KEVIN GORDON - Field names reveal agricultural past

Kevin Gordon 09-08-13
Kevin Gordon 09-08-13

I picked up an interesting book as a present for my wife recently ‘A Dictionary of English Field Names’ a 1989 book by John Field (yes honest!) For some reason my wife was not really interested in the book so I have kept it for myself.

You maybe surprised to hear that all fields once had names. Today many of these names have been lost; the introduction of mechanical agriculture since the Great War has mean that hedgerows, (and their associated wildlife) were removed to make larger fields.

The name ‘field’ was first used as an area of cleared forest which was often the location of a settlement, hence the place-names Sheffield, Hatfield and more locally Heathfield,

Uckfield and Rotherfield. In time the field began to mean a very large area of land used for agriculture, often several hundred acres in size. Another name for a large open field was an acre from the Old English aecer meaning ‘open field‘. In Sussex though these fields were also known as Laines; the North Laines in Brighton do not refer to roads but fields.

These great fields would be divided in turn into furlongs, a word which dates from AngloSaxon times and literally means the length of a furrow. An ox and plough would be difficult to turn so furlong tended to be a long strip of land. An acre was roughly the area of land that could be ploughed in a day with oxen. In time a furlong became a measurement of length (rather than area) There are eight furlongs in a mile and we still use this measurement for the distance of horse-races. In turn a furlong was divided into ten chains. A chain is 22 yards long. A cricket pitch is one chain between the wickets and the measurement is still used by the railway; each railway bridge still has a oval plate attached giving the distance in miles and chains from London.

An acre was divided into an area of land known as a rood which in turn was divided into a perch (also known as a pole) Maps, such as those by local mapmaker John DeWard who was active in the early 1600s clearly show the size of each pocket of land in acres, roods and perches. Today these have been standardised to be square measurements of land but of course in olden days fields could be any shape to follow the contours of the land or a river.

The origins of field names were often straightforward; near Bishopstone, Titanic Field was very big and you can imagine the shape of Cricket-bat Field! Front Field (at East Dean) was simply the closest field to the farm. Workhouse Laine and Barrack Laine in Seaford are also obvious. Fields were also named after their owners; my own house to the west of Seaford is on land which was formerly Turner’s Laine. Beacon Fields were usually on hills and recalled the site of warning beacons. Bo-Peep (above Alciston and near Bexhill) may refer to a good (beau) view.

Field names could often indicate how fertile the land was. A deep valley at Norton near Newhaven rarely gets the sun and was poor for growing so it was named ‘Poverty Bottom’. There are fields called ‘Bare Arse’ in Hampshire, Cheshire, Lancashire and Leicestershire which would have also been barren. East Dean has a field called ‘Hobbs Eares’ and to the north of Seaford is ‘Hobbs Hawth’ Hobb is an old English name for the devil. (I always remember the underground station in that scary film ‘Quartermass’ was called ‘Hobbs End’) A field named after the devil was probably difficult to cultivate. Conversely, fields called ‘Paradise’ or ‘Plenty’ were considered fertile. Silver Laine could also refer to a field which made money for its owners. The track that connects Seaford and Bishopstone is called Silver Lane.

At Kingston near Lewes a field called Drinker’s Acre had an interesting custom attached to it. First mentioned in the 16th century, the tenant of this field had to spend 8 pence annually to treat other villagers to a beer! Another field in the village was called ‘Nitch of the Wish’. Nitch is possibly a corruption of a French word meaning nest. (similar to niche) A wish was a low-lying damp meadow. My favourite field name is in Buckinghamshire and is called Theretheoxlaydead Field which was first mentioned in the 13 century. I think that it is amazing that an ox dropped dead 800 years ago and the incident is still remembered in a field name.

It would be interesting to carefully map all our local field names before they are completely forgotten.