Changing Landscapes

The Prehistoric and Romano-British periods

Although the landscape of the county in prehistoric times is only known from scattered archaeological and air photograph evidence it seems that Arden was the least settled area in the prehistoric period, its woods and heathlands possibly already providing seasonal pasture for the more intensively developed crop-growing region to the south. Since cropmarks of burial or settlement sites are most easily detected on gravel soils, the Avon valley is also a conspicuous corridor of settlement at this time although find-spots (of flints, pottery or metalwork) show that settlement was much more widespread, especially across many parts of the Feldon. By late Iron Age times the area of the later county was divided between several tribal divisions - the Dobunni to the west and the Corieltauvi to the north-east. Hillforts throughout the region served as regional centres but the majority of settlements seem to have been farmsteads comprising round buildings set within ditched enclosures.

Some Iron Age settlement sites may have continued to be occupied after the Roman conquest of the later 40s AD (e.g. Wasperton); some were abandoned or re-emerged after a hiatus; some subsequently adopted Roman-style planning (more rectilinear buildings, as at Bidford Grange and Crewe Farm, Kenilworth) and more sophisticated building techniques (plastered walls and tiled roofs instead of timber, cob or thatch); and new farmsteads were established, but wealthy villas are not known to have been numerous here. Farming was mixed with considerable areas under arable, growing mainly cereals, and with evidence of paddocks for animals (mainly cattle and sheep); the area under arable probably expanded at this time. Military roads constructed through the region included the Fosse Way running across the county from NE to SW, the N-S Ryknield Street cutting across the west of the county, the Watling Street which later formed its NE boundary, a road running E from Alcester and another SE from Tiddington; all fostered accessibility and trade. New towns grew up close to military forts and at road stations, as at Alcester and Chesterton, with smaller centres that included Tiddington, Bidford, Princethorpe and Coleshill (a ritual centre). Industry was expanding, particularly iron working, tanning and glassmaking, while pottery production dominated in the Hartshill-Mancetter area, a centre for the manufacture of mortaria that were traded across midland and northern Britain. Kiln sites were chiefly located around the margins of Arden where wood for fuel and other raw materials were more readily available.

The early medieval (Anglo-Saxon) period

The kingdom boundaries that are known for this period appear to have respected the late Iron Age divisions, for even in the early Anglo-Saxon period a frontier zone can be detected running across the central Avon valley which probably represented the ancient eastern boundary of the Dobunni and later formed the eastern boundary of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of the Hwicce, separating that kingdom from Greater Mercia. Warwick may have developed at this time as a border market town. The Hwiccan kingdom subsumed a number of folk regions that included the tribal area of the Arosætna in the Arrow valley while a region across the headwaters of the Alne was granted to a group known as the Stoppingas. Known pagan Anglo-Saxon burials are virtually confined to the southern and eastern parts of the county. Within the Hwiccan kingdom, Christian minsters were established at central places such as Wootton Wawen (for the Stoppingas), Stratford-upon-Avon, Tredington in the Stour valley and, probably, at Alcester, while Coventry was probably an early religious centre within Greater Mercia (the pace-name *ecles - as in Exhall - found both near Alcester and Coventry strongly suggests a pre-existing Roman-British Christian church in the vicinity).

In this period, estates were being carved out as new tenurial units with estate centres that often gave rise to villages bearing a topographical type or ‘ton' place-name (replacing the older pattern of scattered farms). Several such units (townships) were usually grouped to form an ecclesiastical parish as churches were founded by manorial lords upon their estates within the old minster territories. Some parishes in the Feldon continued to be associated with others in Arden in medieval times, relics of past territorial arrangements and an earlier use of resources - a system of NW-SE trackways running between Arden and the Avon valley/Feldon region may have had its origin in a system of droveways that were used to move stock to seasonal pastures in Arden in prehistoric or early medieval times. In the south of the county, villages grew in size, surrounded by common fields in which farmers held scattered strips and had rights in the meadows and waste. Within Arden villages were smaller, with limited areas of open field, and dispersed settlements may have been more characteristic, many probably more reliant on pastoral farming. The incidence of the ‘ley' term, signifying settlements set within wooded countryside or the actual woods themselves, is much higher in this region. Pre-Conquest charters reveal details of land use across the county - fisheries in the rivers, mills being established and a complex pattern of routeways, including ways used for the transport of salt from the inland salt-producing centre of Droitwich in Worcestershire (notably an E-W route through Wellesbourne).

Under the pressure of the Danish invasions new defended burhs were established, including that at Warwick fortified in 914, offering a measure of protection to the surrounding countryside as well as centres for marketing. Warwick was chosen as the centre of the new county demarcated perhaps in the 10th century. By the end of the period, the regional distinctions of the landscape within the new county were firmly established with the framework of settlement patterns, field systems and many routeways already in place. Some of the land use and landownership detail is captured in the Domesday Book that was compiled soon after the Norman Conquest.

The medieval and Tudor periods

Under the Normans the differences between the north and south of the county were at first accentuated - in the south, both villages and their surrounding field systems continued to expand and in many parts of the Feldon meadow and waste was in short supply by the 13th century, with population levels practically as high as the medieval farming system could support. The common fields (usually from two to four per township) were divided into strips and ploughed using ox teams into ridges with intervening furrows to provide drainage. In the north, however, where the extent of open field was limited but might be divided into more numerous small patches, new farmsteads were being established in the 12th and 13th centuries (often attracting colonists from the more heavily populated crop-growing regions to the south), largely by expansion onto the waste and into the woodland, thus maintaining a mainly dispersed pattern of settlement. These usually held their own land around them and many farmers became more prosperous than the feudal peasantry of the south, building moats around their houses largely as a status symbol, a practice largely confined in the south to manorial lords. The area of woodland and waste diminished as the new farms were established. Open fields, too, were gradually enclosed and divided between farmers - a landscape of banked and ditched hedgerows bordering relatively small fields was created across the region, a marked contrast to the mainly open undivided lands to the south.

New additions to the landscape under the Normans were the castles, many of them simple motte and bailey features, the most impressive of which survives at Brinklow. In time a few belonging to the greater lords were rebuilt in stone, as at Warwick and Kenilworth. These were associated with their own hunting parks. Although Arden may temporarily have been under Norman forest law this was not to last and many lesser manorial lords were also able to enclose parks in which they hunted game. To the north, Sutton Chase, part of Cannock Forest granted to the earls of Warwick, also extended into the county. Parks were most numerous in Arden where there was ample waste for emparkment leaving sufficient pasture for the domestic stock of the peasantry. Tracts of ancient woodland were not infrequently preserved within such parks, which might also include fleets of fishponds and rabbit warrens. Fishponds were to become a common feature of the region as other landowners followed suit.

The new Norman lords also rebuilt manorial churches in stone and the wealthiest were also founding abbeys upon their estates. Only a few of the early minsters had survived and at Coventry the Great Benedictine priory (?re-)founded in 1043 was the oldest monastic house in the county with another smaller priory founded in 1140 at Alcester. However, other abbeys were established, most in the 12th century, including those of the Cistercians at Combe, Merevale and Stoneleigh, many of whom were also involved in the clearance of north Warwickshire's woodland.

The medieval period was brought to a slow and lingering end when the Black Death decimated rural and urban populations in the mid-14th century. Only a few villages entirely lost their inhabitants but often those left could no longer provide the enormous amount of labour needed to maintain the open field system. In Arden, however, where feudal restraints were fewer, the surviving peasantry were often able to purchase land made newly available. Medieval society and economy were deeply disrupted, leaving the way open for the changes that were to follow.

By Tudor times increasing profits were to be made from animal husbandry, for which the Arden farms were well suited. Here landscape change remained gradual - enclosure of remaining open-field patches generally proceeded piecemeal through agreements between landholders. In the south of the county, in the Feldon, however, villages were being abandoned, sometimes voluntarily as their remaining inhabitants sought better lives in the growing market towns; sometimes the villagers were ousted by manorial lords anxious to improve their revenues. Whole townships might lose their village centres as these were replaced by one estate farm maintaining herds of cattle or giant flocks of sheep: the landscape became a mosaic of empty lands divided into huge, hedged stock enclosures (with few remaining footpaths) intermixed with other areas in which the villages had recovered, their inhabitants maintaining the old open field system (although the fields were seldom as extensive as in the early 14th century), each set at the nucleus of a ‘spider's web' of approach roads. Today many deserted settlement sites are revealed by the earthworks of former roads and house platforms with perhaps, too, the moated site of a former manor house. Where pastures have not been subsequently ploughed, ridge and furrow marks the extent of the former arable fields.

The dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII added much land to an already fluid land market in Tudor times and enabled many entrepreneurial merchant families to join the old landed dynasties.  New country houses were built to express their owner's status like Compton Wynyates, Arbury Hall and Charlecote (both refurbished later) or older ones substantially rebuilt (such as Coughton Court), a few, like Combe, incorporating former monastic buildings. Wealth filtered down to the yeoman farmers of Arden where many new timber-framed farmhouses (some of their owners claiming quasi-manorial status) witness the continuing availability of timber (examples in the Arrow valley include Gorcott Hall and Old Castle in Studley, Church Farm, Greenhill and Netherstead in Morton Bagot). In Arden, the settlement remained dispersed, made up of farms and hamlets linked by a network of irregular roads and trackways. Groups of landless labourers and village craftsmen tended to settle around the edge of the common waste, their settlements often bearing names ending in ‘Green' or ‘End'.

The post-medieval period

By the middle of the 18th century a new wave of ‘agricultural improvement' was being advocated as landowners sought ways to further maximise productivity and profit. Most of the midland countryside lay in large estates and their owners were able to invest in large-scale enclosure by private or parliamentary act - the open fields were eradicated as new fields (and often, too, new roads) were laid out, farmed from new outlying farms built in a distinctive style. The large Tudor stock enclosures were also divided up into smaller fields. Enclosure across the south and east of the county and in the Tame-Blythe corridor created a more uniform landscape of geometric-shaped fields separated by new hedges, often single-specie hawthorn hedges. Country houses were often refurbished in the latest style, like Arbury or Packington Halls, or rebuilt as at Compton Verney, some of them set amidst grounds landscaped in the new ‘natural' style of ‘Capabilty' Brown. Such landscape parks around country houses spread the idea of ‘parkland' from Arden to the rest of the county. In the south of the county stone also began to be used more for village housing - dark ironstones in the far south and pale-coloured lias from local bands of rock in the Feldon and Avon valley.

However, not all villages relied on farming. Rural industry provided employment in some areas - the woollen industry had flourished in and around Coventry in the 14th century, giving way in the Tudor period to the production of knitted caps and later to the manufacture of hats and ribbons. The textile industry of northern Oxfordshire also spilt over the boundary into southern parishes like Brailes. Most medieval towns with access to hides supported a leather industry and Stratford-upon-Avon was a centre for glove making in the 16th and 17th centuries. Cottagers augmented their low incomes by needle making in the Arrow valley. Coal was being mined on the East Warwickshire Coalfield by the 13th century but it was the introduction of new industrial techniques developed in the Industrial Revolution and improving communications that concentrated industry in more localised areas after the mid-18th century (like Birmingham, Coventry and the Black Country). New turnpike roads had improved travel and the Avon had been deepened for navigation in the mid-17th century (destroying many local fords) but it was the Coventry Canal, opened in 1771, that led to a concentration of industry in the north-east of the county - industries that often involved the movement of heavy goods such as coal mining and quarrying, lime and cement making (also at Rugby on the Oxford Canal) or tile, brick and stoneware production. Many of these, like the huge quarries near Rugby or at Stockton have left lasting marks on the landscape although mounds of colliery waste have often been obliterated and ‘restored'. Today's surviving deep mines (Daw Mill opened in 1965) no longer produce surface waste.

The 19th and 20th centuries

Some open fields persisted into the mid-19th century (as at Darlingscott and Tredington in the Stour valley) but generally it was the remaining waste that was to be taken in the last stages of the enclosure movement - including most of the remaining Arden commons. The poor lost their rights to free grazing and increasingly left the countryside: the remains of deserted settlement sites can sometimes be identified along roads and around patches of former waste (as around the former Morton Common in Morton Bagot). Many were attracted to the growing towns, for home industry moved almost entirely into factories - although in the Arrow valley, for instance, water corn mills were at first converted for the finishing processes of the needle industry it was the large mechanised mills established at Alcester and Studley that were to commandeer the trade. Although the introduction of steam-powered machinery met violent protest from the Coventry ribbon makers, large and ‘cottage' factories here and at Nuneaton continued to prosper until the end of the 19th century, also producing other silk items, woollens and threads. The two World Wars gave new impetus to the car and cycle firm of Coventry.

Although canals were still being built in the earlier part of the 19th century they soon met competition from the railways. With industry and improved communications came a spate of new building - settlements spread over the adjacent countryside at an unprecedented rate, swallowing farmlands and subsequently giving rise to areas of ‘urban fringe' dominated by ‘overspill' housing, sports facilities and straggling suburbs. By the 1950s motorways were slicing across the countryside encouraging the development of warehouses etc, close to major junctions. Despite the introduction of stricter planning laws and ‘Green Belt' policies much former rural countryside has been lost. With the pressures for more intensive farming and greater production that began after World War II the countryside has suffered hedge removal on a huge scale, the loss of old pastures and meadows, the introduction of new crops and colours (like the harsh yellow of rape), and a general loss of regional distinctiveness. With moves now towards a fully ratified European Landscape Convention and greater conservation it is imperative that features of local and regional historical significance should be full recorded and, where possible, preserved.