Field Studies #04

The Medieval Park of Erringden | Over the 30 years that I have been interested in the ‘outdoors’ I have oriented that interest towards one or another aspect of it at different times. In my teens and early twenties I viewed it as an arena for various outdoor pursuits, then later the always-present passion for wildlife became central. In more recent years, my interest has broadened into what I can best characterise as landscape, which I conceive in a wide sense to encompass both the natural and human elements that constitute a distinct geographical area. This interest demands that one attempt to understand the social and economic history that have shaped a place’s present condition. I therefore increasingly immerse myself in the works of local and landscape historians, and have come to find myself somewhat in awe of their expertise. Nigel Smith’s recent talk to the Hebden Bridge Local History Society, for example, was a tour de force of historical research. Nigel is the society’s librarian and wrote his PhD thesis on the settlement and field patterns of the South Pennines. I have had several fascinating conversations with him and he always helps ground my fanciful ideas about our landscape in the hard evidence in which he deals. The story of the deer park of Erringden that he told is fascinating. As the population grew in the 14th century, the pressure increased on nobles to restrict the areas covered by forest laws – which forbade unauthorised hunting of deer or the harvesting of the trees, shrubs and turf on which they fed – to discrete parks. Within the manor of Wakefield, at 3008 acres, Erringden was the largest, indeed one of the largest in the country. A ditch, perhaps eight feet wide and four feet deep, was dug around the six-and-a-half mile perimeter, bordered on the outside by a bank topped with a fence of palings, possibly oak. For 125 years, from the late 1320s to its ‘disparkment’ in 1451, the park acted as a status symbol hunting ground and, more practically, a ‘living larder’ that supplied the table with venison directly and as a supply of stock for the manor’s other, smaller parks. (I would love to reproduce the whole story, but thankfully Nigel has written a superb book.) But I am also fascinated by how stories like this can come to be told, for the historian must be adept at handling and interpreting so many kinds of evidence: manorial court rolls have been deciphered; remaining physical evidence of this and other parks has been made sense of; historical and contemporary deer management techniques have been compared; the etymology of place names are considered; maps of every kind, from ancient township maps to modern agricultural soil maps, are consulted; and a hundred secondary sources are drawn upon, from 18th century histories of the parish of Halifax to brand new PhD theses. To weave this multiplicity of strands of evidence into a coherent account is quite a skill, and one I’m thankful that Nigel has applied to the landscape I look across to every day and walk in regularly, for as I do so, I can now glimpse into its past.

Trees | Knowing how to ‘do your bit’ for the environment is not always straightforward. Some choices are simple: if we have the ability and time to walk the short distance to the shops instead of drive, this is what we should do if we want to minimise our environmental impact. Other everyday choices, particularly around diet, are more contentious. And now even the reputation of planting trees as an unreservedly good environmental action has become tarnished, for in the rush to reforest, trees are sometimes being planted in what every environmentalist agree are the wrong places, with rare grassland habitats being dug and shaded and precious peatlands ploughed for plantations. But setting aside poorly executed recent examples and also the risk of importing plant diseases that results from the booming international trade in tree seedlings, tree planting remains a positive thing to do. Recently, I have been helping my son’s school with a project to transform part of their playing fields into an environmental and outdoor education area, starting with some tree planting. Early on a freezing Saturday morning my wife, son and I, and a group of other school parents and children, prepared the ground, clearing the browned, hollow stems of common hogweed and turning over earth while the football pitch beside us whitened with fresh snowfall. Five fruit trees – plum, apple and pear – and 60 hedging whips – hawthorn, blackthorn, dog rose and spindle – were then delivered to school last thing on a Friday, donated by The Tree Council. We kept their bare roots moist over the weekend, providing the curious sight of striding to and from school in an almighty rainstorm with a watering can. On the Monday my wife and I, joined by our son after school, planted the lion’s share of the trees, finishing as the light drained away. And on the Thursday morning, I helped six Year 6 pupils and the headteacher to complete the planting. As we heeled the trees in we looked at pictures of the flowers and fruits of each species so they would know the legacy they were leaving in their final year. Another choice we have made for the last two years is to hire a living Christmas tree, delivered by the fantastic Rooted. Our little Norway spruce, which has spent the year in Ramsden Clough less than five miles away, was delivered on Sunday by Sara Tomkins, who was so appalled by the 160,000 tonnes of waste, £14 million cost to councils of disposal and enormous carbon impact generated by cut Christmas trees that she decided to do something about it with her bit of land. Her 150 trees are grown in pots, made of recycled plastic, that are sunk into the the ground amongst weed-suppressant matting to eliminate pesticide use; come in a choice five heights from three to eight feet; and, after they have reached their maximum height, will be donated to the valley’s natural flood management group Slow the Flow – who my son and I have volunteered with – to form leaky woody dams which reduce the risk of flooding. While I used to enjoy the trip to the garden centre to pick up our Christmas tree, having now had ours delivered again by the cheerful Sara and had an invitation to visit our tree during the year, we are altogether more happy with what Rooted offer.

Akenfield | Released in 1974 and directed by Peter Hall, Akenfield tells the story of a Suffolk village across three generations of the 20th century. It is a remarkable work, filmed without a script with local non-actors, an impressionistic ‘rural time-collage’ that gives a moving and sensitive exploration of the centuries-old but still-ongoing movement of people away from agriculture and the land. I have written a piece – Authetic Akenfield? Rural Realism in Peter Hall’s Suffolk – that analyses its fascinating relationship to Ronald Blythe’s book, on which it is based, and to forms of rural romanticism that almost always features in literary and cinematic works set in the countryside. You can view the trailer for the BFI’s 2016 re-release here.

Out of the Valley | My son’s after-school sports club is cancelled, so we substitute it with a three-and-a-quarter-mile walk, briskly climbing 400 feet out of the valley and then wading in and out of the woods that lap over its bouldered lip. Somewhere high above, the sunset must be lighting a layer of cirrus a spectacular pink, but by the time this glow has filtered through the heavy blanket of cumulus it has been murked into mocha, suffusing the stark woods with a sickly sepia. I cannot say that I have ever experienced light like it, nor that it is pleasant. It is a relief when it is finally extinguished and the balm of a pale moon appears through the shredding clouds. In the strange half-light, we occasionally detect the presence of fugitive birds: the ‘keewick’ of a female tawny owl echoing deep in the shadowed valley; a flicker of wings from a silent flypast of starlings; a bold burst of song from a treecreeper; the pipe of an unseen wader that I just cannot place; a pair of duelling robins at the far end of the three-hundred-year-old clapper bridge, on which we stand and wait for their dispute to be settled. As we cross the stream and haul ourselves up over the ridge that separates us from home, my son strikes up a rendition of ‘Jingle Bells’ to counter the darkness that is overtaking us. His attempt at mustering a festive atmosphere is aided by the scene unfolding at our backs as we climb, with the glow, flash and twinkle of Christmas fairy lights scattered across three hilltop parishes.

Gallery |

Lodge (bottom left) and Lodge Hill (in sun), Erringden
Cuckoo Stone at the foot of Cock Hill Moor, Erringden
Rake Head, Erringden
Erringden Moor, the shattered walls of Chrisopher Rawson’s vanished farms, and the Sunderland Pasture plantation
Sycamore, Bents Farm, Erringden

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