The 7th track on the Cunning Folk Album, Ritual Land, Uncommon Ground, has the snappy title, A History Of Agriculture & Mining. Here is what inspired me to write it.
We walk an ancient ritual landscape & it is also a landscape of old & new industry. The story of the farms & mines of Britain goes way back.
When Stone Age hunters first walked across Doggerland from the continent around 300,000 BC the land was a treeless Ice Age plain. The ice retreated around 10,000 BC & by about 5000 BC Britain was covered by a thick layer of deciduous forest.
Stone Age people made little impact on the land until the first farmers arrived by sea from Belgium & France around 3500 BC bringing wheat & barley & probably cattle. Forest was felled with stone axe & fields were ploughed with forked branches. By 3000 BC parts of chalk down lands of the South were permanently deforested. Flint was mined & carried along trackways to communities hundreds of miles away. The Wessex Ridgeway & the Icknield Way are such paths we still can walk.
Round 2000 BC the Beaker People with their ceramics arrived from the Netherlands & Rhineland heralding the end of the Stone Age with their use of copper for tools & weapons. At the time the climate was warm & dry & hilly uplands were farmed. Moors like Dartmoor & Bodmin were cleared of forests & parcelled up into fields with long stone reaves. Stones were cleared & dumped in heaps or cairns which can still be seen today.
The clearing & grazing of the uplands exposed them to erosion & when the climate became wetter & cooler around 1200 BC, moss blanketed the poor soil & the farming communities abandoned what was now moor.
Round 100 BC Belgic Celtic tribes came to the South East of England & built Britain’s first towns. Inside their massive earth banks & ditches there would be space for fields, craft centres, & timber houses for hundreds, sometimes thousands of people.
When the Romans invaded around 43 AD they built roads. 6,000 miles in 400 years. Long straight lines which are echoed in our modern road network. Watling Street from Dover to London is the A2, & on to Birmingham as the A5.
Craftsfolk were concentrated in towns supplied by farming estates of up to 1,000 acres organised from central villas. The Romans drained the fenlands making lowlands suitable for farming.
Roman troops left in 407 AD to defend Rome itself from barbarian hordes. For the first time in 400 years Britain south of the Tyne had to run itself. The “Dark Ages” had rival factions fighting for power while Scots from Ireland, Picts from Scotland & Anglo-Saxons from North West coastal Europe were coming into the mix.
By 600 AD the Anglo-Saxons had settled much of England save the far West. Anglo-Saxon life was village life. Street villages were a string of houses on either side of a road with a church at one end. Green villages were built around a green usually containing the church or well. The structure of the Green village may have been defensive.
Saxon villages were surrounded by 2 or 3 “open fields” each covering thousands of acres. The fields were divided into blocks, or furlongs, each containing dozens of narrow strips. Each strip was an acre: how much a man could plough in a day. Each farmer farmed about 30 strips scattered through the fields ensuring a fair distribution of good & poor land.
The ridge & furrow strips can still be seen under the grass in many parts.
When William The Conqueror invaded in 1066 he set about making his new kingdom into his private hunting ground. The forests became Royal game preserves protected by repressive Forest laws. Under William’s reign poachers were blinded, successive rulers had poachers executed.
The New Forest & Cranborne Chase were cleansed of many villages as The King’s Preserve as was the whole of Essex & large amounts of the Midlands.
The New Forest is the unhappy hunting ground where William Rufus was felled by an arrow to the heart. The son of William The Conqueror slain, his body bled out all the way to Winchester. Divine victim called upon to give his life & blood to rejuvenate the land on the day after harvest festival. A royal sacrifice to the old gods from a time when kings were almost gods themselves.
In the 12th & 13th century new boroughs were created by royal charter, a form of property speculation whereby landowners created towns on the land they owned. Towns like Ludlow, Stratford on Avon & Salisbury were some of the first planned settlements since Roman times.
In the 13th century drainage of arable land in Kent, Somerset & Lincolnshire continued the work of the Romans. The farmers in Norfolk built 6 foot high flood defences on which roads now run. Sheep were sent out into the reclaimed land & the wool industry of Norfolk & Suffolk is reflected in disproportionately large churches in small villages.
The Black Death in the mid 14th century killed between a third & a half of all British residents. Over 1800 villages were deserted as farmers moved to vacant land in better areas.
In the 18th century there was a farming revolution which altered the face of the land. Up to then millions of acres of land were farmed in great open fields that had stood unchanged for millennia.
2 Norfolk Farmers, Viscount “Turnip” Townsend & Thomas Coke came up with a 4 year crop rotation system which increased yields & reduced pests & disease but which needed enclosure of land into smaller fields to keep livestock away from crops. This agricultural revolution swept through the land with 10 acre fields enclosed by 5 or so million miles of hawthorn hedge.
As the 18th century transited into the 19th an industrial revolution created new landscapes in the island, from white Cornish moonscapes to black mountains in Wales & the North of England. Slate mining created cathedral like caverns.
I was walking with my friend Will & his family on the Roseland coast of Cornwall a few years back & he told me about the tin miners who tunnelled far out underneath the sea. Tin had been mined in Cornwall since prehistoric times & in the 19th century they were very adventurous running for miles & miles. When the tin miners accidentally breached the sea floor the tunnels would fill with the brine & the miners would drown. A ship would sail out to the point where the hole had been made with a vast metal plug & bung the hole, water would be pumped out & the mining would recommence. Great risk & great reward. All gone now.