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How do fields get their names?

Every field in the countryside has a history, a story, and unique characteristics based on its location, soil type and topography. And when farmers walk around their land, each field will stimulate a wave of memories and feelings both good and bad – perhaps remembering a particularly fine crop, or the year when a crop was lost to weeds.

Riverford farm

For example, last Friday afternoon, the team were out in our field Eastaway, planting pak choi in far from ideal conditions. Some plants were oversized due to the forced delays of the cold spring, and the claggy soil was not flowing well. I suddenly had a flashback to a similar situation in the same field in 2002; on that occasion the plants rooted out and produced quite a good crop. These experiences give us some hope that, despite the poor conditions, we may yet get some decent pak choi in 2018.

Fields may have been named after something either long gone or still there. We grew winter cabbages in a rented field near Buckfastleigh called Minefield. The old mineshaft was still there, long since filled in, but marked by a pile of rocks. It is likely to be associated with some extensive copper mining activity that used to take place at the nearby Brookwood Mine.

Well Pathfield is the field above the main road to our farm. It references a spring that still emerges out of the rock in the copse in the corner, supplying fresh water to the hamlet and farm.

Riverford Farm

When I was 18 I worked on a small 50-cow dairy herd near Ware in Hertfordshire. There was an intriguingly named field near the canal called The Cat and Monkey. Apparently, it was named after an old pub which fell into dereliction between the wars and has now completely disappeared.

Our 500-acre farm at Sacrewell near Peterborough has fields in an area that formed part of the strip-cultivated open medieval field system. Field names like Cottager’s Piece are based on the arable land being divided into a multitude of strips (or ‘selions’), each managed by different individuals, with the strips distributed around the whole land block. Strips were aggregated into furlongs, and these into fields. Short selions fitting into triangles between furlongs, tracks and paths were known as ‘gores’ and ‘butts’ – terms which are still used by country folk in the midlands to this day.

The same crops were grown by all the farmers on each furlong, and each field was left fallow (ploughed but not sown) every second, third or fourth year. The system was collective, and farmers shared some of the labours of cultivating each other’s strips. Between 1635 and 1720, most of these open fields were largely enclosed under the Inclosure Acts, essentially privatizing and replacing the strips with a grid of large, hedged, straight-edged fields.

Land changing hands is a vulnerable time when field names can be forgotten. When we took on a new 40-acre block of nearby land called Hills, it was split into 3 distinct fields, but we had no idea of the names. In haste I rather unimaginatively named them Hills Big, Hills Small and Hills Triangle. Later chatting to Pop, the dairy farm’s tractor driver, he could remember their original names and we subsequently changed them back to Barkingdon Pathfield, Great East and Barton Town respectively – a great improvement!

Field names often reflect their size, location or topography e.g. our fields Eastaway, West Park, Far Field or Big Field. The irony of Big Field is that it has been getting steadily smaller over the years as land has needed to be taken for developments like The Riverford Field Kitchen restaurant, barns, yards and car parks. The photograph was taken in June 1997 looking down on a much smaller and more compact site than we have now, with the vegetable beds running virtually right up to the barns (which are now our offices).

Wash farm, June 1997
Wash farm, June 1997

To finish, I must share with you my all-time favourite field name. It was a rented field not far away, known as Dead Sheep field because that was what was in it when the farmers first took over their farm.

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    John Richards

    Senior farm manager John is a Riverford veteran having joined the company in 1988 when organic farming in Britain was in its infancy. He met Guy and was shown around what was then the main field, with 30 different types of veg. Nowadays, he remains a fount of Riverford knowledge and farm history, and is still out in the fields as much as he can. 

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