The Lost Landscape of Stevenage

By Lee Prosser


The last fifty years have witnessed such profound change in the vicinity of Stevenage that it is now hard to imagine the seemingly timeless landscape of rolling hills and green fields which once existed around the old town.  The landscape represents one of the most informative and precious historical documents with which to understand the past, yet most has now disappeared beneath new roads, houses and industry.  The landscape is not beyond reach, however, and by ‘reading’ the fields and hamlets; their names and shapes, we may again turn to the rural environment through historic maps and photographs to delve into a rich and enduring past.

Among historic maps for Stevenage, the tithe survey of 1834 is both the most comprehensive and informative.  It records every field and scrap of land by name and so has left an unsurpassed legacy for the modern historian and archaeologist.   The production of the accompanying map was particularly timely (Figure 1).  What survived in 1834 was a landscape in transition; poised on the eve of the Victorian era and the modern agricultural age, before the arrival of the railways and so preserving echoes of land-use, ownership and evolution spanning a thousand years or more.  The names and form of over twelve hundred fields convey a myriad of information.  From it, we can suggest where the earlier woodland lay, how the Old Town developed, where the medieval fields were tilled, the location of archaeological remains and lost or deserted settlements.  In short, the landscape holds the key to the obscure origins of Stevenage itself.

The historic parish was an area of dispersed hamlets and farmsteads, reflecting a settlement pattern seen across Hertfordshire as a whole.  A web of small outlying settlements spread out over the whole area, many of which are still recognisable, though they have now become suburban estates with a few surviving historic buildings at their core.  Some are clearly Georgian or Victorian farms inserted into the landscape, while others have a much greater antiquity and are probably medieval developments.  Several have Anglo-Saxon names, and are mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. 

 

The pattern of the landscape

The settlements form only one layer in the landscape, but the fields are also very distinctive.  It is immediately apparent that there is an east-west divide.  The fields to the east, dotted with hamlets and farms are, for the most part large and irregular, interspersed with small patches of woodland.  The roads and lanes twist and turn, seemingly at random.  To the west by contrast, the town itself seems to act as a focus for tight clusters of sinuous, elongated and regular fields, sometimes enclosed by large, curving lanes connecting the hamlets, and at other times crossed by roads with twisting, dog-leg turns.  This division is conspicuous and relates most clearly the position of the medieval fields; the single acre groups of furlongs which covered much of lowland England and which were doled out annually among the tenants of the manor, to farm in tiny, dispersed holdings.  These ancient fields have now disappeared from the English landscape, and the ridge and furrow earthworks which formerly characterised them on the ground have been erased by deep ploughing since the Second World War.   Remarkably, the map shows that the medieval system had been fossilised at the point where the system began to break down in the 16th and 17th century, when local farmers tried to consolidate their holdings in blocks, placing hedges around them and so preserving a mosaic of tiny strip-fields.  These had, in turn completely disappeared by the end of the 19th century, when modern agrarian practices made such small plots uneconomical.   However, a myriad of fields preserve their typical medieval names, which helps us to reconstruct the pattern of the medieval landscape (figure 2).  Many of these fields are recorded in 13th and 14th century surveys.  While the west has greater regularity and artificiality in layout, to the east, the form of the fields and hamlets probably reflects a different form of tenure, arranged in a pattern of smaller free farms which controlled meadow, woodland and pasture.  Further historical study of individual farms and manorial estates could help us to understand this division in more detail.

The form and morphology of Old Town is beyond the scope of this short study, but a combination of documentary evidence and its highly regular, classical medieval layout suggest that it was laid out in a form typical of the late 12th or early 13th century.  The granting of a market and fair in 1281 was probably the culmination of a long process of urbanisation around the Roman road. This late date explains why the church, which is earlier, is located outside the bounds of the medieval town.   Intriguingly, the medieval fields are so closely related to the form of the town as to suggest that the bundles of furlongs were established, or even deliberately laid out at the same time as the town.

 

Clues to the origins of medieval Stevenage

The grant by King Edward the Confessor of a generous estate to the monks of Westminster in 1065 was a crucial moment in the history of Stevenage, because it gave definition to an estate which must previously have been relatively nebulous, or it may be that something completely new was created.  These lands must have been donated from a pool of available lands which constituted the royal patrimony or ancient estates from which the early kings derived their personal income.  By the early 11th century, there was, in fact very little land left in the king’s hands, but one of the largest remaining blocks in the kingdom lay at Hitchin, comprising all of modern Offley, Langley, Ippollitts and the surrounding area.  The proximity of Stevenage implies that there may have been a connection.  At a local level, a mixture of early references and the field and place-names also provide further clues. 

The name of Stevenage itself conveys a great deal about the early settlement.  It appears to have been a landmark, and probably a gathering place.  Where we would expect a focal point with a respectable ‘settlement’ name ending with –ton (such as Benington) or –worth (Datchworth), we find instead, a name which describes a single tree; an oak which may have had sacred connotations.  The ‘stiff’ or ‘strong oak’ is just one of many names which indicate the existence of woods or the clearance of trees, in addition to the large swathes which survived in the south at Whomerley Wood, Newton Wood, Cannocks Wood and elsewhere.   Woodfield, to the north of the town, around The Bury had given its name to a hamlet by the 19th century, while nearby Whitney Wood was a fragment of a much larger area, which crossed the main road and extended westwards.  Both Whitney Wood and Whomerley Wood are interesting examples.  Both names end in the –ley form which denotes clearance of woodland, and appear to have regenerated once again.  Several large enclosures adjoining these areas, with rather lacklustre descriptive names such as ‘Six Acres’ or ‘Nine Acres’, are almost always characteristic of rapid clearance or consolidation in the modern era.  If we were to plot all the woodland names in the parish, the result would reflect a surprising density and distribution throughout the area.

It has been suggested that central Hertfordshire, including Stevenage formerly comprised a swathe of woodland dividing a dense pattern of small estates to the east of Hertfordshire and the vast lands of St Alban’s Abbey to the west.  Evidence from nearby parishes largely confirms this hypothesis.  Many of the smaller estates and parishes which surround Stevenage have woodland names, including Burleigh Farm (a detached part of Letchworth), Graveley and Wymondley, all of which feature the –ley clearance name.  We know too that at the time of Domesday, Welwyn owned part of Chells; itself a woodland name meaning Ash-tree slope, and it seems that the larger, surrounding estates reserved discrete areas of the wood for their own use for pasture and timber.  The granting of the estate by King Edward the Confessor probably represented the final disintegration of this pattern of traditional exploitation, followed by clearance and a development of new settlement. 

If we examine the names of the little hamlets distributed through the landscape, we find that many of them have a common element.  Fisher’s Green, Pin Green, Norton Green, Broomin Green and Symonds Green are all of one obvious group.  This is hardly a coincidence.  Greens are ubiquitous, yet little study has been undertaken to venture an adequate explanation to this place-name, which is found in almost 150 examples throughout the county.  None can be traced before the 13th century with a ‘green’ name, none have given their names to parishes and many must therefore be late formations.  Stevenage offers a key to understanding this important layer in the landscape. Closer examination of just a few reveals an interesting picture.   Letchmoor Green was originally Laschmerstret: a roadside settlement in the 14th century, and indeed its position on a long, elongated stretch of lane is self-explanatory.  Broomin Green was Bromendelane, or ‘Broom End Lane’.  Both give an impression of ad hoc or peripheral settlement springing up on available land.  Pin Green is a late coining – only appearing in the documents in the 16th century, but a certain Ralph of the Pende is recorded in tax surveys of the late 13th century, suggesting that the site was originally a farm.  There are certainly many others with a similar origin.  Several settlements are now lost, including Woolwicks on the western edge towards Fisher’s Green and Aldock to the east, both containing the vestigial Anglo-Saxon form ‘wic’ (Wulfwynn’s wic and old wic), suggesting small settlements, which eventually vanished, to be remembered only as field names.  Hertfordshire abounds in more ‘old wick’ names than any other county in the region, and yet we still know very little about their distribution or significance.

Bringing together the evidence in the briefest way can show how we may begin to build a framework on which to hang the medieval development of the parish.  By the late Saxon period, the area which was to become Stevenage had probably developed into a series of loose and nebulous units established in a woodland environment, perhaps many used as a precious resource by neighbouring estates and land-holdings.  By 1066 however, these ancient traditions of wood-pasture were already under pressure and splitting apart through the need to provide land-grants to a growing nobility, and to accommodate an expanding population.  It would be a mistake to think of Stevenage in terms of dense woodland in the late Saxon period, but rather a landscape peppered with small settlements, gradually encroaching on wood and rough pasture.    King Edward’s grant in 1065 merely formalised a process which had been going on for many centuries.  It is an interesting reflection that when the limits of the estate were drawn, the Roman road which remained in use was not used as a boundary, but treated as a central resource for transport and communications.  The road itself later became a central pivot for the whole landscape with the establishment of a new town in the 13th century.

The classic high medieval field pattern, the plan form of the Old Town and the range and scope of settlement names suggests that, in the centuries after the Norman Conquest, the monks of Westminster Abbey maximised their resources by laying out the town on a regular, ordered plan.  There is little doubt that this was a planned settlement; as much a formal New Town of the 13th century as Stevenage became in the 20th.  By coercion or encouragement, the town was peopled, and the fields around the town probably developed rapidly to support the settlement.  Beyond these immediate hinterlands, the process of gradual clearance and colonisation continued, with the appearance of free farms, hamlets and small manors throughout the Middle Ages.  The myriad of ‘greens’ may have developed from farms on the rough pasture or ‘waste’, and indeed the process was probably not complete by the end of the medieval period.

Even the most fleeting glimpse of the lost landscape of Stevenage, retrieved through a single historical map provides us with a tantalising glimpse at a rich heritage and offers a challenge; to continue the historical research, which is possible despite the loss of so much of the rural environment beneath tarmac and concrete.  The task for the future is to explore the possibilities which this ancient landscape provides. 

Related pages

History of Stevenage

Contact details

Stevenage Museum
St Georges Way
Stevenage
SG1 1XX

01438 218881
museum@stevenage.gov.uk

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