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Arable farming

Photograph showing ploughing with horses

Classic open field farming was characterised by the rotation of crops between three fields. In each year, two fields were growing crops, while the third field was left empty, or 'fallow'. Rotation and fallow periods improved the fertility of the soil.

At the time of the 1635 survey Laxton had four open arable fields; West Field, Mill Field, South Field and East Field. This remained the case until the reorganisation of the fields in 1903-1908. But in fact the three-field system operated at Laxton, because the East and West Fields were farmed together for the purposes of rotation.

The main crops grown in Laxton were wheat and rye (sown in the winter), and barley, oats, beans, peas and clover (sown in the spring, and known as 'spring corn'). The wheat crops were used for bread and ale, and the spring crops were used as fodder to feed animals over the winter. Everybody was required to sow and harvest crops in a particular field within a specified period of time. This made it possible for animals to be pastured on the field at other times of the year.

Over the three years the pattern would be:

  Year 1 Year 2 Year 3
Mill Field Wheat Spring corn Fallow
South Field Fallow Wheat Spring corn
East and West Fields Spring corn Fallow Wheat

As we saw in Theme 1, the open fields were subdivided into furlongs and 'lands'. Lands were ridges of soil, built up over many years by the action of the plough. The plough threw the soil to the right hand side as it bit through the ground. Once the farmer had reached the end of the furlong, he turned his plough around and ploughed up the other side of his land, again causing the soil to be thrown to the right. Over time, the ploughed soil built up into high ridges, with furrows alongside.

Lands were often not exactly rectangular, but were more like a reverse 'S' shape, curving slightly at both ends. This was also caused by the action of the plough, because the oxen needed space on the headland at the end of the furrow in order to turn. The oxen travelled slightly to the left before turning around, which allowed the plough to get as far along the furrow as possible. In later periods, horses were used for ploughing. As horses could turn in a tighter circle than oxen, the ridges they produced were straighter.

Photographs 1, 2 and 3 show crops, ploughing, and ridge and furrow.

 

Next page: Grazing, pasture and common land

 

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