The landscape is a map drawn by history; reading the signposts to the past.

 


The Post Medieval Landscape

 

Introduction

During the late medieval period, there was an increasing emphasis on private property. This was reflected in the enclosure of open field systems and the division of rough ground which had previously been held in common.

 

Historic Landscape Character map showing areas of post medieval enclosure and areas of Rough Ground. Because post medieval farms colonised Rough Ground the map effectively shows the former distribution of Rough Ground in the county.
Historic Landscape Character map showing areas of post medieval enclosure and areas of Rough Ground. Because post medieval farms colonised Rough Ground the map effectively shows the former distribution of Rough Ground in the county.

 

In the post medieval period (from 1540) individual holdings were created separate from the rest of the community and the division of rough ground continued; many crofts – small parcels of rough ground usually held by a single household – date from this period. There was a significant expansion in agriculture, especially during the late nineteenth century, which saw many older farms enlarged and new ones created. The stimulus for this expansion was provided by the demand brought about the growth of industry in the county.

 

The new settlements were usually single farms rather than hamlets and their fields are readily distinguished from those derived from the medieval pattern by being characteristically rectilinear with dead straight sides. There are four distinct types of post medieval field patterns: straight-sided fields tacked on to the earlier enclosed strips of existing farms; large straight-sided fields associated with new farms; small rectangular fields associated with the smallholdings of industrial workers; tiny networks of fields associated with nineteenth century horticulture.

 

In Cornwall’s Historic Landscape Characterisation the zone characterised by fields derived from the post medieval landscape is referred to as Recently Enclosed Land. The creation of Recently Enclosed Land represented the biggest and most widespread change to the Cornish landscape since the laying out of the medieval open field systems several centuries earlier. Recently Enclosed Land was cut out of former rough ground and the loss of areas of summer grazing was one of the factors leading to the specialisation of agriculture in many parts of Cornwall towards beef and dairy farming by the late nineteenth century.

 

Start of page^

The Expansion of Agriculture

By the seventeenth century the previously open field systems of the medieval period had been enclosed with Cornish hedges. The medieval communal system had broken down and most farming hamlets had shrunk to just one or two farms. In the new system individual farmers worked their enclosed fields as they saw best.

 

Nineteenth century intake on the margins of former medieval strip fields (in the foreground) is characterised by rectilinear straight-sided fields (in the distance) at Harrowbarrow, Calstock. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service Nineteenth century intake on the margins of former medieval strip fields (in the foreground) is characterised by rectilinear straight-sided fields (in the distance) at Harrowbarrow, Calstock. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

 Likewise the areas of rough ground, which during the medieval period had been unenclosed and held as commons shared by several hamlets, were becoming increasingly privatised and divided into small blocks. Initially this division of rough ground took the form of hamlet commons – the hedging off of land shared by the members of each hamlet. But by the seventeenth century there was further subdivision into ‘crofts’ which were used by individual tenant farmers.

 

From the eighteenth century onwards agricultural expansion resulted in the creation of new farms and the enlarging of existing ones. There were several phases of expansion with the main one taking place in the nineteenth century. Although some of the earlier post medieval fields are relatively irregular in shape, most are rectilinear with dead straight sides. This enables them to be easily distinguished from fields derived from the medieval or prehistoric pattern.

 

Other components of the post medieval landscape differ from its precursors. There is generally a greater density of settlements and these are usually single farms or smallholdings rather than farming hamlets. Buildings are often more standardised, relatively small and less well built. Although there are traditional Cornish hedges, there are also many drystone walls in the stonier granite uplands; this particular style of boundary building was prevalent in nineteenth century Cornwall. Finally there is an intricate network of tracks and lanes most of which follow the straight lines of the fields.

 

The characteristically straight-sided fields of a new farm established on the downs south of St Agnes in the nineteenth century. In the top left can be seen the smaller fields of industrial workers’ smallholdings. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service
The characteristically straight-sided fields of a new farm established on the downs south of St Agnes in the nineteenth century. In the top left can be seen the smaller fields of industrial workers’ smallholdings. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

It is generally accepted that the stimulus for agricultural expansion in the post medieval period came from industrial growth in Cornwall, especially in the nineteenth century. The mining, china clay and quarry workers established small farms in the industrial heartlands, but of more significance was the dramatic increase in the market for agricultural products created by the burgeoning industries.

 

The fields of the new farms were taken in from rough ground. For centuries this had provided summer grazing for Cornwall’s farmers. The grazing areas of rough ground were usually held as commons but the farmers were only tenants; the land was actually owned by lords of manors and estates. The creation of new farms, whilst greatly increasing the rents obtained by landowners, deprived traditional farmers of a key element of their farming resource. This process must have caused economic and social upheaval throughout the Cornish countryside. Partly as a result of the loss of so much former common grazing land there was a shift in the late nineteenth century towards beef and dairy farming, with former arable fields being put to pasture.

 

The Tithe Map of the 1840s shows that in the mid nineteenth century mixed agriculture was still being practiced. Each field was cropped for two or three years before being put down to grass for between four and nine years. New farms were laid out for this system with 10 to 15 rectangular fields. Many farms contained small orchards and had access to crofts; these were parcels of rough ground used for summer grazing and as sources of gorse and, in some places, peat for fuel.

Start of page^

Industrial Smallholdings

Much of the drive to establish new farms in former rough ground came from the wealth created by the Cornish industries and the increased demand for grain and other agricultural products. Another significant factor, at least in the industrial heartlands, was industrial workers establishing smallholdings.

 

Smallholdings at Four Lanes, near Redruth. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service
Smallholdings at Four Lanes, near Redruth. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

 

These were small farms rarely covering more than eight hectares of distinctive small rectangular fields cut out of moorland and rough ground. The scale of eighteenth and nineteenth century colonisation of former rough ground by industrial workers becomes clear when you consider that more than 50,000 hectares of rough ground was enclosed in this way. Tenants often had to build within the first year the dwelling house, stable and barn, and to hedge in the fields which had been laid out by the landlord’s steward.

 

The dwellings are usually small, low cottages, sometimes under the same roof as the barn and stable. Many smallholdings were sited in exposed and very wet locations with thin acid soils and, as a result, were biased towards pastoral farming. Even so the survival of threshing barns and horse engine platforms (for powering crop-processing machines) at some smallholdings indicate that crops were also grown.

 

Start of page^

Horticulture

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the creation of small distinctive fields associated with horticulture. These are confined mainly to the Tamar valley in east Cornwall and to the far west of the county, including the Isles of Scilly.

 

The remains of small rectangular bulb and potato fields on the cliffs above Tater-du lighthouse in West Penwith. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service
The remains of small rectangular bulb and potato fields on the cliffs above Tater-du lighthouse in West Penwith. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

The lower Tamar Valley, with its favourable climate and well drained south facing tributary slopes, was developed as a centre of market gardening from at least the middle of the eighteenth century and possibly much earlier. By the late nineteenth century Botus Fleming and Calstock parishes, with other neighbouring parishes became famous for their cherry orchards as well as producing a variety of other fruits, vegetables and flowers as major exports. Produce from the various farms, orchards and valleys were sent by river transport into Plymouth and beyond, the trade finally ceasing in the 1950s.

 

South facing cliffs in west Cornwall were also used for horticulture. Here complexes of tiny fields were used to grow early potatoes and a variety of flowers, most notably daffodils. This industry became viable with the coming of the Great Western Railway in 1859 which made the export market accessible.

 

Start of page^

The Ornamental Landscape

Some medieval Cornish houses had deer parks and small gardens but most deliberately designed landscapes, parks and gardens surrounding large country houses are eighteenth and nineteenth century in origin. Many of Cornwall’s grand houses and parklands were created by the mineral lords – those who owned wealthy tin and copper mines.

 

Antony House.  Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service
Antony House.  Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

 

Pendarves Estate, Camborne. Photo © Cornwall County Council
Pendarves Estate, Camborne. Photo © Cornwall County Council

 

Eighteenth century parkland was designed with the great house as its focus; carefully positioned clumps of trees, open vistas and deliberately created ‘natural’ features such as ponds and grottos were laid out. Often the house was positioned so as to obtain the best views of this ornamental landscape. Carriage drives brought residents and visitors along picturesque routes through the landscape. In the nineteenth century the emphasis was more on planting sheltered gardens with exotic specimen tress and shrubs such as rhododendrons and camellias.

 

Some ornamental landscapes incorporate earlier landscape features, such as medieval fields, into their layout. In many cases, however, earlier features were removed or levelled. A good example is the parkland at Pendarves House near Camborne, where an extensive field system can be seen as low earthworks in the grounds of the house.

 

Start of page^

 

A version of this page can also be downloaded as a  PDF