This past weekend we visited Laxton in Nottinghamshire. Where, I hear you say? It’s a unique village in England because it’s the last remaining survival of the medieval strip-farming system.
Historians among you will be familiar with the term “enclosure.” Though little known, and rarely if ever televised, this was a seismic shift in the way ordinary people lived and produced their food. Around the end of the eighteenth century, landowners began to remove the long-established right of peasant farmers to cultivate the small strips of land they had been allocated. Before this time, the landscape consisted of vast open fields without fencing. To stop animals wandering and allow food production to work effectively depended on the complex system of co-operation between every member of a community. There was general agreement about the system of rotation for planting crops, the location of field boundaries, and what was to be done with untethered animals.
If you’ve ever known someone with the surname Penfold, the chances are that their ancestors were involved in policing this very important matter. The Pin Fold was the place in the village where stray animals were confined when they were found wandering, and to get them out you had to pay a significant fine. This, plus the real threat of hunger, kept the system of growing food in unfenced fields viable.
Our mental picture of the past often omits the things that would have seemed most ordinary to people at the time, and most alien to our modern eyes. Imagine a landscape filled with people toiling away on their own little bits of these enormous fields. Imagine a village street where every house is a farm, with its own yard, barns and other outbuildings. A place where you worked alongside your neighbours, endured famine and enjoyed the occasional feast with them. All this changed radically when landowners began to consolidate their holdings, evict their tenant farmers and changed to grazing or food production on a more industrial scale. Far fewer people would have been needed to run such a system, so it apparently made economic sense, but the shock of its implementation for a rural population who could imagine no other way of life must have been devastating.
It’s interesting that, while the genesis of the Industrial Revolution is familiar to most of us, enclosure is so little discussed. It seems rather a boring topic. I think that is because we simply cannot visualise what such communities would have been like. This is what makes the village of Laxton, where it has survived more or less intact, so remarkable. It’s like one of those heritage parks, only it’s real. There still are working farms in the village, and there is a yearly meeting to administer the system.
Here are a few pictures we took. First, a map that shows how the system works. Back in the 15th Century, and earlier, the strips would have been smaller and more numerous:
Here’s a view of the landscape from about a mile away. You can see how different it looks, and the pattern of strips made by different crops growing side by side:
And here is a closer view. In the field on the left, you can see wheat that was planted the previous autumn, while on the right there is spring-planted barley. All the farmers in the scheme follow the same three-year rotation, with a third of the land lying fallow at any given time. The parts of the fields that are too waterlogged to farm efficiently are called “sykes.” Not only do they make delightful, if rather muddy, walking paths; they are also a source of excellent hay. One of them contains an ingenious system of artificial fishponds, now sadly disused. There’s nothing modern about farming fish. Indeed, it was a very important part of the medieval diet since for about a third of the days of the year, the consumption of meat was forbidden for religious reasons.
Finally, here’s a picture of one of the modern farms. As you can see, it’s all on a very human scale, a true farmstead. And all this opening right off the street! Some of the farms have now been converted into private homes and/or used for bed and breakfast. But around two thirds still operate as small farms. I was surprised to find that one of them supplies wheat to Warburtons, one of Britains largest industrial bakers.
So, is this the way we should all be farming? Well, it isn’t mechanisation friendly (that is why the size of the strips were increased and their number reduced in the early 20th century). It’s’ a system that would only work universally if the majority of us were content to be subsistence farmers. I don’t know if Laxton would be thought of as a bucolic paradise by the people who have to live there. But it was filled with the sound of birdsong and it came over as a very peaceful and wildlife-friendly place, filled with glorious gardens and most people apparently keeping chickens and growing a good bit of their own stuff, whether or not they were active farmers. What it does show is how very different the past was, in ways we often don’t appreciate. It’s important not to romanticise what was no doubt a hard and sometimes hungry life for the majority of people. And to describe it as being in harmony with nature or the landscape is a bit of an over-simplification. Our countryside, whether made up of colourful strips or big fields, is shaped for good or ill by the way we as a nation use our land.
What is remarkable about Laxton is that it shows there was, and occasionally still is, another way of doing things. We could usefully adapt some of the values on show there – localised, small-scale fresh food production that maintains biodiversity, to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Food for thought, indeed.
If you want to know more about how the strip-farm system works in Laxton, there is a detailed explanation on their website here.
And for a recent, powerful novel about how enclosure would have felt to those who experienced it, I can recommend Harvest by Jim Crace.