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The Pre-Enclosure Landscape

This article was contributed by Sally Williams

Little woodland remained in Cranfield at the beginning of the post-medieval period; much of this was cleared before the 18th century.  Common field agriculture still predominated on the plateau but before the 19th century some landholdings were amalgamated and some scattered strips consolidated into blocks.  Piecemeal enclosure added to the already large acreage of small, irregular closes around the plateau.

Agriculture remained the predominant activity in Cranfield during the post- medieval period.  The emphasis gradually changed from an arable dominated to a mixed farming economy.

In the early 19th century three main arable common fields still dominated the central plateau, Perry Field, Lean Field and Stillipers Field, though the latter also spilled over the southern plateau edge onto the gentle south facing slope.  Though the furlongs were still mainly cultivated in strips in separate ownership or tenancy, some engrossment, the amalgamation of landholdings, had taken place.  By a process of purchase and exchange some individuals had consolidated their widely scattered strips or holdings in the common fields into more convenient blocks called pieces, such as Cook's Piece, Back Piece, Gog Piece and Lords Mead Piece [reference X206/1, Map 1807.]  These allowed their owners or tenants to cultivate larger parcels of arable in fewer places, though common rights, such as grazing on the stubble, still applied at certain times of the year.

Often pieces were enclosed with hedges or fences, but could not be regarded as permanent closes until the common rights had been extinguished over them.  Oat Close in Stillipers Field may have been hedged in 1807, but it was still subject to common rights and, therefore, part of the common fields.  Elsewhere, however, it seems that the common rights were successfully extinguished on some lands at the edges of the common fields.  Meeting House Close must once have been part of Perry Hill Furlong, Roe's Closes part of Perry Field and Crosslands Close part of Stillipers Field, as certain of the closes adjoining Leys and Conn's Farms may also have been.  A common feature of such closes enclosed from the common fields is the reversed S shapes of one or more of their boundaries.  This reflects the ridge and furrow on which they were superimposed.  When these plots were enclosed is uncertain, but engrossment and enclosure of small areas in Cranfield's common fields is recorded from about 1600 [Godber, History of Bedfordshire, 1969, p.211].

Since at least the later medieval period and possibly earlier, the main fields had been supplemented by five other small common fields, South Side Field, Thillands, Millside Field, Park Side Field and Portnall Field.

The earliest known named reference to South Side Field dates from the mid-16th century [reference CRT 100/25, 1542].  Although it lay adjacent to Stillipers Field it took the same place in the crop rotation cycle as the Lean Field.  In the early 19th century its meadowland and most of its furlongs were bounded by hedges; this may have been related to an ongoing process of engrossment and attempted enclosure. 

Butchers Close, Long Shrouds and the area west of the latter had all been consolidated into single ownership, but the common rights had not been extinguished over them.  Some of the closes on the east side of South Side Field may, however, have once been parts of that field where extinguishment of common rights had been successful.

Hedges or fences in the common fields are not necessarily associated with enclosure.  Common fields were usually not featureless expanses of arable in ridge and furrow; they generally included boundary features like ditches, balks, stones, stakes (often set out annually to mark the tenants' holdings) and sometimes hedges.  Also there were many temporary boundaries used at various times of the year: hurdle fencing was used to control stock pastured or folded on different parts of the common fields.  Such boundaries are rarely recorded on early maps, but are constantly referred to in documents.

The other small common fields were also of interest. Portnall and Park Side Fields may have originated as additions to the common fields during the assarting movement of the medieval period.  They were established at the foot of the slope, off the boulder clay on good quality, relatively level land; this was probably why they survived as common arable divided into several furlongs until Enclosure, despite their physical and topographical separation from the other common fields.  Park Side Field takes its name from Marston Park to the south.  In contrast, Millside Field, on sloping, undulating ground, had undergone engrossment and chiefly lay as consolidated blocks of arable or pasture by the early 19th century [reference X206/1, Map 1807].  Nearby Thillands originated as demesne land converted to common field use.

Surrounding and adjoining the common fields, on the less easily cultivated terrain of the hills and slopes around the edges of the parish, was the large acreage of irregular small closes.  Those in the north and along the eastern edge of the parish were mainly created by the clearance of woodland during the medieval period and originally had mainly been for arable cultivation.  However, due to a decrease in population and the growing importance and economic rewards of sheep farming during the later medieval period, many were laid down to pasture; this continued throughout the post- medieval period.  By the early 19th century the closes were a mixture of arable and pasture with the latter predominating [reference X206/1, Map 1807].