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Suffolk Landscape History

The History and Evolution of the Suffolk Farmed Landscape

Flat! Perhaps one of the most-used adjectives to describe Suffolk’s landscape, especially by non-natives. But is it justified? To those with eyes to see and an enquiring mind, Suffolk’s landscape – or rather, landscapes, because there are several very different ones – is anything but flat. Moreover, it’s very diverse, both naturally and culturally, and historically fascinating, different in a number of respects from many other parts of the country.

This diversity of landscapes stems primarily from the county’s soils. For centuries it has been recognised that there are three main divisions: the sandy Breckland to the northwest (earlier known as the Fielding or the Champion), the central clay belt, (earlier the Woodland, more recently High Suffolk), and the coastal sands and marshes, formerly known as the Sandland, now the Sandlings. There are blurred edges where some these divisions merge, and there are small areas of different landscape within them, but fundamentally each of these three areas is quite distinct from the others.

The Breckland and the Sandlings are both designated as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, while the central clays have no designation; bizarre, considering there is very little ‘natural’ in any of the regions, and that the clayland contains most of the oldest visible features, a legacy stretching back to the medieval period and often well beyond.

If Domesday Book statistics (1086) are to be believed, Norfolk and Suffolk had the highest population density in the whole country. The Suffolk countryside was already extensively farmed, and woodland on the clays was being cleared to create more useable land. Some of the former woodland areas became greens, a vital reservoir of pasture amid the expanding arable. Following the Black Death (the middle of the fourteenth century) things changed, and on the clays dairying became the main enterprise. It’s hard for us to imagine now, surrounded by almost one hundred per cent arable in all three major regions, that for some three hundred years or more the northern clays (north of the Gipping) were dominated by wood-pasture and dairying, In the post-medieval period some of the manorial farms had no arable at all, relying on smaller neighbours (who ran a more mixed farming system in smaller fields) for their cereal needs. Before the principles of underdrainage were understood, these clays were wet and intractable, best suited to grass. Not little paddocks, but large enclosures, sometimes extending to over one hundred acres, liberally dotted with rows of trees – hence the Woodland name. (Timber was a profitable commodity, and wood was needed as fuel and for many other uses). These large enclosures were gradually sub-divided, particularly in the eighteenth century, as more controlled and scientific management of herds was introduced. But slowly the dairy industry declined. The Napoleonic Wars, at the turn of the nineteenth century, coincided with the introduction of underdrainage. Because of the war wheat prices rose dramatically, and, grasping a profitable alternative to dairy, the north central clays switched en masse to arable. They have never looked back. The optimism of the nineteenth century ‘High Farming’ period led to the grubbing of more woods and most of the trees; in fact, most of the surviving Ancient Semi-Natural Woodland in the north of the county was erased at this time.

South of the Gipping, in a much more hilly terrain than that to the north, the clayland farmers who had at one time made great profits from supplying wool for the cloth trade retained a much more mixed economy, but they were much less well off than previously. Between about 1550 and 1650 the dairy farmers to the north could afford to rebuild their houses to the latest standards – the so-called ‘Great Rebuilding’ -, while most of those to the south had to modify their existing houses as best they could. This difference is still visible today: there is a much higher density of older timber-framed houses south of the Gipping.

For centuries the sandy soils hosted a completely different type of agriculture – sheep and corn, although cattle were fattened on the coastal grazing marshes, and the Breckland was renowned for (farmed) rabbit warrens. Unlike the clays, where enclosed fields had long been the norm, the sands were characterised by open fields, with farmers holding a multitude of scattered strips. In the eighteenth century in particular, these open fields were gradually enclosed either by private agreement or by Act of Parliament. This explains the preponderance of ruler-straight, often single species hedges (usually hawthorn or elm) on the sands, contrasting with the irregular boundaries with ancient multi-species hedges on the clays. Breckland had its own idiosyncratic ‘hedge’ – the pine row. More often than not these days, these survive as rows of trees rather than as hedges. Compared to the clays, the Breckland and Sandling fieldscapes are comparatively young. The main enterprises today are irrigated vegetables rather than sheep and corn, although the world-renowned Suffolk sheep is a lasting legacy of the earlier agriculture on the sands. (Suffolk can boast two other famous breeds – the Red Poll, with its Suffolk Dun dairy cow ancestry, and the Suffolk Punch, one of the strongest and most docile of the heavy horse breeds, its featherless feet ideal for working on sticky clay soils. Suffolk was using horses for ploughing when much of the rest of the country was still using oxen).

The different histories of the regions have left different landscape legacies. The Breckland marks the easternmost reach of nucleated village England (although Suffolk’s coastal strip also has primarily nucleated villages), while the clays are typified by scattered settlement, either completely isolated or hamlet-like around numerous former greens; churches, too, are often isolated. (A few nucleated villages exist in the claylands, mostly arising from cloth-making centres or markets). Today the sands are particularly valued for their heathland, now much depleted. Napoleonic era farmers tried to farm much of it, often in vain; their field boundary banks can still be seen under the heather and bracken. After the First World War the Forestry Commission planted vast coniferous plantations, both in the Sandlings and in the Brecks. The surviving heaths are an extremely rare and valuable habitat. Much of the marshland has been converted to arable, so remaining wetlands are equally valuable. While most of the sandland farmsteads are comparatively late (often built of brick near the coast, flint in the Brecks; few are listed), and the roads, like the field boundaries, are often ruler-straight, the clays retain a large proportion of a once much more dense network of ancient meandering roads and lanes, scores of much older timber-framed farmhouses and farm buildings (many of the houses listed), countless moats and ponds (lots of ponds in the north of the county associated with linen manufacture, a by-product on many farms), and ancient hedges and woods (the latter mostly now south of the Gipping, although at the time of Domesday Book most of the woodland was in the north). Many of the greens were enclosed in the Napoleonic era, but some still manage to survive intact; ‘ghosts’ of former greens and ancient woods are still very visible in the clays, but despite the recent Hedgerow Regulations many green boundaries, particularly those demarcating the road-edge ‘linear greens’, are still at risk of insidious erasure.

Many landscape historians condemn the post-WWII boundary loss and associated habitat destruction in Suffolk (and of course elsewhere), and certainly there are many examples in the county where the episode was regrettably excessive, destroying ancient boundaries, old lanes and moated sites. But close examination shows that much of value has survived, and we should now be making every effort to recognise, cherish and sustain the important features and habitats. All the county’s farmers have a huge role to play in helping to nurture that and protect and enhance the indigenous species and habitats – heaths and hedges are equally important, in different ways. The regions of Suffolk still retain a tangible local distinctiveness, something that all farmers and all the county’s residents should be proud of. Flat? – well, yes, in parts. Diverse and fascinating? – undoubtedly!

© Steve Podd 2018 Narrative | A. A. Napier Image

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