence of ridge and furrow and marl pits (two particularly distinctive features of the Maelor Saesneg landscape), the presence of drainage ditches and dykes, and the distribution of woodland. These are further supplemented by pollen evidence, the evidence from documentary sources, place-names and field-names, and the different types of agricultural building which are present.

The topography and soils of many areas has enabled them to be adaptable to either arable or pastoral agriculture, and it is clear that in the past there have been a number of distinct changes from one regime to the other, and that arable farming was once much more extensive. In other areas the land-use potential has always been much more restricted, such as the mosses in the south-eastern part of the area, the steeply wooded river and stream slopes particularly along the northern and south-western boundaries, and the wet meadow lands bordering the Dee.

The present-day field patterns are very much a palimpsest representing a complex pattern of development over many centuries, with different types of fields clearly indicating a number of distinct processes. Patterns of large and small irregular fields, frequently associated with dispersed farms, are characteristic of pioneering settlements or piecemeal clearance and enclosure of woodland and heath, from early medieval times. Groups of strip fields, some forming quite extensive systems and others relatively small and isolated, represent former open fields once associated with medieval manorial systems. The large and often irregular fields bounding the Dee in many instances represent probably represent enclosure of former areas of former common meadow. Areas of large or small straight-sided fields may represent relatively late enclosure of former heathland commons or mosses, land improvement schemes, or in some cases the conversion of former parkland.

Early agriculture

Little direct evidence has yet been found for early land use in the area, though as might be expected, pollen evidence provides some evidence for a general sequence involving woodland clearance possibly in the later prehistoric and Roman periods and the subsequent creation of grassland and woodland environments, but lacks chronological precision. The general scarcity of early settlement evidence perhaps suggests that agriculture was restricted to relatively discrete areas cleared of woodland, though it is possible that the intensive exploitation of the landscape in the medieval and later periods has blanketed out the evidence of early settlement and land use.

Early medieval land use

The earliest reference to land use in Maelor Saesneg is given by Bede, who observed that the monks belonging to the early 7th-century British monastic community at Bangor Is-y-coed ‘used to live by the labour of their own hands’. Although the size of this self-sufficient community is open to question, it may possibly have run into hundreds, who presumably worked the lands with which it was endowed, though no further evidence of the nature or extent of this agricultural activity is forthcoming.

As noted above, Anglo-Saxon place-name evidence of perhaps the 8th to 10th century, the Domesday survey of the late 11th century, and other documentary evidence of the late 13th century, all appear to indicate the survival of perhaps relatively extensive areas of woodland in the area up until at least the early Middle Ages. No evidence non-ecclesiastical British settlements contemporary with the monastery at Bangor Is-y-coed has yet been revealed, though it is probable that a number of small, scattered agricultural settlements had already emerged by the early medieval period though the virtual absence of demonstrably early Welsh place-names in the area other than Bangor itself is unhelpful.

A more certain picture of the nature and extent of early medieval settlement emerges from the study of place-names with Anglo-Saxon elements, probably dating to the 8th to 10th centuries, which as we have seen above include Bronington, Broughton, Gredington, Halghton, Knolton, Overton, Tybroughton, Willington, Wallington and Worthenbury, each of which probably formed the focus of an farming community. Of these settlements, however, only Overton and possibly Worthenbury were to develop into any size during the Middle Ages, and it seems probable that at this early period each of them represented no more than a cluster of farmsteads with their associated fields with wooded areas of varying extent between. Indeed, it is probable that by this date that complex patterns of land use were already emerging between those lands more suited to ploughing, those more suited to summer or winter grazing, and the more intractable land that would remain as woodland, heath or mire.

Agriculture at the time of the Norman Conquest

A clearer picture of the agricultural exploitation of the area emerges from the Domesday survey of 1086, compiled by the Norman king, William I. The survey clearly points to the existence of multiple agricultural estates covering a compact block of Maelor Saesneg well before the Norman conquest of 1066, divided between the church and Edwin, the Saxon earl of Mercia, comprising manors at Worthenbury, Bettisfield, and Iscoyd, and possibly taken over with a minimum of disruption by their Norman successors, presumably alongside other extensive pre-existing holdings not recorded in Domesday. The three manors at Bettisfield (Bedesfeld), Iscoyd (Burwardestone) and Worthenbury (Hurdingberie) which had land for 8, 14 and 10 plough-teams respectively, each plough-team (caruca) representing up to perhaps about (40 hectares) 100 acres of plough land, which in the case of the Worthenbury, for example, suggests that between 30–50 per cent of the extent of the manor was cultivated at that time. It is surprising that so little meadow land is mentioned in Maelor Saesneg at this time — only half an acre at Bettisfield and a single acre at Worthenbury — which seems likely to be a gross under-representation. Each of the three recorded manors in Maelor Saesneg is said to have been ‘wasted’ at the time of the Norman Conquest, possibly as a consequence of the kind of punitive devastation known to have been meted out Cheshire and the northern borderland during the conquest period. The effect was probably fairly short-lived, however, since the manors were evidently being brought back into good heart by the latter years of the 11th century, when the Domesday survey was compiled.

The lack of reference in the Domesday survey to estates in other remaining areas of Maelor Saesneg does not necessarily imply that they were all composed of forest or waste at this time, since in some instances these lands may have been included in other estates, though the absence of named estates in the central part of the area, suggests that the extensively cultivated areas, characterized by ridge and furrow field systems dating from the Middle Ages onwards, were a later development, and that cultivation in these areas were perhaps limited to the small foci of settlement suggested by Anglo-Saxon place-name evidence.

Agricultural expansion following the Edwardian conquest

Little or no archaeological or documentary evidence for medieval agriculture in the Maelor Saesneg is yet apparent for the period of two hundred years between the Domesday survey of the later 11th century and later 13th century. A new and distinct landscape had evidently emerged in many parts of the area by this date, however, dominated, as we have seen above, by moated sites and extensive open fields, and possibly representing an expansion of farming in the area in the wake of the Edwardian conquest, shortly after 1284.

Lands confiscated from supporters of the deposed Welsh princes were granted to incoming English settlers, who appear to have replaced pre-existing forms of land tenure and management with a system of open field manors based on a familiar English model. Other opportunities were taken for agricultural expansion following the conquest are documented which involved the local Welsh population being deprived of their customary rights to pasture and forest, directly following the Edwardian settlement, sometimes quite illegally. The granting of permission by Edward for felling possibly a substantial swathe of woodland from the pass at Redbrook for strategic purposes in the 1280s is mentioned above, and there are other instances where it was alleged that when king had ordered the widening of roads, Queen Eleanor’s bailiff had gone to excessive lengths clearing large tracts of land, turning it into arable, even where the queen had no rights to the area.

As noted above, the distribution of moated sites in Maelor Saesneg appears to confirm the suggestion that they represent a pioneering phase of expansion during the later 13th and 14th centuries — seemingly being intimately associated with ridge and furrow systems of probable medieval origin as well as avoiding pre-existing nucleated settlements suggested by place-name evidence — possibly created from former areas of pasture and forest. Part of the incentive for this expansion initially came from a desire to enhancing the revenues from the crown lands in Wales, assisted by the opening up of new markets such as that established at Overton.

Open arable fields and ridge and furrow

Though little early documentary evidence has survived relating to manorial systems of agriculture and land use in Maelor Saesneg, some evidence of medieval open fields associated with moated manorial centres is provided by the widespread survivial of ridge and furrow as well as by distinctive patterns of strip fields visible in the modern landscape and on earlier maps, much of which has yet to be studied in detail. Some ridge and furrow, including some of the narrower ridging, is undoubtedly late and perhaps unrelated to open field cultivation, though it seems a reasonable assumption from documentary sources, context and form that the broad pattern of ridge and furrow originated during the medieval period representing open field arable associated with medieval manors, perhaps in a different form to the classic form that developed in the English Midlands.

Though probably not all of medieval date distribution of ridge and furrow in Maelor Saesneg is an indicator of the extent of arable cultivation that had evolved by the later medieval period, generally avoiding less fertile ground, the steeper stream and river slopes and land liable to flooding. About 1,995 hectares (4,929 acres) of ridge and furrow have so far been identified in Maelor Saesneg by aerial photography and field survey, particularly in the western part of the area, representing just under 17 per cent of the total area. A much higher proportion is evident in communities such as Willington Worthenbury and the western part of Maelor South where it where it reaches 40 per cent of the area, though in other communities such as the northern part of Bronington it occurs in smaller discrete systems.

This compares with certain classic areas of ridge and furrow in the Midlands where up to 90 per cent of some township areas was down to arable, though in parts of western Cheshire figures of 75 per cent are considered to be more typical. As in the extensive field systems of the Midlands, the ridges in Maelor Saesneg primarily represent a tenurial arrangement whereby intermixed holdings of small strips were dispersed in an open field. Here, as elsewhere, the ridges were generally aligned downhill, running across the contours, the furrows between the ridges acting as drains as well as providing boundaries between the strips, the ridges being created over the course of time by soil being consistently turned inwards by the plough. In the open field system characteristic of the Midlands the ridges, also known as ‘lands’, were grouped into furlongs which were themselves grouped into fields, of which there would typically be three which formed the basis of a rotational system designed to ensure continuing fertility, one of the fields in sequence being left fallow for a year.

It has been suggested, for example, that there were three or possibly more medieval open fields in Bangor Is-y-coed, Overton and Hanmer, but perhaps no evidence for more than one in Worthenbury, and there is also documentary evidence for open common fields in the townships of Gredington, Bettisfield and probably in Tybroughton and Broughton. References also appear to open strips in the 13th and 14th in Althrey, Knolton, and Penley but it is possible that these, like some others elsewhere, may have formed small groups of ploughing strips rather than forming well organised arable fields.

A proportion of former ridge and furrow has undoubtedly been lost to later ploughing and levelling. There is evidently a reasonably close relationship between some field shapes and surviving ridge and furrow, particularly notable in the case of strip fields and former strip fields shown on earlier maps, as well as some other regular field types, which appears to help to locate a number of open field systems in areas where there is no recorded evidence of ridge and furrow. In some instances these correspond with field-name evidence suggesting the former existence of open fields, as in the case of the ‘Maes mawr’ and ‘Maes y groes’, first recorded in late16th- and early 17th-century sources, which correspond to remnant strip fields to the north-east and south of Bangor Is-y-coed respectively.

The local topography and natural drainage were clearly important in determined the furlong pattern: thus on gentle slopes there are often long furlongs, made up of many parallel lands, but on undulating ground complex patterns of small furlongs with lands in many directions. The system in operation in Maelor Saesneg perhaps owed more to that in Cheshire where the common arable fields appear to have been made up of a number of small units or furlongs, but where there is little evidence that the furlongs were grouped into large open fields of the Midland type, the furlongs in some instances perhaps to be regarded, as in other areas of north-west England as units of reclamation of woodland and heath perhaps continuing on a communal basis in some instances perhaps as late as the 15th and 16th centuries.

Elements of this pattern may reflect an intensive system of cultivation which is thought to have been in operation from an early date in parts of north-west England involving a short period of fallow between harvest and the sowing of cereals in the following spring. A further feature which may have distinguished the open fields of the Maelor Saesneg and adjacent areas of north-west England from the Midland system was possibly that of individual holdings forming a consolidated group of strips in parts of the common fields rather than a wide dispersal of parcels, possibly resulting from the exchange and consolidation of a once more dispersed pattern at a relatively early date in the medieval period, perhaps as a consequence of an area in which settlement within the core area of Maelor Saesneg appears to have been within dispersed in hamlets rather than focused within nucleated villages of a kind more characteristic of Midland England.

The most common crops grown during the medieval period would undoubtedly have been cereals, though peas and beans are known to have been cultivated in the open fields in adjacent areas of England. Hemp and flax was also introduced at an early date, though these may have been mostly grown on enclosed fields. There is also evidence that some parts of the common arable fields were regarded as more suitable for meadow, being cut for hay rather than being ploughed.

As elsewhere, the open fields of Maelor Saesneg formed a part of a more extensive land use system in support of a mixed farming economy, involving meadow land traditionally cut for hay for winter feed and grazed by stock in the autumn, common pasture for summer grazing, as well as the open fields themselves which were also probably important for summer and autumn grazing on a rotational basis while they were fallow. Documentary references appear, for example to Althrey meadow, evidently a dole field or common meadow, in the township of Bangor Is-y-coed in the early 16th century, in the area now occupied by Bangor Racecourse. As in the neighbouring townships in Cheshire, the extensive seasonally wet meadows along the lower Dee became important in the development of stock farming in the region during the Middle Ages. Owned in strips, traditionally marked with stakes or stone markers, they were cut for hay before being used for common grazing, the strips generally no longer being visible on the ground since they were left unploughed. A difference with field systems of the Midlands may be the incidence of ridge and furrow on land liable to flood bordering the River Dee to the north of Worthenbury. This reflects a pattern also to be found in adjacent areas of the lower Dee valley in western Cheshire and in the Severn valley below Newtown in Montgomeryshire, which rather than representing irrigated meadows has been thought to represent a system of ‘convertible husbandry’, whereby land more suited to meadow in a wet season might form plough land in a long dry spell.

Ridge and furrow forms a distinct and important element in the historic landscape of Maelor Saesneg which urgently calls for further recording, analysis, interpretation and conservation. These traces of medieval arable agriculture are continuing to succumb to modern mechanised agriculture in some areas as a result of pasture improvement and reseeding and to be lost to housing developments on the margins of a number of settlements such as Worthenbury, Bronington, and Horseman’s Green.

Growth of freehold farming in the medieval and early post-medieval periods

As in the neighbouring areas of the Midlands, the land around the margins of the open fields, representing the greater part of farmland in many townships, was probably cleared by individual effort and farmed by farmers not bound by manorial regulations. In adjacent areas of Shropshire, for example, forest clearance or assarting and heathland reclamation were evidently proceeding on a regular basis from the 12th century until perhaps the 16th century, no doubt partly at the expense of areas of former common grazing, leading to the creation of individually owned farms, probably with a greater dependence on pastoralism. As noted above, this process of piecemeal clearance and enclosure resulted in patterns of large and small irregular fields, frequently associated with dispersed farms, which today characterize just under 50 per cent of the Maelor Saesneg landscape.

Cultivation of the common open fields appears to have come under pressure both from the loss of labour due to the Black Death, which led to a recession of cultivated lands in some areas, and due to the growth of the wool trade, and from about the middle of the 14th century it appears that the open fields of Maelor Saesneg, together with those in adjacent areas of Cheshire and Shropshire were gradually reduced in size by a process of piecemeal enclosure by private agreement. As in Cheshire, the relative lack of Parliamentary enclosure in Maelor Saesneg was evidently a consequence of the process of enclosure proceeding steadily between the 14th and 18th centuries, resulting in the fossilisation of former open fields represented by ridge and furrow and strip-like field shapes in the rural landscape. By the 15th and 16th centuries a number of early estates were absorbing parts of the former open fields, such as the open strips acquired by Llannerch Panna, a former estate in the township of Penley township (Maelor South), mentioned in the 1470s. Ridge and furrow representing part of open fields became emparked at Emral (Willington Worthenbury) and Gredington (Hanmer) at about this date.

One of the essential benefits of the medieval open field system of cultivation had been that of maintaining soil fertility by means of crop rotation and leaving land in fallow. To what extent these traditional methods may have been disrupted by the enclosure movement is unknown, but concerns about declining fertility were evidently being documented by the 17th century in adjacent areas of north-west England. The practice of marling, involving the digging up subsoil and adding it to the topsoil to improve fertility is documented from the 12th and 13th century onwards in Shropshire and Cheshire, a number of early sources emphasising the value of marling the land especially before wheat was sown. It is perhaps to the early enclosure period, however, between the 16th and 18th centuries, that the majority of the marl pits in the north Shropshire, Maelor Saesneg and west Cheshire belong. Though a continuous process of infilling has evidently been in operation for a century or more, the old marl pits, often one or more to a field, still form a significant and distinctive landscape element in the region, often reaching densities up to 60 per square kilometre, and also represent a distinct horizon in the landscape history of the area.

A wide range of glacial tills and Triassic sands, clays and marls were exploited for marl in the region from early times in order to improve the composition, texture and structure of the soil, one writer in the first decade of the 19th-century remarking, for example, that marl was considered ‘unquestionably one of the most important of the Cheshire manures . . . found in many parts of England, but in particular abundance in Cheshire’. Both calcareous and non-calcareous marls were to be found in the area. When calcareous marl is added to clay soil, the lime content (with locally up to 15 per cent calcium carbonate) improved the soil structure, and enhancing its drainage and workability. When it was added to sandy soils the clay content improved water retention and counteracted the natural acidity of the soil, conserving the organic and mineral components of the soil which would otherwise tend to be washed out, and thus enhancing soil fertility. Non-calcareous marls acted in a similar way except that their effect was limited to textural changes.

The old marl pits are frequently water-filled and are typically steep-sided and generally between about 5–15 metres across and frequently fringed with trees or shrubs. They were normally dug with a ramp on one side to improve access for carts and often lie in middle of fields, evidently to save on cartage, though in many cases they fall on field boundaries (or former field boundaries that have now disappeared) or at the junction of three of four fields, perhaps in order to giving access to a number of different fields. The pits are often elongated or appear in groups of two or more in the same area, suggesting digging on a number of occasions, avoiding already flooded pits. A number of larger flooded pits lie next to farms or on the roadside in the southern part of Maelor Saesneg, suggests that marl may have been carted to fields further away, perhaps on a commercial basis. Flooded pits have often considered to be hazardous, and cases of drowning in marl pits have been recorded in the region from the medieval period onwards.

Many of the marl pits can be seen to cut through early ridge and furrow field systems and therefore in most cases appear to post-date the ending of the medieval open field system within the region. The overall distribution of marl pits, however, closely corresponds with that of ridge and furrow and strip fields in many area, both of which are generally indicative of former medieval open fields, which suggests that in many instances the marl pits represent improvement of former open fields in the early enclosure period, perhaps from the 16th century onwards. The distribution of marl pits extends beyond the known extent of ridge and furrow and strip fields, however, and since marling is generally to be associated with arable land, although it was sometimes evidently undertaken to improve pasture, the overall distribution of marl pits in Maelor Saesneg may gives an indication of the maximum extent of ploughland between about the 16th and 18th centuries in a landscape which today characterized by extensive areas of pasture.

The practice of marling appears to have been rapidly superseded by liming in the early years of the 19th century, especially once canal transport became available to transport it into the region from quarries in the hills to the west of the Dee. Kilns employed for converting limestone into lime were built alongside the Ellesmere Canal at Bettisfield at this period, no doubt supplying local farms with their produce. Agricultural lime was in turn to be replaced by chemical fertilizers when these became more readily available towards the end of the 19th-century.

Over 2,200 marl pits have been recorded in Maelor Saesneg, of which a proportion have now been filled in and are only visible on earlier Ordnance Survey maps. The pits represent a distinctive phase of past agricultural practice and land-use, perhaps beginning in the Middle Ages, but particularly characteristic of the post-enclosure period between the 16th and 18th centuries and regrettably many are continuing to be filled with rubbish though some are being converted into ornamental garden features. As well as providing an important visual historical element in the modern landscape, both flooded and infilled pits also represent an important ecological and palaeoenvironmental resource.

Drainage and enclosure of the mosses

References to drainage and reclamation of wetlands by landowners becomes more common in adjacent areas of Shropshire during the period 1550–1650, and though there area fewer records surviving relating to the Welsh areas of the moss there are a number of references like one of 1582 relating to peat cutting and drainage ditch digging. The main period of land reclamation appears to have taken place from the early years of the 18th century, however, when powers to enclose parts of the mosses were first being granted. Once drained, the heathlands bordering the mosses often became quite productive, the process of drainage and enclosure resulting in a distinctive landscape of both large and small rectilinear pasture fields bordered by ditches, with mixed farms and smallholdings, with some arable on the better-drained sands and gravels. Some of these areas were subsequently to be subsequently converted to coniferous planations, such as Fenn’s Wood, planted in the 1960s.

Agricultural improvements in the 18th and 19th centuries

The 18th and 19th centuries saw the introduction of a number of agricultural improvements, particularly as the larger landowners sought to improve the revenue of their estates. The Bryn-y-Pys estate, for example, was considerably developed from the mid 19th century after its purchase by Edmund Peel. Despite these changes, much of the medieval and early post-medieval landscape of fields was to remain virtually intact though there is some evidence for the consolidation and enlargement of fields and reorganisation of field boundaries in some areas.

Widespread improvements were also made to agricultural buildings, particularly on the tenanted farms. Characteristic of the period is the complex of farm buildings at Buck Farm, Halghton (Willington Worthenbury), with a late 18th to early 19th-century timber-framed stable wing with blocked cart entrances, a 19th-century granary with belt-driven machinery, and red brick 19th-century milking parlour.

The 18th and 19th centuries also witnessed the expansion of a number of perhaps short-lived agricultural enterprises on more marginal land, such as the rabbit farming by place-name evidence including The Conery and Conery Lane near Fenn’s Wood and The Warren near Iscoyd Park (both in Bronington).

Present-day fieldscapes

A variety of field patterns are evident in the present-day fieldscapes which, some of which are mentioned above, which it may be possible to place within a broad historical framework. Areas of both large irregular fields and small irregular fields (those classed for the purpose of this study as being above and below 3 hectares in size respectively) seem likely to have been created as a result of piecemeal woodland clearance and heaththland enclosure, perhaps largely from medieval time, and perhaps often involving the enclosure of former areas of common woodland and grazing and suggesting freehold tenure. Many of the fields of this type are associated with evidence of ridge and furrow cultivation, however, suggesting that many of the fields of these shapes derive from the enclosure of former medieval open field. Fields classed as floodplain fields, generally bordering the Dee and often now or formerly subject to flooding and sometimes with ox-bow lakes or river cut-offs, in many instances probably represent the enclosure of former common meadow land already in use during the Middle Ages and probably enclosed during the later medieval and early post-medieval periods. As noted above, these are sometimes found in association with ridge and furrow cultivation, indicating periodic use as arable open field in the medieval period. Distinctive strip fields, generally classed as being groups of relatively long, thin fields (with a length : breadth ratio of >3:1) have a close relationship with areas of surviving ridge and furrow cultivation and appear to derive from the amalgamation and enclosure of medieval open field strips. They occur as an element of what appear to have been both large and small medieval open fields, and are often found in combination with other field patterns which probably (as in the case of fields classed as reorganised strip fields) or possibly (as in the case of those classed as regular fields) have also derived from medieval strip fields. Field patterns classed as large straight-sided fields and small straight-sided fields (those again classed as being above and below 3 hectares in size respectively) often have the appearance of post-medieval or early modern enclosure, often either representing the relatively recent enclosure of areas of heathland or relatively recent landscape reorganisation, as in the case of the partitioning of former parkland, for example. Finally, there are distinct small fields classed as paddocks/closes which are generally small and straight-sided and associated either with small-holdings or farmsteads.

Most of the modern field boundaries in the area are marked by simple hedges, many of which are now accompanied by post and wire fences to keep them stock-proof. Hedge-laying was clearly widely practiced in the past and is still being undertaken on a periodic basis in some areas. Many of the hedges are of mixed deciduous species and holly are frequently accompanied by mature oak trees. Hedges associated with the enclosure of former open fields are generally fairly straight, though irregular boundaries are to be seen in some areas which have probably resulted from piecemeal woodland clearance and enclosure. In some areas, such as the Eglwys Cross character area, field boundaries are accompanied by lynchets denoting former arable agriculture. Hedgerow removal and the amalgamation of fields in some areas has given rise to lines of mature oaks within areas of grassland. Single-species hedges and free-standing post and wire fences are more characteristic of some areas such as Stimmy Heath and Bettisfield character areas that have been reclaimed and enclosed more recently.

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