Landscapes and Documents

Rough Close (plot 445) on the Berkswell Tithe Map
Warwickshire County Record Office, CR569/29

In using documents to research landscape history and ecology, there are two related golden rules to observe:

  1. In any conflict of evidence between what the landscape itself has to say and documents, usually believe the landscape!
  2. Never take any document at face value: even apparently accurate historical maps can be wrong.

Documents were not written with the historical ecologist in mind and one has always to ask ‘why was this document drawn up?’

Use with caution…

Used with caution, Ordnance Survey Maps are indispensable for landscape research, especially the wonderfully detailed large scale Victorian series of 6 and 25 inch maps. They can be useful as base plans for collecting data and presenting results. But, as always, beware: maps before the 19th century, and particularly small scale maps, can be especially treacherous. Even if they do show a wood, for example (and they frequently omit existing woods), they often show no more than a squarish blob, bearing no relation to the actual shape and size. Verbal documents, especially medieval documents, are often extremely hard to pin down to precise localities. Often few or even no documents survive for a particular site or area, especially before 1800, and then we have to rely largely or entirely on earthworks or vegetation to tell the story.

Case studies – Hawkhurst Moor and Rough Close

On Hawkhurst Moor, Berkswell, next to Massey Fergusson, a woodland relict hedge (a hedgerow left behind when a wood was cleared to make way for fields) or woodland ‘ghost’ is identifiable in a number of ways:

  • the plants in the hedge itself (small-leaved lime stools, bluebell and pignut)
  • field names on the 1841 tithe map for Berkswell
  • references from the Berkswell Court Rolls from 30th May 1665 and 4th April 1711

It is unusual to find such a happy coincidence of evidence.

Just to the south, the wood Rough Close can be traced back with some degree of certainty to 1714, when it had a different name. Ecological and archaeological evidence from the wood itself suggests that it is very ancient indeed. The Court Rolls for 31st March 1714 record land including three closes called ‘wood field’ adjoining Hawkers Moore Wood in Beechend. On the 1841 tithe map there is only one place that has three ‘wood field’s – the area adjoining Rough Close to the west. This strongly suggests that Rough Close (plot 445 on the above tithe map) was then called Hawkers Moore Wood.

This is an abridged and edited version of an article originally published in the Friends of the Warwickshire County Record Office Newsletter, May 1993, and is reproduced with their permission.

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