Keeping your eye on the GOAL

In his final column, Mick leaves us with some tips on how to unpick the evolution of a local parish on the ground. What could you discover in your neighbourhood?

In our landscape study there is still a lot of preparation to undertake. We will be dealing with historical information in documents in future pieces. Before we do that there is a major piece of research to undertake. Armed with the early maps and modern maps, and any transcriptions, we need to venture outside to pursue an important research method called GOAL – Go Out And Look!

If we are ever to understand an area in the way earlier people did, we need to walk over it all, looking at the natural and man-made topography and recording any features that we encounter – earthworks, stone banks, and so on.

My study of Winscombe parish really began many years ago with walks across the landscape, getting a ‘feel’ for the land. I walked along all the roads and lanes and the public rights of way; but there are many more paths marked on the early maps and I have always been a wayward trespasser. Maurice Beresford once told me he was exactly the same when he was carrying out his deserted Medieval villages research. Over the years I have made the acquaintance of many landowners and farmers in this way. When I explain what I am interested in, they often prove to be a fund of useful local knowledge. We usually part amicably.

This aerial photograph of Woodborough Green shows the newly discovered former green area to the top right, beyond the old railway (now a cycleway) bordering the green field.

Ideally every field and plot needs to be visited, partly to see what is there, or to check something indicated on the early maps, or seen on aerial photographs; often more than one visit is required. I usually mark gate positions, patches of nettles and any earthworks on my map. The most recent maps need to be modified if field boundaries have been altered – old ones removed and new fences put in, for horse paddocks, for example. Some idea of the land uses of the parish, current arable, old pasture, potential water meadows can also be recorded. Each plot of land, field or paddock has a number on the Ordnance Survey 1:2500 maps, and this can be used as the prime number for any notes (though do watch out as there can be some repetition of numbers in some parishes). The tithe map plot or number and the field name can be added, as can any other names and numbers from other maps.

There is no better way to get to know your landscape than to walk over it and study it in detail (though flying over it in a small helicopter is also extremely useful!). The old Antiquarians did much of their fieldwork on horseback, the few extra feet helping them to peer over hedges more easily.

It helps to know who the farmers and landowners are, but this is often not an easy thing to find out. In Winscombe the chairman of the parish council was, until recently, a farmer by the name of Archie Forbes. He helped us a lot with identifying the owners of various bits of the parish. We also have a parish office, and the parish clerk, Lynne Rampton, also has all this information for parish purposes.

In Winscombe the pattern of roads and lanes is much as it was when the early maps were produced, with the new housing estates and their access roads slotted in between. These estates have generally just filled up existing fields, so the old field boundaries often survive as thick hedges between the gardens. The older lanes sometimes survive as holloways formed through long centuries of use; others sometimes have verges and greens alongside.

Winscombe was a parish with lots of commons and greens. Close examination of the maps and the landscape itself reveals some interesting survivals. Near the fire station in Woodborough a few small patches of grass in front of the former council houses are vestiges of a large common or green. There is also a bit of wall belonging to the fields that once fronted the green. Examining the maps allows us to reconstruct this common – called Woodborough Green – and witness its gradual erosion by buildings over several centuries. A few years ago there was great excitement in the parish when it was realised that a forgotten triangular corner of this green still existed, cut off from everywhere by later developments. It has now been cleared and planted as a communal orchard.

Understanding earthworks

In a way, the survival of this patch of green should not be a surprise: close scrutiny of a landscape always reveals new features. It is an essential part of any local study. Of course, one of the main reasons for our GOAL exercise is to identify and record any earthworks in our landscape. Many of us began our interest in field archaeology and landscape history looking for the remains of deserted and shrunken Medieval settlements. This is still an important job in any area. In Winscombe parish there are obvious earthworks of a shrunken settlement in the hamlet of Barton to the west of the main village. These earthworks represent at least three farmsteads, recorded as late as the 18th century, and show that about a quarter of the hamlet has disappeared. Pottery, from test pits, indicates that the plots were occupied by at least the 13th century.

Regressive map analysis showing the former Woodborough Green, with the surviving remnants pictured bottom right.

Rather more obscure is the site of the deserted hamlet of Wyke. For a long time I thought this documented settlement was not even in Winscombe parish, but a study of the documents eventually revealed its site. A public right of way still crosses the site following an old holloway. I have walked over this hundreds of times but had not noticed the settlement earthworks. They are ephemeral and it took the surveying skills of landscape archaeologist James Bond to reveal the farms and cottages formerly on the site.

While settlement remains are often spectacular and always exciting to find, there are usually many other earthworks in a parish. In a part of Winscombe called the Linch (actually recorded as Linch Lane in 1792) there is a record of a former windmill. This is noted in 14th-century documents. Initially it looks as though there is no trace of this windmill today. Careful investigation, however, draws attention to two semi-detached Victorian villas on the Linch. Perched on a mound, they rise a metre above the rest of the houses. Almost certainly this mound was built to support the mill and lift its timber structure up into the wind. It is still one of the most windy parts of the village!

Finally, some earthworks can be very small and subtle, but nevertheless of significance. On a walk over Sandford Moor, a slight, irregular bank only 30-50cms high was visible in a field crossed by a public footpath. It seemed difficult to explain. Then a colleague on the project, Phil Knibb, obtained a LiDAR tile from the Environment Agency and this shows that the whole area of Sandford Moor was formerly drained by a series of wide streams running away to the north-east. This area has now all been reclaimed and the streams diverted. The LiDAR shows the old streams and river courses and clearly indicates that this small earthwork was an undercut stream bank from one of these lost streams. The Liddy Yeo, one of the main rhynes – or drainage ditches – that now drains this reclaimed area must have been constructed at an early date, as the parish boundary follows it.

What will you find in your village? This photo shows Shipham, where the old oaks of the former woodland, and wide verges for grazing animals, tell stories of earlier activity.

So even the most insignificant earthwork can tell us something about the history of our landscape. In this case, about the phases of marsh reclamation and river diversion (possibly in Roman or early Medieval times) that was previously unknown in the history of the landscape of the parish.

All images: M Aston.