One late summer day in Northamptonshire, I’ve stopped for tea at the wonderfully named Bliss Lane Nursery. In the village of Flore, past Meadow Farm, this is a small haven, with greenhouses full of plants, and a small farm area to the rear, where you can take children to meet the baby lambs.
On the wall of the tearoom, there is an old field map of the Parish of Flore. This gives the name of every field in the area, including Middle Big Close, Eleven Acres, Worzel Furlong and Amos’s Close. It’s a charming document, which Geof Littlewood proudly explains for me. The farm belongs to his wife and brother-in-law, and has been in the family for over a hundred years. But the field map gives us a glimpse into the more distant past, to the time of the local enclosures, which continue to shape the area today. Comparing the map to a satellite image of the village and the local housing grid it is clear that the old field system is more or less the same pattern as the modern lanes and houses, even where the fields are no longer in existence.
It’s just one example of the way that the hedge lines of the countryside shaped our landscape today. And even where that countryside has been turned into town, the fields were often sold off piecemeal and gradually meaning that streets and blocks of housing still follow the old hedges.
In Burgess Hill, where I grew up, we used to be able to walk to nearby Ditchling Common through an abandoned farm called One o’Clock Farm. It was a lovely walk, ten minutes from where we lived, as the fields were overgrown and the hedgerows were full of wild flowers, butterflies and birds. At the centre there were a few derelict farm buildings, sinking gracefully into disrepair.
Then the land was sold to developers and turned into a housing estate. As children we hated the builders as they ploughed the farm into mud, then concreted over our beautiful countryside. We used to go and feebly attempt to sabotage the diggers that were left parked over the weekend, to no avail. The area which was occupied is easily traced on a modern map or satellite image, being the furthest reach of the town on that side to this day.