Agricultural Archaeology

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Low Airie, Glenkens – 27/3/20

Forty years without grazing has meant that Low Airie has become a jungle. Tussocks of grass have risen to waist height, and I recently discovered a myrtle stem which was taller than I am. In the creeping expansion of vegetation, it has become hard to read what this land used to look like and how it served the people who lived there. There are some inbye fields and a network of rough dykes, but most of the original archaeology is either buried in scrub or tumbled into ruin.

I can’t help wondering what life was like for the people who used to farm this place. So much has changed here that it would be impossible to turn back the clock, but it is tantalising to feel the legacy of human labour all around me. I was even tickled to recall that while the only modern access lies along the old railway line, this is not how the farm would have been reached in the days of its prosperity. People would have come and gone along an old track which has now all but vanished, and the railway line is giving me a skewed perspective on how the farm was arranged. For a century (1865 – 1965), thousands of railway passengers passed back and forth through this place along the rails, but the people working the land would have seen the farm quite differently. Beautiful granite tunnels were built to allow sheep and cattle to be moved from one side of the railway to another, but it feels important to realise that what has become my only point of access was probably considered an obstacle to the people who lived here.

In repairing the dykes and exploring the land I’ve taken on, I came upon an extensive bed of extremely rank bracken. Part of this area is bounded by the tumble-down remains of a low, semi-circular dyke, and I wondered why anybody would have bothered to protect this area from livestock. On closer inspection, I happened to discover a rusted old contraption lying in the dregs of bracken and bog myrtle. It was a horse-drawn hay rake, and things suddenly became an awful lot clearer.

Bracken often grows best and strongest on light, well-drained soil, and I realised that the land now covered in deep, impenetrable bracken litter used to be a fine, productive hay field. Once the farm was folded around forty years ago, bracken invaded this field and drove out the grasses which used to be mown, turned and dried for livestock. I found a video of a horse-drawn hay rake in action, and for a moment I was able to see how this isolated piece of abandoned hill ground used to be worked as a valuable agricultural resource. The machine I found had not been used for at least sixty years, but I could almost hear the clank of levers and gears and the tang of horse sweat in a place that has lain silent for decades. The hair stood up on the back of my neck to recall that today’s “wilderness” is really a very recent condition.

I suppose that like many people, I usually imagine that progress grows in a steady, continuous curve and that man is forever driving land from idleness into use. In finding a field which has reverted “backwards” from productivity to wilderness, I was reminded that the curve is not always smooth, and that alongside a general “upward” trend, there are fragments and eddies which have fallen away to abandonment again. It can be very misleading to judge a landscape on what we see today, and the reality is often far more complex.

I would love to restore this little hayfield, which amounts to around four acres in extent, but then I am left pondering how I could ever reach it with the machinery or equipment needed to do that work. The field lies almost half a mile away from the nearest access track, and the ground has now grown so rough with scrub and tussocks that it is hard to walk it on foot, let alone take a tractor or quad bike. In its current state, it would be difficult to get a horse out there, but perhaps my cattle will help to make it more accessible over the next few years. Knowing that this rake was pulled out there by horses and that the hay was probably brought home by a cart, I hope that a little clearing work might reveal some old track or path which currently lies buried in the moss.

This is a big project, but I have already managed to lift the curtain a little to reveal some rich and exciting history. Who knows what will come next?

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