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The ancient Wolds

Bob Trubshaw

In 2004 two important books were published which bring together specialist knowledge of local landscapes. One is devoted toLeicestershire[1] and the other to the Trent valley[2]. Most of the Wolds villages fall on the edge Leicestershire and the others, in Nottinghamshire, are above the Trent valley. This means that both books have something to say about the Wolds, although the main emphasis is over a wider area.

Twenty years ago archaeological knowledge about Leicestershire and the Trent valley landscapes was, at best, patchy. Since then the activities of numerous amateurs plus developer-funded excavations by professional archaeologists have provided considerably more information. Now it is possible to make some assessment of our predecessors right back to the Palaeolithic, more than 250,000 years ago. By the time of the Neolithic and early farming, about 4,000 years ago, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that all parts of Leicestershire were being exploited. A hand axe found in a field near Wymeswold forms part of that pattern of evidence. The Trent valley was decidedly busy in the Neolithic, with remains ranging from fish weirs through to ritual sites which have a sophistication matching henges and other prehistoric earthworks surviving more visibly in Derbyshire or Wiltshire.

The Wolds were regionally important in the Iron Age as a 'great sacred grove' by the Fosse Way on the eastern extremity of what is now Wymeswold parish gave its name to the small Roman town of Vernemetum. Further east, near Goadby Marwood, there was extensive iron working in both Iron Age and Roman times, and this iron may have been sold at Vernemetum to traders using the Fosse Way. The proximity of Vernemetum would have influenced farming on the Wolds during the Roman era, and this is reflected in the Roman farmsteads discovered by fieldwalking in and around Wymeswold.

After the Romans

Vernemetum was one of a regularly-spaced network of towns in Roman Leicestershire. Just outside the Wolds, another town straddling both banks of the River Soar at Barrow would have been an important trading place. This is confirmed by the Roman road which runs from Barrow, over the Wolds between Seagrave and Burton, crossing the Fosse Way at Six Hills, then continuing along the ironstone ridge above the Trent valley in the general direction of the Roman town near Goadby Marwood.

After the Romans left, the Wolds area seems to have been less heavily farmed, perhaps reverting to scrubby woodland used for grazing pigs, geese or other livestock. Evidence from both the Trent valley and south Leicestershire suggest that in the early Anglo-Saxon era (fifth to seventh centuries AD) there were fewer farmsteads than in the preceding Roman era. Those that remained were on the soils most suitable for arable farming. This infers that the Wolds, with the predominately heavy boulder clays, were not as heavily farmed as in Roman times.

However the Wymeswold-Vernemetum area seems to have retained importance well into the Anglo-Saxon era, as high-status brooches from about the eight century were found by Mr Pat Gratton just to the east of the village some years ago (one of these is now on display in Charnwood Museum, Loughborough) together with Anglo-Saxon strap ends found by another metal detector user on the Vernemetum site. Such strap ends are used to decorate the ends of bindings for burial shrouds, so they are evidence for Christian burials, and strongly suggest that an early Anglo-Saxon church or 'minster' was built on the site of the Iron Age 'great sacred grove'. This Christian cemetery is the successor to the large pagan Anglo-Saxon cemetery just to the north, which was partly excavated before the bridge was built over the A46 in the 1960s.

The Roman town at Barrow continued as an important Anglo-Saxon settlement. The evidence for this is a substantial scatter of pottery shards. Such quantities of pottery from this time are rare and, when excavated (as at Eye Kettleby near Melton Mowbray in the 1990s) are associated with significant settlements. Waterborne transport was crucially important in Roman and Anglo-Saxon times, so the ability to load produce onto vessels which could readily travel into the Trent valley and go upstream to the various other tributaries or downstream towards the Humber and North Sea would make Barrow a very useful and lucrative trading place. Next time you hire a rowing boat from the pub at Barrow try to imagine some shallow-drafted Roman or Saxon trading boats moored up to offload salt or foreign produce and return with locally-produced ironwork, dairy produce or livestock. Yes, animals were taken on such small craft, with their feet hobbled together.

A similar continuity from the Roman occupation into the Anglo-Saxon era has also been discerned at Stanford on Soar, where the church seems to be on the site of a Roman villa. Reusing the remains of Roman buildings for early churches is relatively common; similar evidence has been found at Southwell Minster and, nearer to the Wolds, at Flawford (Notts) and Ab Kettleby (Leics). Likewise the earliest version of St Nicholas church in Leicester incorporated parts of the Roman baths, perhaps including the part that survives as Jewry Wall.


The 'Wolds pie' – Six Hills and the surrounding paroshes. The asterisk denotes an area of extra-parochoial land to the west of Six Hills.

After Harold Fox 'The Wolds before c.1500' in The English Rural Landscape, John Thirsk (ed), Oxford UP 2000.


Slicing up the Wolds 'pie'

As the medieval era developed, churches became inextricably linked with parishes. However land units equating to parishes existed before churches became prevalent. New evidence suggests that many parishes were created around the eighth or ninth centuries, by subdividing larger units of land. The ring of eight parishes which radiate about Six Hills (Wymeswold, Burton, Walton, Seagrave, Thrussington, Ragdale, Old Dalby and Willoughby) is an excellent example, as this is clearly a larger unit of land (comprising most of the Wolds) which has been 'sliced up' like a pie.

Evidence from other parts of the Fosse Way suggest that early Anglo-Saxon administrative land units generally reflect earlier Roman demarcations; indeed between Newark and Lincoln Roman land units have been fairly confidently located – and some of these clearly pre-date the construction of the Fosse Way, meaning that they were originally in use in the Iron Age.

However there is no clear evidence that the larger land unit from which the eight parishes of the Wolds were created is Roman or earlier, although.a pre-Roman origin is plausible as the Iron Age 'great sacred grove' is most likely to have been located on a boundary – and it is, indeed, on the northern boundary of this group of pie-like parishes.

Such dividing of larger units of land seems to take place during the eighth to tenth centuries. This is the period of Scandinavian settlement (the 'Viking Age', although the Midlands and East Anglia seems to have been settled predominately by people from the Anglian area of modern day Germany) and also the time when settlement changed from isolated farmsteads to the nucleated villages which characterise the rural English landscape through to the present day,

Ploughs need villages

Nucleated villages start being created at the same time as there is increased occupation of heavier soils. This strongly suggests that they were connected. The most likely link is the adoption of a much heavier plough, equipped with mouldboard and coulter. According to a book by Tom Williamson published in 2003[3] such ploughs and their associated oxen were a major investment in resources. They could only be sustained by a group of farmers sharing the same plough and oxen team, which in turn required them living close together so plough teams could be brought together at short notice when the soil conditions were right for ploughing. And, on heavy soils, there may only be a few weeks in the year when the soil was neither too wet and sticky nor too dry.

Furthermore, plough oxen needed either hay meadows or woodland pasture to survive the winter. Hay making is labour intensive and the timing critical. This makes nucleated settlements essential so haymaking teams could be assembled when the sun was shining ('make hay while the suns shines' is not just a quaint expression but a necessity if the hay crop was not to rot).

We do not know who promoted the widespread use of heavy ploughs in Anglo-Saxon England, although the finger points to the Mercian kings and their principal landowners seeking to maximise the rents they could extract from their estates. What we do know is that this single technological innovation indirectly led to the England we know today because, without this type of plough and the changes in settlement that resulted, we would not have villages or the roads that link them together. In other words, we would not have the rural England we know and love.

A plethora of pagan place-names

Another book published last year sheds even more light on later Anglo-Saxon era – the latest volume in Barrie Cox's meticulous study of the place-names of Leicestershire[4]. This discusses in great detail the origins of the settlement and field names in the East Goscote hundred, which contains all the Wolds villages. Indeed Cox's research provides so much information about the early medieval settlement of the Wolds area that he published a separate article discussing the details[5].

Apart from the probable Anglo-Saxon minster which succeeded the Iron Age 'great sacred grove' at Vernemetum, the Wolds is remarkable for the place-names which suggest several pagan shrines. In Wymeswold the name Horrou is recorded in 1212 and Harrowfeld appears in 1412. These derive from the Old English haerg meaning 'sacred grove or heathen temple'. This 'Harrow' gave its name to the pre-enclosure Arrow field which straddled the River Mantle (significantly, also known as the River Arrow) to the east of the village, running towards Six Hills and probably accounts for the modern Harrow Farm nearby on the Burton Road. Almost certainly the original pagan shrine was in part of the Arrow Field, probably at a spring associated with the River Arrow/Mantle. A few other hearg place-names are known nationally, although not all modern 'Harrow'? places derive from hearg. Interesting another Harrowe is mentioned in Scalford, to the north of Melton Mowbray.

In Wymeswold an Alfletford is recorded in 1292 and Alfleethorn at some time in the thirteenth century. This is from the Old English alh (meaning 'heathen temple') and fleot ('stream') with ford or thorn respectively. The location of this 'temple ford'? is not known but has to be associated with the River Mantle and may be an alternative reference to the same hearg. Alfletford compares closely to Wyfordby (wig is Old English for 'pagan shrine') to the east of Melton Mowbray. The same Old English word wig also gives its name to Wysall, immediately to the north of Wymeswold.


The site of a spring to the north of Harrow Farm.
Was this the Anglo-Saxon haerg?


The culvert leading to the ruins of Gambers Hill Lodge.
Is this the successor to the Alfletford?


The combination of Vernemetum, Wysall, a haerg and/or alh towards Six Hills is a most unusual survival of evidence for three or more pagan shrines in close proximity, and it is all the more remarkable that similar names are known fairly close at Scalford and Wyfordby. The problem with place-name evidence is that we can never be sure when these names were first created. Some go back to at least the eighth century and a few are known to date to the tenth century (and, rarely in Leicestershire, even later). Predictably enough many of the older place-names seem to date back to the formation of nucleated villages and their associated 'great fields'. However these haerg and alh place-names are more likely to be no more recent than the mid-seventh century, as such pagan shrines are unlikely to survive the conversion to Christianity by more than a few decades. Because place-names tend to denote something unusual, just possibly such haerg and alh names originate around the time of the Christian conversion, when pagan shrines were becoming less commonplace. However an older origin seems more likely.

Where did the locals go?

When the Anglo-Saxons arrived in the Wolds, what happened to the people who were already living here? Place-name evidence suggests that they formed independent settlements. One of these is Walton on the Wolds which, like other Waltons in the country, is derived from the Old English wala tun, meaning 'the farmstead of the British'. The word wala evolved into the modern world 'Welsh', but originally had a broader sense of 'indigenous British' – and 'slave'. These Britons spoke a Celtic language, akin to Welsh and Scottish Gaelic.

A different Old English word also had an almost identical meaning of 'the British'?. This is the word cumbre which is a loan word from Celtic (and became the Cymru of modern Welsh, used to denote Wales). In 1543 there is references to a Cumberdale in Wymeswold (probably the valley of the River Mantle and just maybe the area around the hearg or pagan shrine discussed above); a few years later in 1601 Cumberlea is recorded in Seagrave (a 'lea' is a clearing in woodland). Also in Seagrave are Finchette (recorded in 1601) and Trunchit (recorded in 1697). Both of these minor place-names take their ending from the proto-Welsh word ced (meaning 'a wood'); Trunchit also incorporates the proto-Welsh word trum ('a promontory'). Furthermore, between Seagrave and Walton runs a stream once called the Severne, also a Celtic word meaning 'river' (which has been retained as the name of the major river in the West Country). This cluster of pre-Anglo-Saxon place-name elements suggests that at least parts of Wymeswold and Seagrave, as well Walton, were enclaves of the native population for some time after the Anglo-Saxons began to settle in the Wolds.

There are parallels in other parts of the country. Several place-name scholars have suggested that the Britons and Anglo-Saxons lived in close proximity for several generations and there is no evidence to suggest that this was other than a harmonious arrangement.

Meeting in the middle

Although the Wolds area is on the western edge of East Goscote hundred, it is near the centre of the original Goscote hundred, before it was split into West and East. Barrie Cox suggests that the field shown as 'Goose Foot Close' on the Wymeswold Enclosure Award is not, as might first be suspected, a reference to a field with a shape akin to a goose's foot, but a corruption of 'gos cote'. In other words this is a clue to the location of the original Goscote meeting place. Sadly we do not have a map of the Enclosure Award for Wymeswold, so the location of Goose Foot Close is not known. However on the basis of other evidence (see my article in the WHO Newsletter for 2002) it is reasonable to expect that the meeting place for the Goscote hundred was at or near Six Hills.

Place names also tell us about more recent periods in history. Barrie Cox's research reveals that Wymeswold is one of a number of places in the area where a field was known as 'Dead men's graves'; the other places in East Goscote hundred are South Croxton, Thorpe Arnold, Pickwell and Skeffington. Such names appear to date to the twelfth or early thirteenth century, before the Black Death, when population pressure meant that more and more land was being cultivated. If new fields were created near parish boundaries they were likely to reveal pagan Anglo-Saxon cemeteries (which were typically situated on boundaries). Such pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon burial grounds have been excavated by archaeologists at Melton Mowbray, Saxby, Sysonby and Thurmaston. Indeed, although Cox does not seem to be aware, the fieldname Dead Man's Grave is still used by local people to refer to a field just inside Wymeswold parish on the side of the Fosse Way. This field is where an the Anglo-Saxon cemetery was discovered in the 1960s[6].

Medieval climate change: warmer, wetter, increased flooding

Historical records suggest that one reason why the Black Death ravaged the British population was because there had been several summers when the weather prevented a successful harvest, leading to widespread famine. The book on Trent Valley Landscapes draws upon sophisticated archaeological research to assess climate changes in medieval times. Although the details are difficult to summarise, they suggest that 'global warming' is nothing new; indeed it is something that badly affected life in the thirteenth century. Although warmer weather might suggest better growing conditions, the evidence suggests that rainfall also increased. Not only did this inhibit the harvesting of grain, it also increased flooding of meadows, essential for livestock, and – perhaps most importantly – reduced the time when heavy clayey soils were suitable for ploughing.

The archaeology of the Trent valley suggests that heavy flooding increased during the middle ages. The Trent is especially prone to flooding because the higher reaches in Staffordshire and the tributaries flowing from the north (such as the Derwent) all drain large areas of upland England. Heavy rainfall on these uplands has a dramatic effect on water levels in the Trent. Tributaries flowing from the south (such as the Soar) do not drain such extensive areas. However the Soar needs to flow into the Trent and, if water levels in the Trent are running high because of water from further upstream (and the confluence with the Derwent is a few miles further up the Trent from where the Soar joins), then the water from the Soar cannot escape, causing the Soar valley to flood. Only a major system of locks and flood defences, some constructed in the last fifteen years, has alleviated the flood damage that can arise when the Soar cannot flow 'uphill' into the flooded Trent. Prior to these defences the effect of the increased rainfall during the thirteenth century could have been disastrous for settlements which border the Soar, such as Barrow and Cotes.

Obscure origins

Cox's book also sheds light onto some obscure current place names. Those who walk the footpaths to the east of Wymeswold near the course of the River Mantle will be familiar with the ruins of a small brick-built farm. This is shown on Ordnance Survey maps as Gamber's Hill Lodge. Earlier forms of the name are Granborough, which clearly derives from the Old English grene berg, meaning 'green hill', and the ruins are indeed on the summit of a small hill.

Likewise Storkit Lane, a track running north from the Rempstone Road in Wymeswold, is shown in 1703 as Stalkott Lane, which is a corruption of 'stall cot' – a shelter (or simple 'cottage') with animal stalls.

There has been some speculation about the original meaning of the Stockwells, such as the one at Wymeswold. We can be fairly sure it did not mean a well where livestock were watered. The Old English word stoc suggests tree stumps or tree trunks, so perhaps a 'stockwell' was a well lined with tree trunks. However Cox suggests that 'stockwell' originally meant a stream (which in Old English would be referred to as a wella) crossed with a footbridge made from a tree trunk.

Derbyshire miners in Burton

One of the less expected insights of Barrie Cox's research relates to a survey conducted in 1701 of the residents of Burton on the Wolds. This reveals several families with surnames based on Derbyshire villages such as Burbage, Gresley, Matlock and Melbourne. Cox suggests these could be lead-mining families who migrated to Burton to work the local gypsum. Further research is needed to confirm the typical occupations associated with these Derbyshire villages, but these surnames strongly suggest something of a migration to Burton, presumably during the seventeenth century.

All four books provide fascinating insights into the archaeology and history of the Wolds and adjoining areas. They also reveal how research and scholarship over the last twenty years has greatly changed our understanding of the region – it will be interesting to see how this knowledge develops over the next twenty years!

notes

1. Leicestershire Landscapes, Paul Bowman and Peter Liddle (eds), Leicestershire Museums Archaeological Fieldwork Group Monograph No.1, 2004.

2. Trent Valley Landscapes, David Knight and Andy J. Howard (Heritage Marketing and Publications Ltd, 2004).

3. Shaping medieval landscapes: settlement, society, environment, Tom Williamson (Windgather Press, 2003).

4. The Place-Names of Leicestershire: Part 3: East Goscote Hundred, Barrie Cox (English Place-Name Society, 2004).

5. 'Toponymic traces of the earlier inhabitants of north-eastern Leicestershire', Barrie Cox, The English Place-Name Society Journal, Vol.36 (20034) p5562

6. See A.G. Kingsley, Broughton Lodge. Excavations on the Romano-British settlement and Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Broughton Lodge, Willoughby-on-the-Wolds, Nottinghamshire, 19648, Nottingham Archaeological Monographs No.4, University of Nottingham, 1993; this was briefly summarised in an article in the WHO Newsletter 2000 – see Six Hills, Leicestershire – a possible Anglo-Saxon moot site

Originally published in The Wolds Historian No.2 (2005)

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