Window into the past

Claire Bending – Lead Land Management Adviser

As part of the working up of conservation plans for the Ryevitalise Landscape Partnership Scheme (currently under development) we’ve been looking at available historic maps. Such maps can provide a view of the past landscape illustrating land use and field boundary patterns.

We’re not trying to revert the landscape back to how it was two hundred years ago, but there may be opportunities to re-establish habitats overcome by agricultural improvement and to restore relict features of conservation value. Examples of this might be recreating a hay meadow, planting new trees on a site which used to be woodland, or reinstating a natural meander in a watercourse that had previously been straightened.

We have digital access to early editions of Ordnance Survey maps. The earliest being the 1st edition 6 inch to one mile mapping from the 1850s. It seems incredible that if you overlay a modern Ordnance Survey map, the two maps separated by 170 years match up pretty perfectly. I have a feeling our Victorian counterparts would be insulted if they knew we thought it might be anything less, but to my lazy modern day brain it does seem incredible that the entire country could be mapped so precisely to the last inch without GPS, laser lines or aerial photography.

For maps from before the 1850s we went to the North Yorkshire County Record Office. They hold the Feversham Collection which is full of information on the Feversham Estate, which over time has included Bilsdale (within the Ryevitalise project area), Bransdale and Farndale as well as the townships of Helmsley and Kirkbymoorside.

Modern day Bilsdale. Copyright NYMNPA.

Amongst the collection are two surveys that feature Bilsdale; one by Tukes and Ayer drawn up in 1826,  and commissioned by Charles Duncombe, 1st Baron Feversham (1764 – 1841); and another includes a painstakingly drawn map of Bilsdale from 1781, by William Calvert and commissioned by Charles Slingsby Duncombe (???? – 1803).

The 1781 map is particularity informative as it is still relatively early on in the agricultural ‘revolution’ period that came about in the century following 1750, when a huge sea change occurred in farming, fuelled by the enclosure acts, improving efficiencies and profits for landowners. The landscape altered with open common land enclosed, fields reconfigured with straight walls, land drainage organised, new roads built to improve transport, and conifer plantations planted to produce wood.

Compare the two maps below of Cam House, Bilsdale – one is an extract from the 1781 map, and the other of the same place seventy six years later, in 1857 as drawn on the 1st edition OS map.

Barely a boundary has remained immune to the straightening process. Although replacing the earlier, wiggly ad-hoc walls with grid-like boundaries was hugely labour intensive, the gains in the longer term through enabling horse plough teams to utilise the entire field area, therefore maximising production, were great.

William Calvert’s map is also of interest for all the field names recorded on the map – for the Tukes and Ayer survey field names were recorded in separate field books.

Field names are sometimes related to the use of the field, such as Cow pasture, Milking field, Corn close, Lime kiln field and Lear field (Lear is another word for a scythe). They can also be descriptive of the place, including words like Holm (the land in a river bend, or low lying land by the river), Syke (stream), Sievey (rushy), Heights, Stoney, Loaning (lane) or Thwaite (clearing).

Other names refer to the vegetation; Birk (birch), Hollin (holly), Eller (alder), Broom, Brier. Sometimes the names reference annoying insects often found in hollows – Loppy hole (Lop was an old word for a flea, but maybe in this case meant ticks) and Midge hole.

There are also a few references to field shape, which is interesting as there is one called Four nook’d (cornered) field. By the 19th century, most fields had four corners but in 1781 four corners was notable because fields either had a myriad of corners or rounded boundaries or both. Other field names give a clue to industries – Collier intake (related to the local small-scale coal mining) or Tenter close (tenters were frames for stretching drying cloth), Cinder field/Smithy hill (reference iron smelting and iron working).

Finally there are some field names that are just plain enigmatic – Camel hill, Slatern Field and Sweetheart Field. Answers on a postcard please!

Extract from map of Bilsdale from 1781, by William Calvert. From Feversham Collection, North Yorkshire County Record Office.Ryevitalise LPS logos

One thought on “Window into the past

  1. When I lived in Ireland there was a project, carried out nationally by school children to record every single field name – and I think place names not currently recorded on their OSI maps.

    Most of our field names are probably going to be long lost and never recorded and their use has almost ended as farms change hands, get rented out to third and sometimes fourth parties etc.,

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