Revelations of Levisham
By Katy Wright
In rural areas, it can be difficult to garner information about an area's history from its buildings - many have been rebuilt countless times. But local historian Betty Halse believes that village layouts are a different matter altogether.
Levisham Main Street
If you are looking for traces of the distant past in a North Yorkshire moorland village, the buildings are not likely to be much use to you. In this rugged landscape populated largely by subsistence farmers, buildings were seldom substantial enough to survive for long periods without rebuilding – from wood to stone, from thatch to tile, from single to double storey.
But there may be something else that has survived - the actual village layout. Few domestic or agricultural buildings date back earlier than the 18th century, but while houses and barns were built and rebuilt, the underlying plan of the village, its lanes and boundaries, may have remained unchanged over many centuries.
Appleton-le-Moors and Levisham: Planned villages
Looking at the aerial photographs of these two villages, can you doubt that they were laid out according to the same basic plan? You will find similar plans of other villages in the area, where a central main street with a wide verge each side is lined with regular-sized plots extending to a back lane.
The ‘-ton’ and ‘-ham’ name endings indicate that the villages were established during the Anglo-Saxon period, but little is know about them at this date. The original settlement at Levisham, for example, may have been down in the valley where the remains of St Mary’s Church now stand.
So, why would an old village be rebuilt in this carefully planned way?
The years following the Norman Conquest were a time of disruption in this part of the country. Rebellions against the new rulers were followed by terrible reprisals. Clues can be picked up from Domesday Book about the decline in population and economic activity, as for example the entry for Pickering which records that ‘the value of the manor before 1066 was £88; now 20s 4d.’ To the new lords who replaced the disaffected rebels fell the task of reconstruction; a newly planned and laid out village was sometimes the way forward. Both Appleton-le-Moors and Levisham were most likely laid out during the 12th century on the same basic plan.
Betty's book about Levisham
Farming practice at that time involved communal effort – for example, it required eight men providing an ox each to make up a plough-team. The system that developed was for the arable land needed to sustain the community to be divided into three large, open fields in which the villagers had an allocation of strips. All grew the same crop, working together on the ploughing and harvesting, leaving one field fallow to regain fertility. The system continued until, during the 18th and early 19th centuries, a market-orientated economy demanded greater productivity. These open fields were then enclosed, divided up with walls and hedges into the fields that still form the basis of today’s field patterns.
The process can be followed on maps, from medieval Open Fields to Enclosure with new boundaries and access roads and on to the pattern of roads and fields we know today.
(Copyright Feb 2007)
last updated: 31/03/2008 at 15:33