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Transforming Fell and Valley

Landscape and Parliamentary Enclosure in North West England

Many areas of the north west had their landscapes transformed by the enclosure of upland commons during the later eighteenth and nineteenth century. Parliamentary enclosure created new, regular landscapes of fields, access roads, quarries and new farmsteads. These features still form a distinctive element of the modern countryside and contrast sharply with the landscape in those upland areas which were not enclosed.

Transforming Fell and Valley is the first detailed survey, based on original source material, of why this enclosure was undertaken, who was responsible for the decision-making, how the new landscapes were created and the effect the changes had on rural society. The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs and maps, demonstrating the impact enclosure has left on the upland landscape of today.

  • Softback
  • Full Colour Cover
  • ISBN: 1-86220-132-3
  • 102 Pages

Price: £11.50 (plus p+p)

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Published by Centre for North-West Regional Studies, Lancaster University

Ian Whyte is Emeritus Professor of Historical Geography at Lancaster University. His research interests are focused on landscape, social and economic change in Scotland and northern England from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. He is the author of many books including Scotland Before the Industrial Revolution: an Economic and Social History c1050-c1750, Longman, 1995 and Migration and Society in Britain 1550-1830, MacMillan, 2000.

Extract from the Introduction

Although extensive areas of open common grazings still exist in the uplands of the north west many fells, and the marginal country around their fringes, are broken up by patterns of field boundaries, access roads, farmsteads and other features which have a neat, orderly appearance. At their most extreme such areas can have a painfully regular geometry of square fields and roads intersecting at right angles, sometimes ignoring the detail of the topography in their quest for regularity. Their uphill boundary with open moorland, or sometimes along a watershed with an adjoining, unenclosed common, may be marked by a striking contrast in vegetation between the bright green of improved grassland within the fields and dark heather moorland or pale acid grassland outside them. Lower down, the junction between the large square or rectangular fields and smaller, much less regularly-shaped older enclosures is often just as prominent on the map or in the landscape. The contrast between large, regular allotments high on the fellsides and smaller irregularly-shaped enclosures lower down is striking if you stand on a hillside overlooking Dentdale or Garsdale (Yo) and look across to the opposite side of the valley. The boundary is a wavy line, marking the former head dyke, or limit of improvement, in the mid-eighteenth century along the edge of what was once the common pasture before the newer, larger allotments were created.

The planned appearance of such landscapes can be striking even when travelling past them rapidly on the motorway: over Shap, on the fringes of Bowland, passing Lancaster, or crossing Stainmore on the A66 for instance. If you are driving on country roads you may experience an abrupt transition at the boundary between old enclosed land and areas of newer fields. One minute you may be driving on a narrow, winding road, hemmed in by hedges and overhung by trees. Then suddenly the road widens out, becoming completely straight with broad verges, rich in wild flowers, while the view also opens out. Just as suddenly, you may come to a characteristic right-angled bend in the road and have to slow right down to negotiate it. Often the land within the fields on either side of you will have been improved. Today it is more likely to be under pasture rather than crops but with the light of a low-slanting evening or winter sun you can often pick out the straight, parallel corrugations of former ridge-and-furrow ploughing, indicating cultivation from before the days of mass-produced pipes for underground tile drains. In other cases the vegetation in the fields may be indistinguishable from that on nearby open moorland, suggesting that, if the land was ever improved, it must have occurred a long time ago and possibly only for a brief period.

The OS 1:25,000 maps sometimes distinguish some of the larger of these regular fields with names like ‘Lord’s Lot’ or ‘Bishop’s Tithe Allotment’, suggesting that some kind of share-out of land has occurred in the past. These efficiently-planned landscapes are areas of parliamentary enclosure. Under the authority of acts of Parliament former common land, which in the north west was mainly rough pasture, was divided up among those people who had rights to use it, mainly for grazing but also for a range of other activities. In the process the commons were extinguished, the former commoners receiving specific blocks of land, or allotments, in lieu of their original common rights. The creation of the new enclosed landscape was overseen by Parliament through an act for each manor, parish or township. In this process, which operated between the later eighteenth and later nineteenth centuries, the landscapes of extensive areas of the north west were profoundly transformed. The landscapes created by parliamentary enclosure have often changed relatively little since then. Some of the land enclosed by parliamentary act in the north west – a very small proportion – involved remnants of open-field arable land. Some of it consisted of valley meadows and peat mosses, lowland commons and coastal salt marshes, but the bulk of it was upland pasture.

People often fail to realise how extensive, and how recent, this landscape revolution was. The slopes of many of the region's best-known fells, like High Street or Whernside, often thought of as really wild country, have been carefully evaluated, mapped and parcelled out by the enclosure commissioners and their surveyors. Parliamentary enclosure is a process which many people vaguely remember hearing about at school. Often there is a general perception of the process being driven by major landowners, with small farmers, cottagers and squatters being disadvantaged or even driven out. There were, in fact, two main types of parliamentary enclosure; first open-field arable land, mainly in the midlands, eastern and southern England, and second common pasture and waste, some of it in the lowlands but the bulk of it in northern England and Wales. A lot of the research on parliamentary enclosure has focused on the first category; much less is known about the enclosure of upland commons. Within the north west there have been some detailed individual case studies but no broad overview; many aspects of the process, and the landscape it created, are poorly understood. Over England and Wales as a whole, parliamentary enclosure began to gather momentum in the 1760s reaching a peak during the Napoleonic Wars and tailing off by the mid nineteenth century. Estimates of the total amount of land involved vary between 6.7 and 7.25 million acres (2.6-2.9 million ha) in England or 8.4 million acres (3.4 million ha) if Wales is included: about 24 per cent of the total area of land of which some 2.3 million acres (0.9 million ha) were common pasture rather than open-field arable, much of it in the uplands. These figures are not precise because the award documents prepared by the enclosure commissioners for each parish, manor or township, the most important of the historical sources relating to parliamentary enclosure, are not always precise about how much land was involved.

Extract from the Conclusion

Early twentieth-century English agricultural historians tended to over-emphasise the importance of parliamentary enclosure suggesting that, as a result of it, most of the English landscape dated no further back than the eighteenth century. Since then landscape historians have demonstrated that much of our landscape is a good deal older than this. Within the north west the impact of parliamentary enclosure, especially in the uplands, is patchy and variable. In addition, the extent of change is sometimes relatively limited, especially as regards land use. In Gressingham parish (La), a local historian writing early in the twentieth century, commented that over a century after enclosure some of the allotments did not look any different from their original condition as open moorland. Sometimes the land use changes brought about by enclosure appear minimal: Figure 44 shows the boundary of the Dent (Yo) enclosure and Barbon common but there is no obvious difference on either side of the boundary in terms of the vegetation cover. On the other hand along boundaries such as that between Orton and Crosby Ravensworth (We) the contrast between improved pasture in the enclosed land of the former and the unimproved open common of the latter is striking.

Where parliamentary enclosure occurred it not only changed the landscape but sometimes precipitated further changes. From the window of my office at Lancaster University I can look towards the Bowland fells over a landscape which, in the last 200 years, has been totally remodelled three times. At the end of the eighteenth century it was an area of common pasture, part of Scotforth Moor. After enclosure in around 1809 it became farmland. In the late nineteenth century it was converted into a sporting estate with the construction of Bailrigg House. From the 1960s it has developed as a university campus. Much of the present woodlands originated as plantings on the Bailrigg estate but the parliamentary enclosure hedgerows are still evident.

Parliamentary enclosure has been described as one of the most important exercises in landscape planning of any era. Nevertheless, it was very much the product of local decision making and is, as a result, sporadic in its distribution. Much unenclosed land remains; it is still possible to walk from one side of Westmorland to the other without leaving common land. Just over 100,000 acres of common land were enclosed in Westmorland yet over 129,000 acres remain open. On the other hand, over extensive areas of the uplands and moorlands, the character of the modern landscape with its regular fields, straight roads and farmsteads still reflects the decisions that were made by the enclosure commissioners. This comes out most dramatically in Inglewood Forest (Cu) where, in addition to the 29,000 acre block enclosed from 1819 there are other large areas of enclosure such as Skelton (5,000 acres), Castle Sowerby (5,000 acres) and Sebergham (2,896 acres). In this area you can drive for miles along ruler-straight roads, switchbacking across the gently undulating terrain. There are few villages and most of the farmsteads are set back from the road in the centre of their allotments; a landscape which is lonely, monotonous but very distinctive. If the scale and impact of parliamentary enclosure has sometimes been exaggerated it is nevertheless worth remembering the comments of some contemporary commentators who stress the amount of the landscape change involved. John Housman, writing of the country north of Penrith in 1821, described how the area was formerly an extensive common eight or nine miles long with a ridge of barren hills in the middle (the sandstone ridge running north from Penrith Beacon). At the time of writing, after enclosure, it was characterised by ‘woods, farm houses and rich crops of corn where furze and ling once principally prevailed’, though today quite extensive areas are planted with conifers (Figure 45). Garnett, writing about Westmorland, emphasised how enclosure hastened the development of agriculture in the county even more than its strongest advocates had believed, carrying farming on a wave for the first 50 or 60 years of the nineteenth century.

The names and the work of the enclosure commissioners have generally been forgotten though a plaque on the wall of the Cavendish Arms in Cartmel (La) commemorates the holding there of the public meetings concerning enclosure, while another plaque, fixed to a reused gatepost, commemorates the granting of the Strickland Roger (We) recreation allotment in 1853. The landscape they created has often changed relatively little since their time. Parliamentary enclosure landscapes among the fells of north west England are increasingly poorly maintained today. Choked drains and broken culverts have caused sedges to invade the pastures and the flooding of enclosure roads. Walls, especially on internal boundaries, receive little or no maintenance and are often in a tumbled state. With the recent crisis in hill farming, especially following the foot-and-mouth outbreak, land use in the uplands is likely to become even less intensive and landscape maintenance, unless supported by grants such as those through the Environmentally Sensitive Areas scheme, even further reduced. The history of the enclosure process, and how it was carried out, is scarcely known to many of the farmers who work the land today. Walking the roads and footpaths laid out by the enclosure surveyors has not only helped to keep me fit; it has prompted some interesting conversations with farmers. Appearing outside a farm gate with a clipboard, I have sometimes been taken, initially, as someone from the council making unspecified checks. Having established the real purpose of my visit, I have often been asked to tell the story of the local enclosure and of the people behind it. I have now told the story to a wider audience in the hope of passing on something of my own interest and enthusiasm. Next time you go out on the fells I hope that you will look at the landscape around you with fresh interest and insight.

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Images from Transforming Fell and Valley

Book cover

Book Cover


The contrast between the large, regular fields of the parliamentary enclosure era on the upper slopes of Dentdale and the small, irregular ones of earlier date on the lower slopes is striking.

Jeffrey's Map

Map 2: Part of Jeffrey's Map of Westmoreland 1770 showin the dense patterns of trackways across the commons south of Appleby.

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