Past returns to reclaim our fields of dreams

Charity aims to revive ancient names for pastures green
Click to follow
Stephen Goodwin

Heritage Correspondent

Devil's Dole, Handkerchief Croft and Seven Men's Mowth are names of what? Maybe the last contains just a bit of a give-away to ageing campfire singers. Haggs, Skirt and Vicar's Hatchet are three more of the same.

Townies can be forgiven for bafflement at the words. But it would be interesting to know how many agri-businessmen or East Anglian prairie farm managers recognise them as traditional field names.

The environmental charity Common Ground today calls for a revival of field names as part of a move away from intensive farming to a more holistic way of working the land. Midsummer Leys or Saffron Ground could be burnt on to the five-bar gate so that the visitor knows this is a field with a character and history, not just a commodity.

Most farmers will regard the group's Manifesto for Fields as an idealised urban vision of the countryside, owing more to John Constable than the production of food for a nation of 58 million. But Common Ground says it is time for a popular debate about fields, how they should be used, what we want them to look like, and whether it is sensible for the taxpayer to be pouring in a subsidy of pounds 3.3bn a year.

Grants to farmers have encouraged most of the detrimental changes to the land, the charity claims. Some 97 per cent of hay meadows have gone, along with 80 per cent of chalk and limestone downland and 209,000 miles of hedges. Populations of grey partridges, lapwings and skylarks have plummeted.

Common Ground's mainfesto says: "Fields are our unwritten history, carved clearings in the wild wood, the accumulation of practical experimentation, invention and subtlety extending over generations. Yet under our gaze this rich combining of culture and nature has been smoothed and sprayed out of existence in half a lifetime."

They want a shift away from the field as a factory, soaked in pesticides and fertilisers, to wildlife-friendly places where livestock can find contentment under a shady tree or crops are grown organically.

Farming should only be subsidised if it produced "wholesome" food, reinforced the cultural importance of fields and improved conditions for farm workers, the group says. And food should be grown for local markets, cutting out the costs and pollution of long journeys.

It is not an anti-farmer manifesto and cites the high suicide rate among farmers who are increasingly isolated on large, mechanised holdings. Nor, according to Sue Clifford, a director of Common Ground, is it impractical. "The BSE crisis has taught us a lot about short cuts and cheap food, meanwhile organic farmers we have talked to are rushed off their feet with demand."

Battlefields, fields that have inspired authors, festival fields and field springs should all be revered, along with the poetic names given centuries ago, though time and the plough may have obscured their meaning.

The ones given above translate as follows: Devil's Dole - unproductive or difficult land; Handkerchief Croft - small piece of land; Seven Men's Mowth - meadow with work for seven men; Haggs - place cleared of trees; Skirt - land on a boundary; Vicar's Hatchet - land assigned to the parson.