The Medieval Fields

In the early Saxon period we do not know what kind of fields there were at Great Shelford. It used to be accepted without question that the Saxons brought into this country the wel1-known medieval type of open field or common field system, composed of two or three large unfenced fields, divided up into countless long strips each cultivated by different people. But recent historical research has cast some doubts on this and now we cannot be absolutely sure what kind of fields the early Saxon people had.

Nevertheless we can be fairly certain, in general terms, what areas of Great Shelford parish were cultivated throughout the medieval period. Three areas must have been taken into cultivation at a very early date. These were the land N.W. of High Street between the River Cam and the Cambridge Road; the land south of Woollards Lane; and the land around Grarham's Farm. As the population of the village grew however, more land must have been taken into cultivation. By 1086 when the description of Great Shelford was written in Domesday Book we can be fairly sure that the arable land of the village covered probably 1500 acres. This means that even by this date much of the parish was under cultivation with certain important exceptions. First the great meadow, later High Green, was not cultivated of course. But in addition there was a broad strip of meadow extending N.W. from High Green all along the valley right up to the Trumpington parish boundary. This land was later known as Sheep Common and Cabbage Moor. Then there was a long narrow strip of pasture and meadow land running N.E. along the Trumpington parish boundary towards Red Cross, later called Back Moor and a large irregular piece of pasture and meadow later called Rod Meadow lying between the Cambridge Road and the River Cam. Finally there were large pieces of meadow land along the River Cam itself. Then beyond the Colchester road on the slopes of the Gogs was the so-called heathland or downland pasture.

One problem area was that east of where the station now stands. Here the land of the Shelford people came very close to the village of Stapleford whose farmers too were gradually extending their land. Along the line of the present Hinton Way the lands of the farmers of the two villages met and pieces of Shelford land were intermixed with pieces of Stapleford land. As a result the area was called "Mingle Lands" and the name survives as Mingle Lane.

By the 13th century it is probable that all the arable land in the parish lay in long narrow strips arranged in great open fields in the normal and well known medieval fashion. Certainly by 1384 there were three large open fields for a document tells us that one third of the land of one of the Manors was fallow, indicating that there were three fields, two of which were cultivated and one left fallow in any one year, that is a normal medieval field system. The names of these fields are not known for certain but we can guess what they were called. One lay N.W. of the High Street between the River Cam and the Cambridge Road and was called West Field. Another lay N.E. of, the present village between it and the A 604 and may have been the North Field. The third lay S.E. of the village towards Stapleford and was probably known as East Field.

As the population of the village slowly increased during the 14th and 16th centuries two things happened. First more arable land had to be taken into cultivation. The meadow could not be touched as it was too valuable, therefore the higher downland pasture had to be broken up and ploughed. The result of this was that all the downland in the extreme N. E. of the parish was taken into cultivation as was also the land in the N.W. of the parish along the Hauxton Road. Unfortunately we do not know when this took place, or indeed whether it was done all at one time or piecemeal over centuries. But it was completed finally and some of the land beyond the Colchester road became a separate open field known as the Heath Field while the rest was incorporated into the North Field. The land along the Hauxton Road was also incorporated into the existing West Field.

For most people there is nothing now to see of these medieval fields of Great Shelford. They were officially swept away in 1835 and replaced by the present fields bounded by fences and hedges and therefore one does not expect to see the remains of medieval fields here. But this is only because most people do not notice them. There are the remains of medieval fields if we look for them. For example in many places in the parish, especially in the winter and the spring, very long and very low ridges can be seen running across the modern fields. There are some good examples on the S.E. side of Granham's Road and in the field north of the Gogs Golf Course, as well as in many other places. These ridges are the remains of headlands at the ends of the strips in the medieval fields where the farmers turned their ploughs round. The actual strips do not survive but these headlands do and are often clearly visible when the light and the crop conditions are right. Elsewhere there are different remains of the medieval fields. In the beechwood on the south side of Wort's Causeway in the N.E. of the parish, a place visited by countless thousands of people every year, the careful observer will have noticed that the wood is crossed by a series of flat wide terraces about two feet high. These are called strip lynchets and they are actually medieval plough strips which have been protected from later destruction by the planting of the beech wood. They were once individual strips in the Heath Field of Great Shelford and the terracing has been formed by individual, medieval farmers ploughing along the contours on the side of the Gogs.

Medieval ploughstrips used to survive in other places in a different form. For example up to a few years ago before the Elms Avenue estate off Tunwell's Lane was built traces of actual medieval plough ridges existed there. This indicated that sometime in the medieval period this land was occupied by the open fields of the parish.

The end of the medieval period did not mean the end of the medieval field system in Great Shelford. This continued to exist until it was finally swept away by Act of Parliament in 1835. However, though the medieval fields remained until the middle of the 19th century this does not mean that they remained unchanged. They were certainly altered to meet new agricultural techniques and a steadily increasing population. It is now known that the medieval open field system was by no means as rigid and inefficient as has often been supposed. It was a very flexible method of agriculture, capable of being endlessly varied. Between 1500 and the middle of the 19th century there were marked alterations in the Shelford fields. One of the most important was the complete rearrangement of the open fields themselves. With the four medieval fields it was possible to cultivate, with a fairly simple rotation, the relatively few crops grown in the parish. But by the 17th century new agricultural practices were being developed, the most important of which was the introduction of various new crops such as saffron, flax etc., It became increasingly difficult to grow such crops together with the traditional ones on a simple four-field system. As a result the fields were reorganized by splitting them up into a larger number. Thus the old West Field, between the River Cam and the Cambridge Road, was divided into three, Hauxton West Field, Church West Field and Causeway West Field. The old North Field was split into two and became Nine Wells Field and Bean End Field, while the old East Field became White Field and Mill Field. The Heath Field apparently remained undivided. So the four old fields now became eight.

These however were not the only changes that took place. Some of the new crops could not be easily cultivated in the open fields and more and more farmers in the parish found it convenient to enclose parts of these open fields and cultivate them separately. The more important the farmer the easier it was to do and therefore it is not surprising that the largest area was enclosed by the owners of the Burystead Manor Farm probably in the 17th century. All the land lying S. W. of Woollard's Lane, now occupied by the Recreation Ground and Woodlands Drive which had been part of the common Mill Field was broken up into new fields with hedges round them. This became the private farmland of the Burystead Manor. Other areas N.E. of Woollard's Lane were also enclosed at this time.

Smaller farmers too enclosed land from the common fields. They were not able to enclose large areas but only single strips, usually those close to their homes. A particularly large area of these strips was enclosed behind the houses and yards then lying along the N. E. edge of High Green. The result of this was that by the end of the 18th century most of the farms here had long narrow curving fields behind them extending right back to Hinton Way, each field being once a single strip of land in the open fields. Since then the construction of the railway and modern building development has destroyed most of these enclosures, but one or two survive on either side of the railway. For example the curving hedge which forms the boundary of the gardens to the houses on the east side of Shelford Park Road is the side of one such enclosure. Its curving line was determined by medieval farmers as they ploughed their fields a thousand years ago while its hedgerow plants were probably first established in the 17th century.

Page last updated October 29th 2009

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