Braunton Great Field

Braunton Great Field

It was once thought that the open-field system, typical of most areas of Saxon settlement, was never introduced into Devon, despite the fact that in Braunton Great Field the county has one of the very few surviving examples. This was explained away as a piece of recent reclamation; but records show that it already existed soon after 1300, and there is no reason to doubt that it goes back, to Saxon’ times. Further study of ancient records, and of large-scale maps, has revealed traces of open-field strip culti­vation in many places, especially in the south and east of the county: but everywhere except at Braunton the system died out long before the Enclosure Acts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (which in Devon applied only to uncultivated heath and woodland previously regarded as ‘common’). It seems that the Saxons introduced the open-field system for their larger settlements, where the ground allowed, because it was the method they were used to, but that later generations learned by experience that small separate fields surrounded by banks and hedges were better suited to the landscape and climate and more convenient to farm.

Though open fields with strips certainly existed in many places in Devon in the early Middle Ages, there isno clear evidence that they were divided into three roughly equal blocks for crop rotation, as in the Midlands. Nor were cereals ever as important here, in comparison with stock farming, as they were over most of lowland England. There was always plenty of rough grazing without the need to leave part of the arable fallow every year, and instead parts of the common land were ploughed from time to time to give extra acreage for crops.

Braunton Great Field covers about 350 acres (140 ha.), and had originally at least 700 strips, though only about 200 remain today. It was divided firstly into blocks of about a furlong (220 yards or 200 metres) in width-the distance the heavy Saxon ox-plough could be comfortably drawn at one stretch -and then subdivided into plots one or two perches wide, making roughly a quarter or half acre (0.1 or 0.2 ha.). These were separated by a strip of unploughed turf, unlike the ‘ridge and furrow’ ar­rangement common on Midland soils and intended to help drainage. The process of buying or exchanging strips to make a compact holding, which no doubt began early, had reduced the number of separate plots to under 500 by 1889; and since then it has gone on rapidly. As this took place, the intervening baulks or ‘landshares’ were ploughed out; but a fair idea of the original layout can be gained by imagining all the broader pieces redivided to match the surviving half-acre strips.