There are only a few places left where you can still witness this ancient practice of strip farming: Laxton in Nottinghamshire, Braunton in North Devon, Laugharne in West Wales - and the Isle of Axholme. It survived in the Isle because the land was never 'enclosed' like most of the low-lying agricultural land of the English Midlands.
'Enclosure' (formerly 'Inclosure') of open fields started gradually in the 13th century, and happened wholesale in the 18th and 19th centuries. Basically this was a massive land grab for already wealthy landowners, who appropriated public land for their own benefit - becoming even richer and more powerful in the process.
In medieval England, the typical manorial village was surrounded by several large, unenclosed arable fields. Each villager (or commoner) was allocated by the landowner (usually the lord of the manor) a number of strips in these fields, which he would then subsistence farm. The rights to use this land were shared between landowner and tenant. Other 'common' rights included rights to cut wood, to run pigs in common woodland, to make hay on common meadowland, and to graze livestock on land where crops were not being grown. There was also a communal village green for social and festive activities.
But by the end of the 19th century most land had been 'enclosed' - hedged, fenced-off and taken into full, private ownership. Only a few common pastures and village greens remained. Despite riots and revolts, the Enclosure movement had become unstoppable. So the traditional common rights to the land enjoyed by the small-scale, peasant farmers had all but disappeared. A mass of working people, hoping to escape the resulting poverty, fled the countryside and crowded into the growing number of towns and cities which had sprung up to accommodate the Industrial Revolution. But conditions there were even grimmer - as anyone who has read Hard Times by Charles Dickens knows only too well.
We tend to forget that England was once 'open', unfenced and unhedged - and, if we sometimes get all lyrical and romantic about hedges, let's remember they are symbols of privatization, the enforced parcelling up of the land for the personal gain of a few. So this is the reason the Isle of Axholme has very few hedges, the reason it looks the way it does: it's a pre-Enclosure landscape...
Here's one of my favourite singers, June Tabor, singing about England, and about 'common wealth and common ground'...
A Place Called England
I rode out on a bright May morning/Like a hero in a song/Looking for a place called England/Trying to find where I belong/Couldn't find the old flood meadow/Or the house that I once knew/No trace of that little river/Or the garden where I grew
I saw town and I saw country/Motorway and sink estate/Rich man in his rolling acres/Poor man still outside the gate/Retail park and burger kingdom/Prairie field and factory farm/Run by men who think that England's/Only a place to park their car
But as the train pulled from the station/Through the wastelands of despair/From the corner of my eye/A brightness filled the filthy air/Someone's sown a patch of sunflowers/Though the soil is sooty black/Marigolds and a few tomatoes/Right beside the railway track
Down behind the terraced houses/In between the concrete towers/Compost heaps and scarlet runners/Secret gardens full of flowers/Meeta grows her scented roses/Right beneath the big jet's path/Bid a fortune for her garden/Eileen turns away and laughs
For wake up George and rise up Arthur/Time to rouse up from your sleep/Deck the horse with sea-green ribbons/Drag the old sword from the deep/Hold the line for Dave and Daniel/As they tunnel through the clay/While the oak in all its glory/Soaks up sun for one more day
So come all you at home with freedom/Whatever the land that gave you birth/There's room for you both root and branch/As long as you love this English earth/Room for vole and room for orchid/Room for all to grow and thrive/Just less room for the fat landowner/On his arse in his four-wheel drive
For England is not flag or Empire/It is not money and it is not blood/It's limestone gorge and granite fell/It's Wealden clay and Severn mud/It's blackbird singing from the may-tree/Lark ascending through the scales/It's robin watching from the spade/And English earth beneath your nails
So here's two cheers for a place called England/Sore abused but not yet dead/A Mr Harding sort of England/Hanging in there by a thread/Here's two cheers for the crazy Diggers/Now their hour shall come around/We shall plant the seed they saved us/Common wealth and common ground
Words by Maggie Holland
To be continued...