You may have wondered when you were travelling through the Yorkshire Dales what all those earthworks in the fields might be. Field systems are ubiquitous features of the British countryside and are iconic in the Dales, being found in many areas. For October’s Site of the Month we will be exploring an area of medieval field systems in Lower Wharfedale.
The area around the slopes of Elbolton Hill contains an outstanding sequence of field remains and earthworks associated with medieval agriculture. Everywhere are extensive areas of narrow ploughstrips associated with lynchets, which are frequently terraced into the hillside.
Lynchets are terraces formed on sloping, usually south facing arable ground. However, it is interesting to note that the lynchets here are on the north facing valley side. The action of ploughing and collecting stones along the edge of the plot builds up ‘steps’ on the hillside. On steep land like this, building up terraces by piling stone cleared from the strips under cultivation was a way of increasing the soil depth. The flat areas created were also easier to plough. It is important to consider that very small terraces seen on some slopes are the result of soil movement due to steepness and waterlogged soil.
The area includes a possible medieval Holloway. It is known as Mucky Lane on the 1st edition 6” map (the Ordnance Survey map dating to about the mid-19th century). To the west of the area lies a small abandoned settlement – this is a well preserved medieval agricultural complex. The earthworks are visible and show approximately 20 small folds and paddocks together with the remains of several buildings, possibly including one long house. At least one medieval quarry exists within its boundaries. This settlement could be contemporary with the nearby field systems.
The post-medieval landscape, with its larger fields bounded by stone walls, has been moulded by the earlier medieval one. Many of the standing field walls run along the edge of medieval cultivation strips. Historical maps also shows how enclosure has changed even over the last couple of centuries, as part of the area was more enclosed than it is today.
Historic England have produced information on Field Systems – content.historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/iha-field-systems/fieldsystems.pdf/
Field systems in the Yorkshire Dales have been explored on Out of Oblivion – www.outofoblivion.org.uk/field.asp
- Cultivation Terrace – an area of land, usually on a slope, which has been built up to provide a flat surface for the cultivation of crops
- Field System – a group or complex of fields which appear to form a coherent whole
- Hollow way – a way, path or road through a cutting. [The hollow way can become more evident as the path/road runs up or down hill and water erodes it, creating a deeper hollow]
- Lynchet – a bank formed at the end of a field by soil which, loosened by the plough, gradually moves down slope through a combination of gravity and erosion
- Strip Lynchets – a terraced field usually found on hillsides; comprising a flat strip of land, called the tread, and a steep, scarped lynchet or edge, called the riser
- Ridge and Furrow – a series of long, raised ridges separated by ditches used to prepare the ground for arable cultivation. This was a technique characteristic of the medieval period
- In this context Medieval refers from the 5th to the 16th centuries. The post-medieval period follows this.