This page dovetails with an earlier one in which I present evidence of four areas of coaxial linear earthworks on Puttenham Common that may represent erstwhile field boundaries, then set out the case for interpreting them as being of (?Middle) Bronze Age origin and reused in the Early Roman period. Here, I want to go further in several respects, by expanding the scope of the area under discussion to take in adjacent areas of current or recent farmland, and to attempt to make sense of the evidence in light of the major new book The Fields of Britannia, written by Stephen Rippon, Chris Smart and Ben Pears, as the culmination of a major University of Exeter research project of the same name. Stand by for a long but I promise you worthwhile read…
The Fields of Britannia is a brilliant book, one that I will use repeatedly in my future research, but the evidence from the greater Puttenham Common area suggests the reality behind a couple of claims made in the book may be more complex and diverse on the ground: first, that the alignment of Roman-era field boundaries does not depend on the lie of the land; second, that former field boundaries tend to be destroyed when covered by dense woodland (or by the subsequent clearance of those trees). These will be examined in turn, before I make a stab at interpreting how the land uses and hence landscape of Puttenham Common and surrounds may have changed over the millennium between the years 200 and 1200 CE. Never let it be said I don’t set myself a challenge when undertaking research concerning Puttenham parish!
Contours and continuity
At the time of writing, there are no excavated boundary features within Puttenham parish that would fall within the scope of The Fields of Britannia‘s dataset (indeed, I’m struggling to think of any excavated and dated boundaries from it!) Nevertheless, what we do have are cases where boundaries of the “Eastern” and “Lascombe” field systems exhibit very similar orientations to extant field boundaries (albeit some are now set in woodland) adjacent to them. Thus, the former field boundaries now in the woodlands of Church Croft and Lascombe Walk due east of the Common are essentially co-oriented with the “Eastern System”. To a lesser extent this applies to the “Lascombe System” as well. Here, projecting the line of the easternmost-but-one boundary north causes it to coincide with the southern tip of the boundary between two fields associated with Shoelands Farm (now within a small coniferous plantation) – although it must be said that the latter boundary is neither co-oriented nor aligned with the former.
All of the linear features that make up the suggested field systems on Puttenham Common can be described as being orientated north-south and east-west. This does not conform with the NW-SE and NE-SW forms of “Celtic” systems in Surrey and elsewhere described by David Field, although it must be said that his thinking was evidently informed by examples from the chalk downlands of Wessex (Field 2004). A more recent and more nuanced look at the evidence was authored by Chris Green for an English Landscapes and Identities project blog post, who concluded:
‘So, what we have here is people in prehistory and the Roman period constructing field systems that were sometimes very regular (“coaxial”) in character and sometimes less so, with the ground surface sometimes having an effect on the orientation and regularity of the field systems, but with field systems also often being laid out in a way that ignored the affordances provided by the ground surface. Often, these field systems were laid out on an orientation that pointed approximately towards a compass bearing of 100-120˚ (and at 180˚ to that, as these lines have no direction) and, to a lesser extent, towards approximately perpendicular alignments.’
The Puttenham Common field systems, and contiguous surviving field/property boundaries, fall into the latter category. But is this a question of date, with the Puttenham systems being “post-Celtic” (that is to say later than the Middle Bronze Age date favoured by Field for “Celtic” systems), or one of microtopography? It may seem commonsensical to lay out field boundaries following the lie of the land in order to exploit the maximum possible area with the minimum length of boundaries, but this is demonstrably not the case at a national level. Such a reading is, however, borne out by several of the systems depicted and analysed by Judie English: Fore Down, Tenantry Ground and Lullington Heath in Sussex, and Brigmerston Down in Wiltshire (see figures in English 2013, 45, 93, 96, 99). Only the adjacent field boundary complexes at Plumpton Plain and Buckland Hole, again in Sussex, could be said to disregard the local relief (English 2013, 60 Fig. 5.8).
What does The Fields of Britannia have to say on the matter? It addresses orientation relative to topography on a couple of occasions. A great chunk of the chapter on the South East region is devoted to the coaxially-arranged landscapes of parts of southern Essex. The discussion of the evidence and the reasons behind such regularity quickly turns to citing ‘natural topography’ as an influence, given many of the axial droveways run parallel to ‘a series of topographical/geological boundaries’ (Rippon, Smart and Pears 2015, 160). In the conclusions, by contrast, when discussion turns at one point to the potential for common orientation to be a identical response to ‘the underlying topography’ (argued to be a significant factor by authorities like Tom Williamson), the book’s authors cast doubt on how widely applicable this was/is:
‘large areas of lowland Britain – and particularly areas with the more extensive excavations – have extremely muted relief, while many field systems do not follow the contours’ (Rippon, Smart and Pears 2015, 325)
Puttenham is not an area that has seen any extensive excavations, and is far from alone in that, but this is not because of its relief (some of which is flattish, other parts very much the opposite of muted – loud?!). Elements of all four of the suggested field systems on Puttenham Common very clearly take account of the topography; for instance, the northern and southern boundaries of the “Eastern System” abut the lips of steep slopes on the flanks of the Hillbury ridge. To a degree they correspond to many of the Bronze Age field systems studied by English; not just the ones named above, but Whitmoor Common at Worplesdon not all that far away from Puttenham, and either side of the Mole Gap (see English 2013, 28 Fig. 3.5 and 34 Fig. 3.8). So far as the Surrey evidence goes, it seems like Bronze Age field systems were not rectilinear grids lain over land with no regard for rises and falls in the terrain. By deviating from pure north-south and east-west orientations, they allow more land to be taken in, or unsuitable ground skirted around.
Much the same can be said of the orientations of field boundaries in Puttenham parish. The fields due north of Puttenham Common, noted above to have boundaries on a different alignment to the Lascombe System, run perpendicular to the contours as the ground falls away towards the valley floor at Shoelands. Due east of the northern half of Puttenham Common is a relatively flat expanse of high ground which might be dubbed the “Lascombe plateau”. Here the boundaries, unencumbered by contours, run north/south and east/west. More on this patch of ground in a bit.
South of Church Croft, meanwhile, the land falls away in a gentle slope facing south-east, and the field boundaries likewise reflect this. Here, one could argue that this different orientation is a product of association with nearby Rodsall, either when it was a medieval township separate to Puttenham, or in its earlier incarnation as the Late Anglo-Saxon manorial centre of Redessolham. A corrective to this is the fact boundaries of adjacent fields that originally lay within the demesne of the manor of Puttenham share the same orientation, although it all becomes a bit chicken-and-egg at this point as to which enclosures could have come first…
There is a similar subtle change of orientation in field boundaries between Highfield Lane and Little Common, again corresponding to the lie of the land. Here, there is an additional piece of evidence to factor in – the combined testimony of an unpublished cropmark transcription and resistivity survey undertaken by members of the SyAS Roman Studies Group the best part of a decade ago. These appear to show a complex of boundaries, one that is hard to generate any coherence from. To my eyes they look like an enclosed trackway, fringed by a series of field-like enclosures (or just possibly a settlement), running at an 20-30 degrees different from Highfield Lane on something close to a E-W orientation. Without excavation, cropmarks are notoriously difficult to date (Rippon, Smart and Pears 2015, 107). Even so, it’s worth mentioning that Roman pottery found around Lascombe just to the west has been dated to the 1st to 3rd centuries CE (Currie 2001b, 16) – I’ll come back to this material shortly.
The discrepancy in orientation between Highfield Lane and this putative trackway is interesting – in fact, more interesting than I initially gave it credit for. At first I thought the trackway was at odds with the pattern of historic field boundaries, but a closer look shows that it’s Highfield Lane that doesn’t run perpendicular to many of the historic field boundaries that abut it. The “field” boundaries associated with the putative trackway to its north, meanwhile, are more closely aligned with the historic field pattern (many of the constituent boundaries were removed in the later 19th and earlier 20th centuries). If the surveyed features are contemporary with the Roman pottery found to their west (and that’s a fair-sized if…), this might imply the general orientation of current/historic field boundaries is of at least Romano-British antiquity, and that Highfield Lane is a later, perhaps medieval or early modern, intrusion associated with the eponymous open field of Puttenham.
Each field system, prehistoric or historic, is unique. It is clear that some systems are made up of boundaries orientated in ways that correspond to the lie of the land, whereas others were laid out in accordance with different criteria. Whether you consider the slopes of the Hillbury ridge and Long Bottom on Puttenham Common to be significant relief features, they manifestly influenced the orientation of the field systems on or beside them. By dismissing the relief of much of lowland England as ‘extremely muted’, and therefore of little relevance to field-system orientation, I can’t help but feel that the authors of The Fields of Britannia fall into the trap of generalisation and being insufficiently sensitive to local conditions.
Survival or loss of former field boundaries in woodland environments
The question of the reason(s) behind boundary orientation links with a second issue – the ability of boundaries to endure when land falls out of the use(s) for which they were created, and be readopted at a later date. Time and again, The Fields of Britannia states that woodland regeneration on land no longer in cultivation was fatal to the boundaries of the redundant fields. To take a typical example, from the concluding chapter:
‘Where Roman and medieval field systems are closely related in their orientation and alignment […] we can be fairly confident that there was not an intervening period of complete and sustained abandonment and woodland regeneration, as it is highly unlikely that the earthworks of a Romano-British field system would have survived the growth and then clearance of dense woodland in order to then be restored in the medieval period’ (Rippon, Smart and Pears 2015, 325)
This line of argument can be tweaked without any trouble to encompass any pre-Roman field systems that saw use the Roman period (as at Mickleham/Leatherhead Common: Field 2004, 46; English 2013, 33-34). What I want to do in the following paragraphs is not to argue against the thesis – with which I broadly agree, albeit more from the opposing perspective of pasture being an excellent medium for earthwork preservation – but to cite examples from the contemporary landscape of the Puttenham area that indicate woodland does not destroy earthen boundaries, and nor does its clearance always destroy them.
The “traditional” interpretation of fifth-century Britain has been one of the collapse of everything good and structured about Roman rule, from the money economy to industries like the ceramics produced in what’s now Alice Holt Forest not so many miles west of Puttenham. In rural areas, such cataclysmic changes brought about the large-scale abandonment of tracts of farmland, which duly became swathed in woodland. However, The Fields of Britannia presents an overwhelmingly strong case (particularly through Total Land Pollen (TLP) statistics/analyses) for 5th-century woodland regeneration to have been at best only a localised phenomenon, with unimproved pasture coming to the fore as a land-use type. That said, the same data also mark out South-East England as a region where ‘there was a greater increase in trees […] some of which may genuinely reflect a regeneration of woodland’ (Rippon, Smart and Pears 2015, 312-13).
In light of this, it seems high time that I revisited my interpretation of the situation in Puttenham parish. Previously (see page 3 of this 2013 paper), on the basis of woodland-type field names coincident with Romano-British pottery scatters, I have hypothesised that there was post-Roman woodland regeneration in the parish, followed (probably several centuries later) by clearance and a return of the land to cultivation. I did, however, also note the arguments of Della Hooke (2010, 142) that elite hunting activity in the Later Anglo-Saxon period was a significant stimulus for the (re)growth of woodland cover – an interpretation now backed up by the quantitative analyses of The Fields of Britannia (Rippon, Smart and Pears 2015, 129, 314). Of course, whenever woodland regeneration occurred after the end of the Roman period, it does not mean whatever physical boundaries survived from that period were dusted down and utilised anew in the medieval centuries after the trees were felled and the stumps removed.
Looking at the present landscape around Puttenham, and trying to picture its earlier states as well, two things spring to mind. The first is perhaps the more obvious of the two points, namely that not all woodland is the same. Earthworks would surely survive better in more open, grazed wood pasture environments than in dense or heavily-managed woodland. It’s hard to ascertain the nature of vegetation cover and land use in Puttenham parish in a period for which we have no direct evidence, at least until such time as we get early medieval palaeoenvironmental samples (well, a man can dream…). Some field-name elements, notably OE lēah, are indicative of open woodland, whereas others, such as OE wudu, might point to sites of more dense tree cover; instances of both will be discussed in due course.
Second, I wonder whether, in arguing for post-Roman woodland regeneration having always led to the destruction of all remnants of antecedent field system earthworks, and the corollary that survival of Roman-era boundaries represents the absence of wood cover, the line of interpretation adhered to by the book’s authors isn’t a little too simplistic. To instance one statement in this respect:
‘the process of clearing trees and grubbing out stumps would surely destroy any earthworks, or at least render the remains of any relict field system so incoherent that they would have been flattened and replaced.’ (Rippon, Smart and Pears 2015, 101)
Were all Romano-British field boundaries too physically insubstantial and administratively insignificant to survive such a change? And was the removal of every tree an essential precondition for the restoration of hitherto tree-covered land to agricultural use? Here’s where some field observations from present-day Puttenham parish and its immediate environs can be used to suggest a broader range of outcomes.
The rapid growth of deciduous trees and bushes on abandoned arable land has taken place over the past two decades or so over three large fields on the southern slope of the Hog’s Back, due east of Puttenham village in Wanborough parish. Such swathing of previously-open ground bears out the evidence for rapid woodland regeneration cited in the book (Rippon, Smart and Pears 2015, 325). In recent years, two of these fields have been cleared: one to form a practice driving range for Puttenham Golf Club, the second a small-scale farming enterprise, Wildcroft Rare Breeds. The latter’s website claims it had lain unworked since 2001 (although I’m pretty certain the field and those around it had gone out of use long before), and makes a really interesting reference to the use of pigs to help clear the land. What neither of these episodes of clearance did was precipitate the removal of any earlier field boundaries when some of this land was returned to an open state in more recent years – though it has to be said the boundaries are substantial banked hedgerows.
Features like boundary banks/ditches could and can survive above ground in woodland environments for decades, if not centuries. Many years ago, I spotted the slight remains a north-south-aligned ditch in a copse partway up the southern slope of the Hog’s Back between Puttenham village and Shoelands. This is marked on a 1793 map of Shoelands Farm, but not in any previous or subsequent map. The copse is a wonderful stand of deciduous woodland, carpeted in bluebells in the spring, and demonstrably has been so for in excess of 200 years. There is an issue here, however, in that the boundary may not have been created to delimit the edge of a field, but as an internal woodland division, so its slight stature may be a product of its purpose, not the time it has spent covered by trees.
A more substantial, and perhaps more relevant, survivor is the boundary bank in Lascombe Walk, a publicly-accessible woodland in the care of the Woodland Trust, shown in the photo below. The woodland covers two former fields named Hyde Park and Heath Field, first recorded in 1765; the bank formed the boundary between them. Old Ordnance Survey maps show the land was still open in 1897, but had become covered with trees by 1920. In other words, the fields have been woodland (both managed and unmanaged) for around a century. Initially this was probably managed but later went wild – although there are many sweet coppice stool and lines of oak trees betraying its non-natural origins. The boundary bank, despite being effectively redundant for most or all of that time, has endured and remains a substantial linear earthwork feature.
Relict boundary features would be more likely to endure if they retained or gained tenurial significance. A possible early medieval case-in-point here from Surrey is the ealdan dic, “old ditch”, of the 1005 Esher estate boundary survey, whose date of origin remains unknown. If banks or ditches survived in a decent state in woodland, then there is no reason why they should not have been respected, retained and repurposed when that land was cleared for farming. Their reemployment in the new pattern of land division was of course contingent on their compatibility with the intended new land use(s) and/or farming practice(s) involved. It might also be noted that old fields with embanked boundaries could have been convenient units of clearance as well as tenure – individual field units could be cleared one at a time, and either put back into use there and then, or combined with contiguous enclosures to form bigger units. This could mean the supposedly late enclosures of the Church Croft area in fact preserve, at least in part, a much older pattern of field boundaries than adjacent tracts of erstwhile high medieval open-field arable.
Something along these lines has taken place in some of the commercial woodlands south of Lascombe Walk in the Church Croft/Rodsall areas of Puttenham parish, where much clearance of the first generation of mature trees has taken place in very recent years. Swathes of trees have been felled, but adjacent boundary banks of post-medieval or even medieval date were not erased in the process. I don’t know about land ownership in this area, and whether everything is in the hands and management of a single owner – it would make sense that it is, given the concerted pattern of recent timber harvesting. Of course, these planted woodlands are not the same thing as naturally-regenerated ones, and the harvested trees may well have been “crops” planted at the same time within and defined by earlier field boundaries. All the same, there is no overriding reason why the boundaries should have been retained and not levelled to augment the planted area (or replaced with fences, for example).
The above examples are hard to pin down in time. The fields – and by implication their boundaries – are first recorded in the post-medieval period, but in their present form may be medieval. In orientation, however, they may be much older; Roman, or even Bronze Age. English (2013, 28) notes how certain field boundaries marked on the Worplesdon tithe map are ‘similar in alignment to those on the common’ to the south, ‘suggesting re-use of the prehistoric boundaries at a later date’ – a conclusion developed from positive evidence for a Bronze Age origin of the Whitmoor Common field system. She makes a comparable observation regarding the near co-orientation of some the field systems east of the Mole Gap with the boundary patterns of what were previously open fields of Headley and Leatherhead (English 2013, 35).
In Puttenham, there is no equivalent prehistoric dating evidence (save for an isolated piece of Bronze Age pottery not associated with any evidence for field boundaries), but there is no shortage of Romano-British artefactual data. The ways in which it is distributed relative to field-names indicative of former woodland cover is more diverse than I had previously understood it to be, and the “Lascombe system” provides some important corrective evidence in this regard. In 1765, three fields which shared the name Woodhorn, lay to the west of what is now Lascombe House and Farm (they are shown on this map of the fields abutting the Common’s eastern boundary I produced 18 months ago). The name Woodhorn probably comes from Middle English wode-horn (or maybe Old English wudu-horn), “wooded horn/corner of land”. Intriguingly, there is no sign from the LiDAR imagery or on the ground that the “Lascombe system” extended up to, let alone beyond, the present eastern limit of the Common.
The Lascombe vicinity is one in which a lot of Romano-British pottery has been found. The best-recorded evidence is a scatter of 1st- to 3rd-century pottery found north-west of Lascombe House. The locational details are that it was found at the south-western corner of Little Common and ‘spread from the edge of the common on to the field to the west’ (Currie 2001b, 16). Two sherds of pottery of ‘possible’ Roman date were identified from the lower part of the same field abutting Little Common during a field-walking exercise I was part of in November 2000 (the weather was truly terrible that day, if it had been better I’m certain more would have been found: see Currie 2001b, 63-64 for details of all finds that were made on the day).
There’s further evidence for Roman-period pottery east of Lascombe House (Kerry referred to a field hereabouts that ‘abounds in early [for which almost certainly read Romano-British] pottery’: Bierton 1990, 102) but nothing due west of it from the land once covered by the Woodhorns. This may be a product of no field-walking activity taking place over this ground, but could just as credibly be a meaningful indication of where pottery was not being deposited as a result of Romano-British occupation or manuring (or conceivably cremation burials). Might this coincidence of an arc of medieval wood-related field-names with an absence of earthworks and pottery sherds attest the long-term tree cover of this land through the Roman and earlier medieval centuries?
It’s tricky to try and reconcile the various morsels of evidence, not least when so much is unknown (or unpublished). Is the area of the Woodhorns a genuine gap in the pottery scatter distribution pattern, or is it because Roman-period sherds found here were never reported – or else have not made the leap from private archive to public domain? To propose the field system that informs the present boundary pattern was laid out in the 3rd century or later is tempting, yet fails to address the nature of the vegetation cover/land use of the Woodhorns. Ideally, further field-walking or better still targeted excavation would be the means for determining the truth.
Just possibly, we should satisfy ourselves with a halfway-house kind of an explanation for why early field system elements do or do not persist into later periods. Over to the authors of The Fields of Britannia again:
‘If Roman and medieval field systems are closely related, what we cannot say, however, is that there was continuity in the type of agriculture being practised: a field that was arable in the Roman period could easily have gone down to pasture in the early medieval period, to then be converted back to arable as demand for cereals increased.’ (Rippon, Smart and Pears 2015, 325)
‘It is even quite possible that individual Romano-British field boundaries went out of use and that only a basic framework of land divisions survived around which later medieval field systems were laid out, leading to them having the same broad orientation as the Romano-British field system (although once again, the landscape must have remained open and was not lost to woodland regeneration [for this to have happened].’ (Rippon, Smart and Pears 2015, 326)
The twin concepts of (unimproved) pasture as a land-use type that would stop or limit the destruction of antecedent field boundaries and the retention/re-adoption of only those boundaries that were of practical utility to the new pattern of farming will be to the fore in my evaluation of the evidence from Puttenham in light of The Fields of Britannia on the next page. What I hope to have established above, as well as in what follows, is that the covering of former fields by woodland is not fatal to all boundaries, and nor do the techniques of tree clearance likely to have been employed in the medieval period compel us to believe that they would have destroyed whatever had survived. Banks and ditches could frame the clearance process, as well as delineating new field enclosures. Moreover, trees growing along the lines of such boundaries could be suffered to remain if they did not impinge upon ground earmarked for agricultural production – they might become mature trees, perhaps coppiced or pollarded, within hedgerows that are such a common feature of the fieldscapes of Puttenham parish. Here again, The Fields of Britannia offers a wealth of valuable perspectives, but arguably within a narrative that is too narrow in focus to reflect the reality of the situation.
Speculating about a millennium of land uses and land-use changes in Puttenham, circa 200-1200 CE
Whether or not the Puttenham Common field systems are Bronze Age in origin, the small number of abraded Romano-British pottery sherds found in association with the earthworks do seem to stand for a period of manuring and cultivation of the constituent enclosures. Together with their subsequent abandonment (hence the heathland situation of the enclosures) and the adjacency of land to the north and east cultivated in the medieval period (by the 13th century at least), there seem to be good grounds for attempting to apply the key conclusions of The Fields of Britannia to Puttenham as a means of shedding light on how its landscape developed in the Roman and post-Roman periods.
I’m casting the chronological net a bit wider than in the The Fields of Britannia because there is strong evidence that the settlements so far located on the Hillbury ridge and at Lascombe were abandoned during the 3rd century CE (cf. Clark and Nichols 1960, 62), and it could well be the case that the adjacent field systems ceased to be cultivated. It is also possible that there was not a continuous fieldscape between the settlements, and not just for reasons of relief (like the steep-sided Long Bottom valley); the absence of any recorded pottery from the land once known as Woodhorn might stem from it being covered by woodland throughout the Roman period and beyond. The survival of areas of embanked field boundary earthworks on Puttenham Common complements the proposition that the switch from arable to pastoral use of the land, although it has been shown above that reversion to woodland would not necessarily be incompatible with their level of preservation.
David Bird cited what seems to be the earlier of the two villa/masonry buildings on the Hillbury ridge as one of two Surrey villas is found in a heathland location that suggest the vegetation cover type ‘may be a Roman-period creation’ (Bird 2004, 77). The evidence from the Hillbury ridge (at least from the two building sites – the few pieces of abraded pottery I’ve collected from in and around the field systems haven’t been dated yet) supports this, and suggests a major Later Roman change in the agricultural economy – albeit one that didn’t necessarily generate heathland, at least in the first instance. Declining soil fertility may have been an important contributory cause, but there may have been additional considerations at play.
What elevates this from being a matter of interest for delimiting a not-very-well-documented medieval open field to one worth mentioning here is that Late Roman pottery (3rd/4th century CE) and other possibly contemporary material was found in 1992 in a field west of Suffield Lane between Suffield Farm and Murtmead Lane (see SHER 3802). Roman pottery of unspecified date was found hereabouts by Rev. Charles Kerry in a field he named as Moor’s Vere. More recent fieldwalking of the same site circa 2008 failed to find any evidence comparable to that found in 1992, which rather undermines the villa/building hypothesis, although I have since picked up a couple of sherds of what looks to me like Roman grey ware in this vicinity (see photo below).
Given the suggested date of the pottery found in 1992 and the recovery of ceramic building material from the same vicinity, it is just possible that the “Moor’s Vere” site represents a replacement villa for the one(s) on Hillbury ridge. It’s worth bearing in mind that a Later Roman origin would also fit with what has been suggested in the most tentative of terms above regarding the abandonment of the field systems on Puttenham Common. More excitingly, we can perhaps get other, much larger hints of the framing of the (early) modern agricultural landscape by Roman-era elements – the ‘threads of continuity’ identified by The Fields of Britannia in the South East region (Rippon, Smart and Pears 2015, 168) – in this same area.
The rough location of the medieval open High Field of Puttenham (cf. Currie 2001a, 31-32) is indicated by the name and course of Highfield Lane running from the west end of the historic village to the edge of Puttenham Common near Lascombe House. A few years ago, I became interested in defining High Field’s original extent more precisely, especially its eastern and southern edges. Two continuous curvilinear boundaries, of which only tiny traces now remain, seemed to me to be good candidates. What makes these worth highlighting here is that the “Moor’s Vere” site lay in the angle they formed, as if they were associated. In this respect, two excavated Late Roman villas local to Puttenham discussed by The Fields of Britannia are important because their associated boundaries show signs of continuity with historic landscapes: Worplesdon (really Barnwood), whose 3rd-4th-century ditches are co-oriented with boundaries that may ‘fossilize vestiges of preceding medieval land division’, and Cranleigh (Wyphurst Road) where the historic landscape is one of ‘enclosed medieval fields’ (Rippon, Smart and Pears 2015, 164-65).
The possible eastern boundary of High Field snaked north from near the junction of Murtmead Lane and Suffield Lane; a little hint of its position can be seen in the surviving field boundary that bisected it at approximately OS grid reference SU 92654720 (the course of the lost boundary can be traced on the LiDAR imagery, as it happens). The feature in its original form almost certainly inspired the field-name Middle Ditch, first recorded in the late 16th century and still attached to the large field behind Suffield Farm.
Its southern counterpart was much lengthier, but only a short stretch now remains close to Sylvan Lodge (it’s bisected by the line of a public footpath running south-west from Highfield Lane towards Murtmead Hatch at grid reference SU 92054715). It ran approximately parallel with Murtmead Lane until they coincide near its junction with Suffield Lane (grid reference SU 92604710); its line may have continued east down into the Flashes valley, following the substantial contour lynchet-like earthen boundary between fields known as Cop Grove and Wheat Furlong which marked the southern limit of South Field.
Most Roman villas in Surrey still functioning in the year 300 were abandoned well before the 4th century was out (see Bird 1987, 175 Fig. 7.5). This inevitably makes ascertaining what happened in the 5th century and beyond a hard task indeed. In terms of the findings of the Total Land Pollen analysis carried out for The Fields of Britannia, the data from the South East region indicates the following. As briefly mentioned earlier, between the Roman period and the 5th century the percentage of tree pollen (i.e. species indicative of woodland cover) increased from 31% to 39% TLP, before falling back to 33% in the period circa 500-850 CE (Rippon, Smart and Pears 2015, 125). Even more dramatic was the fresh increase in the subsequent period, circa 850-1050, to 42% TLP (Rippon, Smart and Pears 2015, 129). The relevant values for improved and unimproved pasture combined (I’m not sure the distinction between them is entirely relevant here, though the top-line figures definitely are) are 63% in the Roman period, 55% in 5th century, 63% again in the sixth to mid-ninth centuries, and back to 55% in the two centuries from circa 850 (Rippon, Smart and Pears 2015, 125-29). It almost goes without saying that arable was very much a minority pollen-producing land use throughout these centuries.
As per the classification of The Fields of Britannia, Puttenham parish falls within the Weald margin pays of the South East region (see Rippon, Smart and Pears 2015, 125 Fig. 4.1). This pays was characterised by ‘a shift in land-use from a mixed economy in the Roman period to a largely pastoral one by the mid-sixth century’ (Rippon, Smart and Pears 2015, 140). The tiny crumbs of evidence we have from Puttenham at the present time would all seem to point in this direction. Certainly, the lack of any obvious extensive tracts of arable land at the time of the Domesday Survey would appear to show the lasting effect of this shift hereabouts (although the later Anglo-Saxon-period spread of woodland could also be a significant factor).
Maybe our best means of reconciling all of the above is to picture a post-Roman landscape in Puttenham parish largely made up of open areas of heather or grassy pasture, speckled with individual trees and the occasional stand of woodland (such as might explain the field-name Woodhorn). We might call this in general terms wood pasture. The vegetation cover of the Hillbury ridge remains like this, and Little Common due north of the area of the former High Field was probably once much the same (but is now largely swathed in bracken). The Domesday Book entry for Redessolham (for our purposes essentially equivalent to Rodsall) mentions woodland within the manor rendering a small number of pigs, but it is what it arguably omits – considerable rough grazing for cattle, goats and very possibly sheep – that is a better way of explaining the survival of a lot of what has been suggested in these pages.
One hint that there was some early open woodland east of Puttenham Common in the early medieval period is the former field-name Houndley (in the centre of the present Church Croft Plantation), first recorded in the mid-17th century but which looks for all the world like an Old English formation *Hune-lēah, “Horehound open woodland/wood pasture” (the translation of the generic being that advanced by Hooke 2008). There’s no sign that it once applied to any ground within the current bounds of Puttenham Common, but it must be considered a possibility. A second field-name seemingly derived in part from the same element, Suckleys (the specific of this name is hard to determine as the earliest recorded forms I’ve been able to identify, e.g. Suslee 1650s, seem to embody the local pronunciation at the time), is to be found immediately north of Middle Ditch, abutting the northern end of the lost linear boundary that marked the east edge of High Field.
The spread of arable cultivation, initially under the aegis of the settlements-cum-manorial centres of Redessolham/Rodsall and Shoelands, and more profoundly from the 12th century through the rise of the new manor and village of Puttenham, would have led to the destruction of large areas of wood pasture. Around the same time, some of the remaining wood pasture may have been developed into open heathland, primarily for the grazing of flocks of sheep at a larger and more intensive scale than before. The palynological analysis of the peat deposit from Boundless Copse near Thursley has been interpreted as showing signs of ‘local expansion of heathland’ between the periods cal AD 650-810 and cal AD 1250-1390. This is linked to the establishment and postulated subsequent expansion of Woolmer Forest as a royal hunting ground, perhaps precipitating ‘increases in grazing pressure’ in the 12th and early 13th centuries (Thompson and Manning 2014, 13-15, esp. 14 Fig. 6). The heathlands of Puttenham and district could be understood in an analogous way, but the notion runs counter to the TLP data collected for The Fields of Britannia. A more historically-credible explanation, therefore, would be the growth of heath-based sheep pasturing, perhaps a resumption of a Later Roman economy (cf. Bird 2004, 89).
These changes did not just destroy or transform the wood pastures of Puttenham Common; they also erased most of the toponymic indications for its previous pastoral state. So be it. In light of The Fields of Britannia, what can be held up instead are the signs of a boundary pattern that frames or echoes the medieval and modern fieldscape, and more importantly certain Romano-British archaeological discoveries, in a manner that intimates it was pre-medieval in origin. This may not be the case, and in reality they belong to the establishment of the South and High Fields of Puttenham, but we cannot say this with any more certainty given the present evidence base than to argue for them being of Bronze Age genesis. Only excavation and scientific sample analyses may help to unravel the truth behind what I have suggested above.
The Fields of Britannia is a landmark book, destined to be a classic of its kind. It is underpinned by a wealth of science and excavation data, and draws some far-reaching conclusions that will shape discussion of aspects of the Roman-Saxon transition in lowland England in the years and decades to come. So far as Puttenham is concerned, it allows what meagre evidence I have been able to accumulate to be viewed through a new lens, one that makes the overwhelming dominance of pastoral farming (or else the near-invisibility of arable farming) explicable as corresponding to regional trends. Decline of activity in the Late Roman period (3rd and 4th centuries CE) has been noted in various parts of the South East region (Rippon, Smart and Pears 2015, 316-17). A quick comparison of the three 1st- to 3rd-century settlement sites in the Puttenham Common area (Hillbury x2, Lascombe) with just the one of 3rd- to 4th-century date (“Moor’s Vere”) could be understood as a reflex of the same phenomenon. The ultimate conclusion that, in contrast to other lowland regions, the South East ‘saw gradual evolution […] between the Roman and the later medieval periods’ (Rippon, Smart and Pears 2015, 342) has much to recommend it given my experience of looking at similar things on a much smaller scale in and around Puttenham.
The triumph of The Fields of Britannia is that it builds up a bigger picture from individual site data, some of which have been used – in some cases, over-used – in the past to paint a picture of the state of the landscape in the post-Roman period. The project has created a “new normal” – but herein lie some issues. The presentation of a bigger picture inevitably normalises things, by picking out trends and then explaining them in ways that for brevity’s and simplicity’s sakes tunes out the fine detail and possible differences in approach or outcome. Over the course of this post I have highlighted a couple of issues around topography/relief as a determinant of boundary orientation and the potential for old boundary earthworks to survive tree cover/clearance. Both could be argued to have a bearing on the credibility of the national and regional figure of nigh on two-thirds of the Late Roman field boundaries studied by the project displaying some manner of orientation or alignment with adjacent medieval dry-land boundaries. However, I have done so, at least so far as Puttenham is concerned, with one hand tied behind my back, lacking as I do both good-quality excavation data and palaeoenvironmental evidence of any kind. On a personal level, therefore, my new determination to start the process of obtaining such evidence should in its own small way stand as testament to the success of The Fields of Britannia project, and of its importance to the future of English landscape archaeology.
(APOLOGY! I had to rush to finish writing the above before going away on my travels for several weeks over the summer, so I’ve not had the chance to fully reference or proof-read the above. Nor have I had the opportunity to produce a map showing the key sites relevant to the arguments presented throughout. I will set these things right as soon as possible!)
REFERENCES (hyperlinked where available for free online)
Bird, D. G., ‘The Romano-British period in Surrey’, in The Archaeology of Surrey to 1540, ed. by J. Bird and D. G. Bird (Guildford: Surrey Archaeological Society, 1987), 165-96
Bird, D., Roman Surrey (Stroud: Tempus, 2004)
Briggs, R., ‘Ten Years Gone: Summarising a Decade of Research into the Development of Pre-historical and Early Historical Land Use and Settlement Patterns in the Parish of Puttenham, Surrey’ (unpublished paper for Surrey Medieval, 2013)
Currie, C. K., An archaeological and historical survey of Puttenham proposed Area of Special Historic Landscape Value (ASHLV) centred on NGR: SU 915 465: Volume 1: historical text and appendices (unpublished report for Surrey County Council & Surrey Archaeological Society [SyAS], 2001) [= Currie 2001a]
Currie, C. K., An archaeological and historical survey of Puttenham proposed Area of Special Historic Landscape Value (ASHLV) centred on NGR: SU 915 465: Volume 2: archaeological inventory (unpublished report for Surrey County Council & SyAS, 2001) [= Currie 2001b]
English, J., Pattern and Progress: Field Systems of the Second and Early First Millennium BC in Southern Britain, BAR British Series, 587 (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2013)
Field, D., ‘Engraved sequences and the perception of prehistoric country in south-east England’ in Aspects of Archaeology and History in Surrey: towards a Research Framework for the County, ed. by J. Cotton, G. Crocker and A. Graham (Guildford: Surrey Archaeological Society, 2004), 39-49
Hooke, D., ‘Early medieval woodland and the place-name term lēah‘, in A Commodity of Good Names: Essays in Honour of Margaret Gelling, ed. by O. J. Padel and D. N. Parsons (Donington: Shaun Tyas, 2008), 365-76
Hooke, D., Trees in Anglo-Saxon England: Literature, Lore, Landscape (Woodbridge & Rochester [NY]: Boydell Press, 2010)
Manning, O., and W. Bray, The History and Antiquities of the County of Surrey, Volume 3 (London: John White, 1809)
Rippon, S., C. Smart and B. Pears, The Fields of Britannia: Continuity and Change in the Late Roman and Early Medieval Landscape (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015)
Thompson, S., and A. Manning, ‘Late prehistoric settlement and post-medieval industrial activity on the route of the A3 Hindhead Improvement Scheme’, SyAC, 98 (2014), 1-27