Digging out the truth on farmland history

Chris Benfield looks at one Yorkshire farmer’s controversial yet fascinating theory on how a unique feature of our rural landscapes was created.

Ron Parker is 83 and left school at 14, so he has found it hard to get his archaeological theories taken seriously.

But he started learning to dig as a pupil at Immingham Secondary School, from 1940, and spent many years labouring in that hard art and more talking to others who had done the same.

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He has ploughed with horses and with tractors. He has shifted soil of all sorts with a spade and his own muscles.

And he has looked at a lot of fields with the understanding of one who knows what goes into changing their shape and performance.

From that point of view, he would like to politely suggest, while he still has the strength to argue, that professional historians are wrong about the reasons for what are known as Ridge & Furrow landscapes – nowadays regarded as important relics.

The consensus is that we are looking at the products of years of repeated ploughing, for cultivation, in narrow corridors of land, when the foundation of farming was one man and the “strip” to which he rented rights, in between his neighbours, in the open landscape they shared.

According to this theory, every time the plough followed the same lines up and down the strip, the outer furrows became deeper and the central ridges higher.

The theory concedes that improved drainage would have been one benefit.

But Mr Parker, for all sorts of reasons, thinks drainage was the point.

And rather than being an incidental result of ploughing, he reckons, ridge and furrow conformations were produced by a huge amount of calculated manual digging, to shift topsoil, reform the clay underneath and then replace the soil.

The point, he believes, was not to grow crops but to improve pasture – to grow more grass and make more dry space for livestock to rest.

He has a dossier of anecdotes and measurements to support his theory. For one thing, he says, old ploughs could never have done the job they are being credited for – even with horses, let alone oxen.

For another thing, he points out that his own excavations, at work and out of interest, have shown topsoil across ridge and furrow country to be of even depth.

He comments: “To do that by plough, you would have had to remove the topsoil first anyway, then plough the clay, then put the earth back.

“In summer, the clay would be like concrete.

“In winter, it would break up in big lumps and you would never have pulled a wooden plough through it a second time.

“I would like to see it tried as an experiment.”

Does it make any difference? Well, should history be accurate?

Arguably, too, it might make a difference to Natural England’s assessments of which examples of ridge and furrow are worth preserving, with the help of stewardship grants.

Mr Parker says not all are medieval in origin.

Look around, he says, and it is clear they were still being created even after the Enclosure Act, which paved the way for landlords to 
buy out peasant rights and fence off big fields where 
they could achieve economies of scale.

He believes it was Victorian drainage systems, made possible by factory production of tiles and pipes for constructing underground channels, which saw off the old pattern – not the end of strip farming.

He is chairbound nowadays and even writing on his computer is hard.

But he continues to lobby for investigations which might change the account given in the history books and get better recognition for the ingenuity and unimaginably hard labour our ancestors put in.

He was born on the family farm at Goxhill, near Barton-on-Humber, in 1929, and worked on it for 22 years 
after leaving school, before going into the motor trade and ending up with his own repair shop in 
Goxhill, working mainly for farmers.

“Trouble is,” he says, “at the time this work was done, nobody wrote down what the labourers were up to and most of the people who pronounce on these fields now have only walked over them.

“You have to dig through a lot of mud to really understand them.

“And if you have never done that for a living, you simply find it impossible to believe that men with spades could have made that much difference to nature.

“But I know what manual digging can do and I know what a horse and plough can do and my explanation makes more sense.

“I’ve found farming people who agree with me.

But the academics don’t want to rewrite everything they have put down so 
far.

“Ridge and Furrow is said to have been in existence since the 14th century. But the plough as we know it, that cuts a slice of soil and lifts it up and over, was not developed until around 1800.

“Ploughs before that were little more than a glorified tree branch that made a scratch in the soil.

“They became more like the modern one over the centuries but were still made of wood and would not be strong enough to plough solid clay.

“There are some ridges around here that are far too high or steep to have been made with a plough, if it has ever been possible to make any at all that way.

“Natural drainage left a lot of low areas water-logged to the point they could not support good grass for animals.

“The farmers looked at the way the water ran and improved it to suit their needs. If you look at the layouts of the ridges, you can see they always run downhill.

“And the furrows curve and bend to keep water running without going through low places where it would stand and rot the grass.

“To assist that aim, a lot of ridges are wider at the top of the hill than they are at the bottom.

“You would not get that effect with a plough.

“Any farmworker who did time on the land before the middle of the 20th Century knows the slavery of harvesting grain crops before combined harvesters.

“Why would they have wanted to make level land into an obstacle course?

“I’ve taken a horse and cart over a ridged field and I can tell you it’s a recipe for disaster.”

Both Natural England and English Heritage declined 
the opportunity to comment in detail on Mr Parker’s theory.

Natural England referred us to The Field Guide: A Farmland Companion by John Woodward & Peter Luff (Blandford Press 1983) and said: “As far as Environmental Stewardship schemes are concerned, it’s well documented that ‘ridge & furrow’ features can date from different periods of agricultural activity.

“It’s not the age that is necessarily of significance but rather the contribution of these agricultural features within local field patterns and in relation to the character of a wider farmed landscape.

“These features are notoriously difficult to date and so age alone doesn’t have a material effect when deciding whether to include them in a Stewardship agreement.” English Heritage said: “We stand by accepted theories on how ridge and furrows were created.”

Ron Parker is on email 
at [email protected]
btinternet.com and would be delighted to help anybody wanting to explore his theory further.

To comment in the Yorkshire Post, contact [email protected]/

Lifeline crosses the ‘hungry gap’

It should be a happier New Year for some of England’s favourite farmland birds, as land managers gear up to give their local birds a vital lifeline with support from Defra’s Environmental Stewardship Scheme.

From January 1, five new wildlife-friendly Environmental Stewardship (ES) options will be available, including a new incentive to put out supplementary food for seed-eating birds to help them survive over the winter.

England’s farmers will be helping wild birds to survive the so-called ‘hungry gap’; between mid-winter and spring when food can is in short supply.