How do fields get their names?

By John Richards, who manages the fields on our Devon farm.

Every field in the countryside has a history, a story, and unique characteristics based on its location, soil type and topography. And when farmers walk around their land, each field will stimulate a wave of memories and feelings both good and bad – perhaps remembering a particularly fine crop, or the year when a crop was lost to weeds.

For example, last Friday afternoon, the team were out in our field Eastaway, planting pak choi in far from ideal conditions. Some plants were oversized due to the forced delays of the cold spring, and the claggy soil was not flowing well. I suddenly had a flashback to a similar situation in the same field in 2002; on that occasion the plants rooted out and produced quite a good crop. These experiences give us some hope that, despite the poor conditions, we may yet get some decent pak choi in 2018.

Fields may have been named after something either long gone or still there. We grew winter cabbages in a rented field near Buckfastleigh called Minefield. The old mineshaft was still there, long since filled in, but marked by a pile of rocks. It is likely to be associated with some extensive copper mining activity that used to take place at the nearby Brookwood Mine.

Well Pathfield is the field above the main road to our farm. It references a spring that still emerges out of the rock in the copse in the corner, supplying fresh water to the hamlet and farm.

When I was 18 I worked on a small 50-cow dairy herd near Ware in Hertfordshire. There was an intriguingly named field near the canal called The Cat and Monkey. Apparently, it was named after an old pub which fell into dereliction between the wars and has now completely disappeared.

Our 500-acre farm at Sacrewell near Peterborough has fields in an area that formed part of the strip-cultivated open medieval field system. Field names like Cottager’s Piece are based on the arable land being divided into a multitude of strips (or ‘selions’), each managed by different individuals, with the strips distributed around the whole land block. Strips were aggregated into furlongs, and these into fields. Short selions fitting into triangles between furlongs, tracks and paths were known as ‘gores’ and ‘butts’ – terms which are still used by country folk in the midlands to this day.

The same crops were grown by all the farmers on each furlong, and each field was left fallow (ploughed but not sown) every second, third or fourth year. The system was collective, and farmers shared some of the labours of cultivating each other’s strips. Between 1635 and 1720, most of these open fields were largely enclosed under the Inclosure Acts, essentially privatizing and replacing the strips with a grid of large, hedged, straight-edged fields.

Land changing hands is a vulnerable time when field names can be forgotten. When we took on a new 40-acre block of nearby land called Hills, it was split into 3 distinct fields, but we had no idea of the names. In haste I rather unimaginatively named them Hills Big, Hills Small and Hills Triangle. Later chatting to Pop, the dairy farm’s tractor driver, he could remember their original names and we subsequently changed them back to Barkingdon Pathfield, Great East and Barton Town respectively – a great improvement!

Field names often reflect their size, location or topography e.g. our fields Eastaway, West Park, Far Field or Big Field. The irony of Big Field is that it has been getting steadily smaller over the years as land has needed to be taken for developments like The Riverford Field Kitchen restaurant, barns, yards and car parks. The photograph was taken in June 1997 looking down on a much smaller and more compact site than we have now, with the vegetable beds running virtually right up to the barns (which are now our offices).

Wash farm, June 1997

To finish, I must share with you my all-time favourite field name. It was a rented field not far away, known as Dead Sheep field because that was what was in it when the farmers first took over their farm.

13 responses to “How do fields get their names?

  1. Brilliant, amusing and most interesting Blog from John Richards. I did come across several fields that had names, they all escape me now, when we lived on a small holding in east Devon on East Hill outside Sidmouth.
    Many thanks John

  2. Judith knight

    There is a very informative book entitled “English field names” by (believe it or not) John Field. It doesn’t cover lots of local variants, named after individuals, soil types etc, but does give some very interesting general derivations.

  3. I really enjoyed this piece John – I hope you will write more.

  4. Fascinating subject. More please!

  5. Very intriguing, John. I had never really considered that fields have names. Just shows what a town-ie I am, sadly!

  6. Very interesting. More please.

  7. Chris Matcham

    I work for a friend who has a field named Butchers’ copse. This was the field where the Cavalier army slaughtered some cattle for the soldiers to eat on the day before the Battle of Cheriton in March 1644.

    The Cavaliers lost!!

  8. I found this article very interesting. We live in a small northern city but we are only 100 yards or so from a farm. We have given our own names to the fields that we pass on our walks: orchard field has a few ancient fruit trees; first field is the first after climbing over the stile; telegraph pole field is full of poles and pylons where electrical linesmen train; beach field has a pebbly beach at the river’s edge. Now I feel prompted to look up their original names, as the farm is on a very ancient monastic site.

  9. Hilary Cooper

    I was brought up on a farm in Ceredigion, West Wales. My mother, who will be 101 in June, has lived there since 1919. The fields ate named in Welsh but reflect the shape – Harp Field, the position – Top Field or its condition – e.g. boggy, a dip in the middle or a stream. I thought this was a Welsh tradition but I’m pleased it’s a farming tradition. But I hadn’t thought of the names not being carried over, that would be sad.

  10. I really enjoyed this, please write more!

  11. ‘There was an intriguingly named field near the canal called The Cat and Monkey. Apparently, it was named after an old pub which fell into dereliction between the wars and has now completely disappeared.’

    I used to live in north London, where there was [is?] a pub called the Drum and Monkey – apparently a corruption of the Drummond Monarchy : the Drummond’s ‘patch’ or ‘manor’. Could here be a connection?

  12. A fascinating insight into field names, thank you. Instead of every picture has a story, farmers can relate to every field having many stories then.

    Best Wishes

    Tony Powell and naturestimeline

  13. Marylin Clarke

    I am trying to recall the name of the fields on my Uncle’s farm where I spent many holidays 80 years ago. So far have only come up with 100 Acre but will do some serious thinking. Think there was a Copse Field also – not very imaginative.

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