The Laxton Village Survey

Today, the village of Laxton in Nottinghamshire is well known nationally for thesurvival of the system of Open Field farming. A substantial part of the farmlandwithin the parish has escaped enclosure, both by act of Parliament and privateagreement; this unenclosed land is organised in to three open fields, farmed incommon, with tenants holding land in strips.

At present there are 14 Open Field farmers, cultivating about 480 acres. Inaddition there are large areas of enclosed land within the parish, and a numberof farmsteads with their origins in the 18th century, which wholly compriseenclosed land.

In the Middle Ages Laxton served as the administrative centre of a substantialfeudal estate, comprising land in six counties; in addition in the 12th and 13thcenturies Laxton was the administrative centre of Sherwood Forest.

Little is known about Laxton prior to the Middle Ages. Recent excavation has recovered some middle and late Saxon pottery from the western edge of the village, in an area close to the site of a reputed Roman masonry building. Substantial quantities of Roman material have also been recovered from the WestField and there are a number of earthwork mounds, claimed to be barrows, onWestwood Common.

A wide range of other earthworks relating to the medieval history of Laxtonsurvive across the parish. These include a fine motte and bailey castle,fishponds, mill mounds and well-preserved areas of ridge and furrow.

A wealth of documentary and cartographic information on the village and itsenvirons also exits. A series of maps of the parish survive, the earliest datingto 1635. The maps provide comprehensive evidence for the changing organisationof the landscape over time.

Laxton Village from Mark Pierce's map of Laxton, 1635

In 1982, the Laxton estate, was purchased by the Crown Estate Commissioners. In 1993, as part of the on-going effort to maintain the viability of the OpenField system at Laxton, the Crown Estate entered into a Countryside Stewardshipagreement with the Countryside Commission.

As a preliminary to this agreement Trent & Peak Archaeological Trust produced aninitial synthesis of the historic landscape features of the Crown Estate landat Laxton. This led to a recognition of the need to improve recording andunderstanding of the historic landscape and to develop a strategy for monitoringthe state of known landscape features, particularly where changes in land use arebeing introduced.

The Open Fields
The sinuous earthworks produced by ploughing in the Medieval period undoubtedlyonce covered much of the land within Laxton parish. The surviving traces ofridge and furrow, usually under grass in unploughed pasture fields, reveal areasof former arable.

The former extent of Medieval ploughing within Laxton is now difficult to judge. Mark Pierce's map of 1635 shows the open fields, divided into strips forcultivation; the accompanying terrier indicates the number of lands within eachstrips (each land equating to one ridge). Using this information it is possibleto trace the location and orientation of the cultivated areas in 1635. Inaddition the closes shown on the 1635 map include both pasture and cultivatedareas which are likely to have contained ridge and furrow.

Ploughing at Laxton in the 1930's

Sykes, wide grassy avenues within the open fields providing access, drainage andareas of pasture, almost all contain stub-ends, the vestiges of former ridge andfurrow. This clearly indicates that these areas were once ploughed, and thattheir development came at a relatively late stage in the formation of the openfield system at Laxton. Mark Pierce's map shows that the system of sykes wasalready fully developed by 1635. Clearly there had been a reduction in thearable area at some point prior to this date. The reasons for this reductionremain obscure, but the significance of the development of the sykes in terms ofthe historic landscape of Laxton is that they preserve, under grass, traces ofridge and furrow dating from at least the early 17th century, possible muchearlier; these are among the only traces of Medieval agricultural featuressurviving within Laxton.

The Castle
The castle earthworks stand on a spur of land a little to the north of thevillage. The castle was probably constructed in the later 11th- or 12th-centuries, and may be associated with Laxton's function as the administrativecentre for Sherwood Forest. This administrative function ceased in 1232 and thecastle had fallen into a state of disrepair by the late 13th-century.

Detail of the castle from Mark Pierce's map

The castle comprises a substantial motte with both inner and outer bailies, anda small additional enclosure attached to the western side of the inner bailey.A small subsidiary mound surmounts the motte. It is unlikely that this secondarymound is part of the original castle structure. Both it and a number of otheralteration, additions and mutilation to the earthworks may date broadly from the16th and 17th-centuries, when the motte and bailey were incorporated intoparkland surrounding a new manorial complex (started c.1520) built within theouter bailey of the castle.

The earthworks of a series of fishponds occupy a small rectangular enclosure inthe valley bottom immediately to the north of the motte. These are recorded onthe terrier accompanying the 1635 map, and are probably those first mentioned ina charter of 1232.The 1635 map of Laxton shows the manorial buildings; comprising a three-gabledmanor house, with stables, a brewhouse, dovecotes, a garden and orchards. Thoughno longer standing, earthwork traces of the manor house survive within the outerbailey.

The Future
Paradoxically the most significant aspect of the Laxton landscape, the openfields, are amongst the hardest to comprehend. The undivided expanse of the openfields resembles closely the prairie-like landscape preferred by modern farming,and even to the experienced eye the characteristic features of open fieldagriculture are hard to spot. The village itself is striking, comprising as itdoes a concentration of farms, but in character appears almost entirely an 18thor 19th-century creation lacking the feel of a Medieval village. Unsympatheticmodern additions further detract from the historic character of the village.

Nevertheless, the initial survey has shown that Laxton does contain a wide rangeof landscape features reflecting the development of the village and its fieldsfrom the Middle Ages to the present.

 Within the fields the chief visible indicators of the historic landscape are therelict traces of ridge and furrow, both surviving fully in pasture fields and asfragmentary stub-ends in the sykes. The sykes themselves, and the tracks whichlink them to each other, are very much the key to the Laxton landscape as theycontain both the best-preserved relict landscape features and reflect thedivision of the open fields into furlongs and strips.Within the village the earthworks of the motte and bailey and the two sets offishponds represent the most significant survivals. Additionally traces surviveof former aspects of the village plan, the traces of former back-lanes inparticular, and village agriculture, in the form of ridge and furrow close to thevillage and the two mill mounds.

Archaeological work at Laxton is by no means at an end. English Heritage are funding further survey and research, and in the coming year the Trust will be involved in creating a detailed picture of the history and archaeology of the core area of the village based on historic map evidence and field survey. The castle too will be subject to detailed examination and eventual survey. The aim is both to better understand this unique English village and to produce information and guidelines which will help in the successful management of the Laxton Estate for years to come.

Text (c) Trent & Peak Archaeological Trust 1995