Monday, 24 April 2017

Flat field - Ancient oak


The parish of Bressingham (south Norfolk) is hardly a hilly place, but it does have 'upland' and 'lowland' areas. Its uplands are the gently rolling till plateau north of the A1066 turnpike; its lowlands are the flatlands of the Waveney valley lying south of the road. The one given over to clayland arable farming; the other to pasture and woodland on relict valley fenland.

Prof Tom Williamson (University of East Anglia) gave a walking talk today on the parish's cultural landscape history. The event was hosted by the fledgling Bressingham History Group, courtesy Linda Holly, and was enjoyable and well attended. I contributed a geological dimension to the discussions.

Apart from the congenial company, two features of the walk were outstanding.

Firstly, the view south from Fen Street. A long, narrow field - flat as a runway - leading the eye south towards woods known as Horse Fen and the hidden River Waveney. It looks a suitable pasture for sheep. The BGS map tell us this field is underlain by peat. If so, what we see today are the dried-out and shrinking remnants of the thick mattress of decayed swamp woodland and fen vegetation which has covered this land for most of the last 10,000 years. Our ancestors cut turf here and went wildfowling. According to Faden's map of 1797 it used to be part of Bressingham Fen. Today, drainage has reclaimed much of the the land for farming, and it is a remarkably flat expanse of pasture. It owes its long, thin shape to the historic pattern of 18th and 19th century enclosures in the Fen. This can be seen in the early 19th century tithe map. Four of the old fields have now been knocked into one.

Tithe map [1840s] courtesy Norfolk Heritage Explorer 

Secondly, the view of an immense, ancient oak tree in a clayland meadow at Valley Farm.

The tree has a stalwart trunk and colossal boughs, and is as stag-headed as the horns of Herne. It must be over 500 years old, as Tom suggested. It is truly an ancient, Mediaeval being, worthy of veneration. I wonder when the crown began to die back. Perhaps the field was ploughed for agriculture in one of the World Wars? Nevertheless, I am impressed that the occupants of Valley Farm have come & gone over the centuries without significantly interfering with this extraordinary tree. I am reminded of the celebrated Winfarthing Oak, sited only a few miles away, once the largest in England, which finally died in the 20th century. What makes people preserve such trees rather than fell them for firewood?

Horse Fen field and the Valley Farm oak - the one smooth and the other craggy - are phenomena of the parish; both are products of human cultivation, and both have stories to tell about Norfolk's landscape history.

No comments: