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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

History & Folklore all around us: Landscapes and Nature

First, apologies for not placing on the blog a history/folklore article for a little while. I seem to have been very busy recently. William. OK, a poor excuse, I accept. Laziness may be a truer explanation!


We are fortunate if we live in Britain. Britain's landscape and nature changes almost mile by mile as we travel around our island. Certainly we can reach all our various landscape habitats in a relatively short time. Even our seashore, as an island , is easily reachable even from the centre of the country. Other landscapes include moors, from Yorkshire to Devon, forests, from those in a strictly medieval sense such as The New Forest and The Forest of Dean to dense woodland such as Sherwood or Savernake, rolling English countryside with farms and fields from Cumbria to Lincolnshire, from Northumberland to Wiltshire, each with their own characteristics, and marsh from Kent to Somerset. Everywhere one travels there are new delights with much history attached.

Wherever we roam there are specifically local features to look out for from the stone walls of The Cotswolds to the high banked hedgerows of Devon, from the stories of Jenny Greenteeth in Lancashire (the witch who pulls unsuspecting children into weed covered waters) to Black Shuck, the devil dog of East Anglia, who lies in wait at crossroads by night to catch the unsuspecting passer by.

There are so many sources of information around these days from books, pamphlets, maps (The Ordnance Survey Landranger series), to the fabulous internet. Yet nothing beats a stout boots and a pair of alert eyes.

So, here are just a few 'somethings' which I hope you will enjoy.


Visiting our local butcher, who sources most of his meat locally, I saw prominently displayed a skinned rabbit for sale. This set me thinking about my first 'something', rabbits.

During The Second World War rabbits were no longer sold skinned but were displayed with their fur showing. All this because the public was concerned that otherwise a skinned cat would be passed off as rabbit. I am sure my butcher was selling rabbit but I haven't yet got over my fear of mixy (myxomatosis that spread through our native population of rabbits in the 1950s), nor, for that matter, school rabbit stew with bones. Oh, those bones really turned me off rabbit. Our rural folk were likewise turned off from eating hare because when prepared for cooking the hare looked like a naked baby. Upstairs, who never saw a hare in a skinned state, quite happily munched away on the jugged hare, prepared by Downstairs.

Hares are native to Britain whereas rabbits were introduced by The Romans and then re-introduced by the Normans. In both cases they came originally from wild Iberian stock. And therein lay a problem. They found it initially difficult to establish warrens on our harder soils and thus to deal with predators. Therefore, as a highly valued commodity, both for their meat and for their fur, they were commercially farmed in The Middle Ages.

Such commercial farming of rabbits has left a record on our landscape. There are Warreners' houses and lodges, where the Warrener lived and worked.. The Warrener being the labourer tasked with maintaining the warren and other associated tasks. This is, of course, the origin of the English surname Warrener or Warren. Additionally you can spot the site of the warrens themselves by looking for 'pillow mounds'. A small hillock made of soft earth where the rabbits could establish themselves more readily. Finally, the Warrener built an earth embankment around the warren, often set with traps, to keep predators like foxes at bay. Rabbits, in addition to being a valuable source of income, provided in harsh winters a ready supply of fresh meat.

Rabbits and hares feature prominently in our local folklore. Such beliefs survive to this day - a lucky rabbit's foot, and the rabbit rhyme spoken at the beginning of every month, both to bring good fortune. As ever with folklore the opposite is also believed. Fishermen believed that rabbits brought ill luck and the word must never be spoken at sea, instead say 'furry things' or 'long ears'. They also believed that the real animal should never ever be brought on board.

The Archaeology of Rabbit Warrens by T.Williamson


The village pond can still be found in many villages across England. Originally a source of water, for animals and humans alike, a source of water if fire was to break out in the village, a place to do one's laundry, and perhaps finally a place for ducking women, accused of gossiping or of being a witch. In the latter case this could result in death.

A lovely story I was told about twenty years ago in Suffolk by an old farm worker went like this, 'Oh, yes, we had a pond on the farm where the cattle used to drink from but when we brewed our tea we used the pond too, but, he added, we took our water from the other side than where the cows were' !

Here in Sussex we enjoy two other types of ponds. Dewponds, high up on The Downs for sheep and cattle to drink from, and hammer ponds, associated with the pre-industrial iron industry of The Weald, when they were used to operate the bellows of a blast furnace (first recoded in The Weald in about 1490). Both of these types of pond are artificial. Today some dewponds are still in use, but the iron industry has long since moved away.

One note about the Wealden iron industry is that in the Sussex village of Buxted, Ralph Hogge cast the first iron cannon in England in 1543 for his employer, Rev William Levett, who was involved in the armaments industry. An interesting second vocation for a clergyman!

A piece of landscape folklore pertains to this same village, in which there is a lane called 'Nan Tuck's Lane'. Nan Tuck, from nearby Rotherfield, had allegedly murdered her husband and was consequently on the run. She was, says the story, last seen in the vicinity of the lane which today bears her name but was never actually ever found. They also say that a bare piece of ground in a nearby wood on which nothing grows is the site of her disappearance.

The Wealden Iron Industry by J.Hodgkinson

The Traditional Culture of Sussex by G.Doel

Medieval Commoners' Rights

In the Middle Ages in many places across the land, commoners, peasants, had rights in common land. Common land was seldom owned 'in common' but was more likely to be owned by the local lord. In the 18th century, in particular, there were clashes between commoners and landowners, the latter attempting to enclose common land and deny villagers access.

Right to graze or pasture animals (see the cattle and geese in Epping Forest still today, or New Forest ponies)

Right to gather wood, called the right of Estover

Right to gather fuel, called the right of Turbary

Right to fish, called the right to Piscary

Right to turn out pigs in the autumn to forage for acorns: called Pannage, or if specifically acorns, Mast

Other rights might include the right to roam and to hold fairs.

The Common Lands of England and Wales by D Stamp & WG Hoskins

Field Names

All of our thousands upon thousands of field have names. How else would you tell the workers where they were going to labour today. Some of the names are very old indeed, such as Temple Field; a field held by the medieval Order of Knights Templar, and thus free from tithe. These can be easily identified on old tithe maps, marked no tithe due. More modern names include California and Van Diemen's Land to indicate fields at a long distance from the farmstead. Some names are obvious, such as Long Meadow or Half Acre. Some are more fascinating such as 'cheesecake' which refers to the triangular shape of a field, especially in The Midlands, where traditionally English cheesecakes were small triangular shaped cakes. Some recall historical events such as 'Bloody Meadow' in Tewkesbury, the site of the decisive battle in The Wars of The Roses (1471).

But beware, being confident of the origin of a specific field name is not easy as all the dictionaries on the subject are quick to point out.

A New Dictionary of English Field-Names by P Cavill

The Queen's Fishes

The Queen owns all rights to caught (within 3 miles of shore) or washed up 'royal fishes'. These are sturgeon, whale, porpoise, and dolphin.

Her rights can be traced back to 14th century legislation. Today, however, they are not enforced, although fishermen who land a sturgeon often formally offer it to the Queen. She tactfully declines.

This summer a walrus has been sighted, first off Tenby in Wales, and then off the Cornish coast. It is the furthest south an Arctic walrus has ever reached, according to records; although our first reference to a porpoise is to one presented to King Alfred, whether dead or alive is not recorded. I doubt the Queen would wish to ask if a walrus came within the definition of a royal fish.

In England it is Lewis Carroll's walrus, from Alice through the Looking Glass, that we think of when we think of walruses (i can't say I often do).

In Carroll's poem the walrus and the carpenter lure the oysters into a trap so as they can eat them!

'O Oysters,' said the Carpenter,

'You've had a pleasant run!

Shall we be trotting home again?'

But answer came there none -

And this was scarcely odd, because

They'd been eaten every one.

Yet, the most famous part of the poem reads thus:

'The time has come,' the Walrus said,

'To talk of many things:

Of shoes- and ships - and sealing-wax-

Of cabbages - and kings -

And why the sea is boiling hot -

And whether pigs have wings.'

But, for me, my time is up; I've written of many things, and will write again, but for now perhaps oysters on The Promenade in Worthing call!

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1 Comment

May 24, 2021

William I love your blogs, both informative and entertaining. Your range of reading is truly fantastic as is your range of interests, thank you so much, Joan Jacobs

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